Sunday, 26 September 2010

The Best of the 'Fest

One of Europe’s biggest science festival came to town in the same week that some bloke called the Pope decided to pay a visit. From Monday the 13th to Sunday the 19th of September Aston University and Birmingham hosted a huge number of events covering a massive variety of science. From particle physics to sexing the brain, how we can know what babies think to bone densities in Neolithic man, dancing on custard to Catholic astronomers; the festival celebrated the richness of scientific endeavour.

The festival started with a (big) bang as 40 of the grooviest geeks in town flashmobbed Birmingham Cathedral and put on one hell of a show! Not bad for only a couple of hours of practice that morning.

A few teething troubles and technical difficulties aside, feedback for the X-change events and the festival as a whole appears to be very positive. Early reports suggest around 88,000 attendees over the week and were literally hundreds of stories in the press covering the news and controversies surrounding the festival. The British Science Association, The Guardian and the BBC had the most comprehensive coverage. The BBC also hosted X-change presenter Sue Nelson’s Daily Reporter’s Log. I particularly enjoyed her sneaking in a mention of my humanism!

By virtue of the fact that I was working on the X-change team, this blog had the privilege of hosting the daily X-change programme of events, which was frantically uploaded each afternoon of the festival. The idea was to have daily blogs, but quite frankly there was so much happening that there just weren’t enough hours in the day! The reports are being collated, however, and will be put together as a yearbook, much the same as it was last year.  A few photos from the festival and the X-change can be found here.

There was too much going on to cover the whole festival in any detail, but there are some personal highlights that are sure to live long in my memory. My participation in a Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation experiment with friend and colleague, Dr Craig McAllister, went down very well at Tuesday’s X-change. Craig placed a TMS coil over my motor cortex and, much to the delight and alarm of the audience, used very high-field magnetic pulses that made my arm twitch!

I was also batted away by an amiable and PR-savvy Catholic astronomer who was one of the star guests at Friday’s X-change.  My question: ‘how do you square 4 billion year old meteorites with God and the Bible?’ Brother Guy Consolmagno’s answer: ‘Creatonism is a Protestant invention, not a Catholic one’. Case closed then! I also really enjoyed Brother Guy’s t-shirt.

In an irony that we can all enjoy, someone else has suggested that we’re still not sure that God would have said it that way. You can see more of Brother Guy and what exactly being an astronomer for God involves in this interesting BBC documentary about the Vatican  Skip to around 22:30 to hear Brother Guy’s astonishing twisting of logic as he explains that ‘my religion tells me that God made the Universe, but my science tells me how it’s done’. He obviously hasn’t read Stephen Hawking’s latest book.

Although it ran until the Sunday, Saturday was the last day of my festival and, despite recovering from some over-enthusiastic consumption of Desperados with the BSA team the previous night, it ended it on an absolute high. Baba Brinkman is a Canadian rapper and straight-up genius. His Rap Guide to Evolution is one of the best rap albums and coolest methods of science communication that I have ever heard.  When I heard he was performing at the science festival I jumped at the chance to invite him to the X-change. A busy schedule meant that this wasn’t possible, but he put on a frenetic, funny and informative show, which included this performance and a very surprising inclusion of me in his freestyle! His latest offering is the Rap Guide to Human Nature, which is also definitely worth a few hundred listens.

I finished the week exhausted, but also with lots of new friends, a million and one ideas buzzing in my head, and an ever more enthusiastic passion for science and science communication. I really must thank the whole of the X-change team, Sue Nelson, and all the lovely people from the Science Association that made it such a pleasure to attend and work at the festival.

Of course as a humanist, I was disappointed that I couldn’t take part in the Protest the Pope campaign and lend my support to the National Secular Society, but, on the whole, I was happier that I had contributed to pro-science ideals, rather than the anti-religious ones that dominated the week.

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