Ten Things I Learned at the British Science Festival

Hull isn’t the typical first stop on a round-the-world trip, but it’s where we started ours.

Or, to put it another way, we’re camping out here in our often-overlooked, even-oftener-slated, but nonetheless lovely (to us) hometown for a few months, before we set off on our “Big Trip”.

I’ve only been here a week, but by a stroke of marvelous luck, we arrived just as the city was gearing up for an exciting week (ok, exciting to me) of talks, debates, performances and activities, all under the umbrella of the British Science Festival.

Proudly claiming to be “Europe’s longest standing science Festival” the BSF is really nothing more than a reinvention of the annual meeting of the British Science Association, founded in York in 1831. At some point, one can only presume, the old chaps at the BSA got bored of sitting around in dusty rooms with the same dusty old men and decided to change the focus of the association – and the meeting – to engaging the public with science. I’m so glad they did.

Until this week, it had been a few years since I attended a lecture or, you know, actually learned anything, so it’s been pretty exhausting, but also thoroughly enjoyable (at one point, I exclaimed, only half-joking, “hurry up, I haven’t learned any science in at least twenty minutes!”).

Here are a few things I learned:

1. The Sun is going to turn into an Earth-sized diamond*

Well, what is a diamond anyway but a mass of crystalized carbon? Come to think of it, what are any of us but blobs of carbon, hydrogen and bacteria* wandering around thinking we’re important? Still, the idea of the sun turning into an enormous sparkling rock in the sky is pretty impressive, even if we’re not going to be here to see it. Supposedly, in around 5-billion years, the sun will have burned up all of its fuel and will become a white dwarf. It’ll then just chill there for about two billion years, before its core crystallises, and it becomes, to all intents and purposes, a bloody huge diamond. But, you know, keep recycling your bottles and stuff.

Lecture: How the Universe Will End, Hull University

2. I had no idea how condoms are made

Do you? Really? I don’t believe you. Including this in this list makes me feel slightly guilty towards all of the fascinating talks & tidbits I’m forced to miss out, as it was really just a video made by Durex, who were sponsoring this particular event. BUT, as well as some childish giggling at the little glass willies which are dipped in rubber, I did find it pretty interesting, if only because it had literally never crossed my mind to wonder. Have I got you interested now too? Here’s a similar video so you can find out for yourself (and feel free to have a giggle at the glass willies, no one’s watching).

The Ferens Science Takeover, Ferens Art Gallery

 3. We could soon be virtually decorating our living rooms

Until about a year ago when my brother showed me his Virtual Reality set-up, I genuinely thought this was the stuff of sci-fi. He didn’t even trust me in a proper game, but stuck me in a little demo-mode where I could essentially pick stuff up, put it down again, and occasionally poke a friendly robot. To a luddite like me, though, even this VR-tidying was something close to mind-blowing. Lucky for me that I’d given it a try already, really, because otherwise I probably would have suspected the clever people telling me about their new technology at the Trinity Market of lying to me. Instead, I was at least a little prepared for the world of VR. However, though I suppose it seems like a logical step, it had never occurred to me that the next stage is of course, mixed-reality, a combination of the real world you’re in, and, well, not real stuff. Essentially, a team of very smart students at the University of Hull have been teaming up with VISR to develop a mixed-reality headset, which is already being used by several well-known companies (including, rather ominously, several which “cannot be named”). Having asked what the practical uses could be outside of business, I was told by a very patient man that in a few years we could easily be using them to rearrange our apartments before even buying a stick of furniture. Well, there you go – Feng Shui for the Future*, I guess.

Event: Trinity after dark

4. The stuff in your local art museum is probably stolen

Ok, ok. I haven’t been hanging out at the Louvre for four years and not noticed that a large part of their collection has at one point been stolen or otherwise dodgy-ly acquired. But somewhat naively, I’ve never really thought of this as anything more than an uncomfortable colonial hangover – that is to say, a historical thing. Alas, no – as I learned in a truly fascinating talk (which had squeezed its way into a science festival by way of coming from the criminology department at the University of Glasgow), on “The Case of the Stolen Shiva”. This is an ongoing story, following New York art dealer Subhash Kapoor, who is currently on trial in India for the theft of millions of dollars of cultural artefacts which have subsequently been sold overseas to such seemingly above-board clients as the National Gallery of Australia. There’s a decent write-up of it here, but the 7-year-old story is still developing.

Event: Trafficking Culture, Hull University

5. Bio-artists exist

Art and science are closer than you think. This was another discussion which blew me away not necessarily because of its content but because of my own complete ignorance. Anna Dumitriu is the artist in residence at the British Collection of Type Cultures – an organisation, which, had I even known of its existence, I wouldn’t have thought to be much in need of an artist. She works mainly in the field of “BioArt”, often working with living matter such as DNA or bacteria, often with fascinating results. If you’re interested in seeing such things as a tuberculosis-infected Romantic-era maternity dress, an MRSA quilt or an art-installation containing human faecal matter (and, frankly, who wouldn’t be?), Dumitriu is the name to look out for.

