Saturday at the British Science Festival

The British Science Festival (which I may have mentioned before) has now been running since 1831, breaking only for the odd war. It was last held in Bradford in 1900, and it’s back with a vengeance for a 7 day run starting Saturday 10th Sep and ending this Friday 16th.

The British Science Festival 2011.

Surprisingly, the turnout to a lot of the events we went to on Saturday was pretty appalling. The first was a panel discussion called ‘Yorkshire as a hub for carbon storage‘ which was quite fascinating. A team at Leeds University are currently working on systems that will allow carbon to be captured during industrial processes and injected into rocks under the ground. This will reduce the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere and will mean that when our remaining coal reserves are used, we can reduce the damage done to the environment.

Ferrybridge Power Station. Don’t worry, it’s completely safe. Picture by by Foto43

An obvious risk that springs to mind is that this can give the impression that it’s okay to use coal power stations because we can make them into clean energy sources. This is true to an extent, but it doesn’t do anything to increase the reserves that we have. The general reaction from the panel was that we need to be looking into renewables but that the coal reserves will be used, and we can create money and jobs in the Yorkshire region by developing this technology. Apparently we have some delightfully convenient empty seams below sea level off the Yorkshire coastline which are perfect for such uses. Luckily, it’s still a pretty well kept secret as there were only about 15 people in the audience for this event.

Where’s Science Girl when you need her?

There were a few exhibitions on during the day (many of which are continuing throughout the week, FYI) so we checked out ‘Portraits of Outstanding Women‘ and ‘Scientific Heroes‘. Both were interesting if incredibly hard to find. As a bit of a feminist, I admit to being slightly disappointed with the Outstanding Women effort, which was just nowhere near as inspiring as I’d hoped. I thought there’d be portraits of some really kickass women who were responsible for crucial breakthroughs in the history of science, with attention grabbing stories to galvanise young girls with a passion for science. Instead, there were seven black and white photographs of surprisingly corporate looking women, sat alone staring at the camera, with no information on the walls save their names. If you found a booklet and flicked through to the back section, you’d find a list of their major achievements, peppered with meaningless acronyms and references to various boards and guilds. Oh, and a quick log of how many kids they’d each popped out as well. Yet, in the Scientific Heroes exhibition at the other side of the room, which was dedicated to ‘alumni from Bradford College who have made outstanding contributions to science’, Elsie Wright had a massive plaque featuring her entire life story, and about fifteen pictures, just for faking a few fairies in a garden. I thought the priorities were just a bit off there! I mean no disrespect to the women who were featured, who have some truly admirable achievements under their belts and all dedicate some of their time to charities that help young girls get into the fields of Science, Engineering and Technology. But they were let down; this exhibition wouldn’t be remotely inspiring to a young girl trying to get into SET and struggling. (The problems facing girls and women in this field are well documented elsewhere, but for an overview see this 2010 report by the UKRC.)

We also went to ‘Science Fiction and Religion‘ which featured short talks from science fiction authors, academics and journal editors – but it got especially interesting during the question and answer session. There were some extremely knowledgeable people in the audience and I left feeling a lot more informed but still desperately insignificant! Then, finally (after a break for an amazing curry at Omar Khan’s – I don’t really do food writing but if I did, I would be recommending it whole heartedly) we went to the Sundown Science event, ‘Elemental Comedy: A Cabaret of the Elements‘.

If I’m honest, I went into this event a little skeptically. First of all, the event had originally been advertised as featuring Robin Ince. Later his name was removed from the online description of the event, but there didn’t seem to be any sort of explanation as to why. Secondly, we were waiting outside the cinema (it was at the National Media Museum) in a packed lobby with little seating for 30 minutes after the time the event was supposed to start. And thirdly, I was organised for, literally, the first time ever, and booked my tickets weeks in advance. Then, this week, it’s all over Twitter that tickets have been put on a special 2 for 1 offer. What I learned from that was to leave things to the last minute. All the time.

But anyway, after I got over my shoddy attitude and settled in, we enjoyed a hell of a show. Music and maths, explosions and elements, arsenic and ants; there was a bit of everything and the whole thing was basically chaos theory before our very eyes. I can’t imagine for a second that the money from the tickets even began to cover the insurance policy required. There were presentations from several different people, including comedian Matt Parker, broadcaster Viv Parry and Bang Goes the Theory presenter Dallas Campbell. All in all it was riotous, if a little disorganised.

If you’re interested in what’s coming up this week at the Science festival, there are still some events that really shouldn’t be missed. Here’s my top five (which I’ve written assuming you are LIVING THE DREAM and don’t have jobs or any other commitments. If that’s not the case, check out the ‘Sundown Science’ section in the pdf programme for evening events):

1. Solve a forensic mystery in 90 minutesThursday 15th 15.30. Cost £3. Richmond Building, Bradford University

Use fingerprints, handwriting analysis, chemical testing and more to solve a murder case.

2. You are what you ate. Wednesday 14th 10.00. Free. Phoenix Building South West, Bradford University

Find out how your diet affects your skeleton, and take advantage of the opportunity to examine medieval skeletons. I’m betting there’ll be some pretty impressive displays of tooth decay.

3. Bad ideas?: An arresting history of our inventions. Thursday 15th 17.30. Cost £5. Alhambra Theatre.

The legendary Professor Robert Winston discusses famous inventions that may have hampered human progress. I may drop him a line to let him know just how much my iPhone drags down my productivity.

4. The Happiness Factor. Tuesday 13th 13.00. Free. Richmond Building, Leeds University.

Got the Monday blues? Learn about the pursuit of happiness from psychology types who discuss how things such as drug taking, dementia and body image affect our happiness.

5. Technology in sport: cheating or fair game? Tuesday 13th 19.30. Free. Richmond Building, Bradford University.

One for the sport lovers among you. To what extent is using technology to win ethical? Listen to the experts then vote for yourself on a handheld wireless keypad.

If none of the above float your boat, check out the full programme. Whether it’s hypnosis or Hockney, religion or Rutherford, I’m sure there’ll be something for you. 

Follow the British Science Festival on Twitter for updates and the lowdown from the festival. The official website, and place to book tickets, is here.

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