Event: Art, Ethics and New Technologies, Hull University

6. There’s big change coming up in the world of weights & measures

Before last week, I had some idea, from a dimly-remembered episode of QI, that the kilogram was a physical object, kept somewhere in France. In fact, it’s a platinum-iridium cylinder, about 4cm tall, and is kept at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures in Saint-Cloud. However, due to the inherent problems of defining weight by a physical object, this is all set to change (sure, you might not mind if your kilo of potatoes is a few milligrams off, but in the world of pharmaceuticals, for example, small differences in mass could have disastrous results). I’ll be honest… physics has never been my strong point, even in the world of science (I’ll let you know when I find out what is), but some enormously complicated thing called a “Kibble balance” is likely to be used. Now, excuse me while I pop and buy Physics for Dummies…

Event: Defining Weight in a Parisian Vault, Hull University

7. Fish talk

I’d never pass up a chance to go to The Deep after dark (and especially for free!), but to be perfectly honest, after a day packed full of lectures I spent more time staring at pretty fish and discussing which ones looked most like unicorns than learning very much. However, I did get to listen to a live recording of a tank of fish having a chat – what did you do with your Wednesday evening? Supposedly, some species of fish natter away to each other (to warn of danger, flirt or give directions, we assume), using a popping sound produced by vibrating their swim bladder (some people get sniffy and claim it’s not “talking” per se, as it’s not coming from the mouth, but to those people I click my swim bladder loudly in disdain). We’re still a few years away from a fish-English dictionary, but maybe one day we’ll know what the little critters are chatting about.

Event: The Deep late, The Deep

8. Lightbulbs talk

Perhaps I haven’t taken exactly the right thing away from this talk, but put yourself in my shoes: you’re in the middle of a fascinating discussion about how we perceive sound, how we can go beyond stereo to surround sound, and beyond that, when the clever, charming speaker says this: “…and we realised that you already have several devices with speakers in your home, which could be used. Your laptop, your phone, your tablet, your lightbulb…”. You look up. Did he just say lightbulb? Surely not. Yes, there’s a picture on the screen of a lightbulb, hiding among the tablets and phones and laptops. Everyone is nodding politely. Do they all know about these talking lightbulbs? Does everyone else have lightbulbs with speakers in them?! Well, I just googled it, and apparently, it’s a thing. However, the point he was trying to make (despite distracting everyone with talking lightbulbs) was about a new “enhanced listening experience” which can be created with the devices you already have in your home (lightbulbs included). In fact, you can experience it right now, by way of a 13-minute long sci-fi drama about the Cold War, developed by the BBC specifically to take advantage of this new technology.

Event: Beyond Surround Sound, Hull University

9. The world needs (and now has) a vagina museum

Did you know there’s a penis museum in Reykjavik? I didn’t, but I fully intend to visit one day. However, there is not – or at least there has not been, until very recently – a vagina museum. Set to open as a physical museum somewhere in the UK by 2032, the Vagina Museum has so far taken the form of temporary exhibitions, and now, a pop-up museum that tours the UK for festivals and events. Once the physical museum exists they plan to have permanent galleries about Science, Culture, Society and History, as well as an exhibition space, and of course, a café where you can enjoy vulva cupcakes and something called “vagacchinos”. I can’t wait.

Event: The Ferens science takeover, Ferens Art Gallery

10. Psychosis can be beautiful

If you’d told me a week ago that I’d be considering buying a videogame, I’d have laughed. Actually, I’d have said “but I already have the Sims”, and then looked confused. But, for the first time in my adult life, I think I might actually “get” this whole gaming thing. This is thanks to a really wonderful discussion, chaired by neuroscientist Uta Frith, in conversation with Tameem Antoniades, and Paul Fletcher, respectively creative director and consultant psychiatrist for the creation of Hellblade. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, to give the game’s full name, made a few headlines (mostly ignored by those of us outside of the gaming community), when it won five BAFTAs last year (did you even know games could win BAFTAs? I didn’t), for Best British Game, Best Artistic Achievement, Best Audio Achievement, Game Beyond Entertainment, and Best Performer. Without throwing shade to the others, I think it’s the penultimate of these that is the most telling: Senua’s Sacrifice is the story of an 8th Century Pict warrior from Orkney who suffers from psychosis, on a mission to rescue her lover (there’s a sentence you didn’t think you’d read today). The team behind the game at Ninja Theory collaborated extensively not only with Professor Fletcher, but with real sufferers of various psychotic conditions, which is what gives the game its truly chilling realism. Never in my life have I felt the palpable tension of a room as much as when we listened to a clip of Senua’s auditory hallucinations, which were developed with a team of voice-hearers and physical actors to ensure they were as accurate as possible – and for that, this event gets my top marks.

 Event: Hellblade: Tackling Psychosis Sterotypes

Basically, learning stuff is fun innit? Over the last 7 days I have been completely immersed in learning in a way I haven’t experienced in years, and frankly, I miss the science festival already.

Now, I think that’s quite enough learning for now. I’m off to buy a talking lightbulb and laugh at more glass willies.

 

 

 

 

*1.Incidentally, googling this to make sure I’d got the facts right provided me with a treat of a quote from Travis Metcalfe, an astrophysicist from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, who says “”Our Sun will become a diamond that truly is forever”. Nicely played, Dr Metcalfe.
*2.And some other stuff. I’m not a scientist, don’t @ me.
*3. Yes, I fully intend to sell this slogan to VISR. You saw it here first.