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22/08/2014

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The British Science Festival ablaze in my home toon!

The British Science Festival ablaze in my home toon!

By Esther Lie, who worked as part of the x-change team at the British Science Festival 2013. Esther is a recent graduate in Biology and the History & Philosophy of Science from the University of Leeds.

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Newcastle Upon Tyne is not just acclaimed for its cheap and plentiful alcohol, or Greggs - we have the Greggs’ headquarters, the first Greggs Moments (a ‘posh’ version with sofas and Fair Trade lattes) and beautiful Northern stotties - it is also brimming with wonderful museums, interesting heritage, and a distinct and proud culture.

Not only that, but Newcastle is also a ScienceCity. Internationally recognised for scientific excellence, the city is championing fuel and stem cell research, with Europe’s leading centre for research into ageing (The Institute of Ageing and Health). Some prime accomplishments: scientists at the Life Centre were the first in the world to successfully clone a human embryo, and Newcastle University pioneered the research into Nissan’s first electric cars. It only seems natural that we experienced an intellectual pilgrimage of over 350 of the UK’s finest scientists and communicators, at the 2013 British Science Festival.

Buskers, workshops, and hands-on exhibitions allowed Newcastle to reveal some of the latest advances in science, technology and engineering. Newcastle’s Institute of Ageing and Health ran a panel debate on genes, with ‘personal nutrition advice’, the Lit & Phil (the largest independent library outside of London) hosted a performance called Lumen, all about our Geordie switch-flicker Joseph Swan, and the Great North Museum showcased researchers’ cross-disciplinary solutions tackling societal problems in the North East. Even in the depths of discussion, it was hard to ignore that this year’s Festival was being held in the proud North East.

Our lunchtime x-change show also provided a mini-smörgåsbord of local science and educational outreach. Sugata Mitra, a Newcastle University researcher and winner of the 2013 TED prize, emphasised the undeniable power of the internet. Having inspired the movie ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ from his installation of a PC in a New Delhi slum, he explained just how rapidly the children taught themselves IT skills. My favourite quote from his talk is a poignant reminder of the self-learning capabilities of children, as when Sugata returned to assess them, they hastily demanded "a faster processor"!

Other local speakers included Noel Jackson (Head of Education) and Elin Roberts (Head of Public Engagement) from Newcastle’s Centre for Life. Amidst struggles and gasps, Noel illustrated the toughest insulation of marine animals, forcing some of our audience members' hands into shriekingly-cold water whilst donning ‘blubber gloves’. Elin creatively demonstrated Newton’s first law of motion, using a Jenga tower. Declaring that science demos were her "bread and butter", she explained that by removing Jenga blocks quickly and smoothly - overcoming the "sticky friction... or sticktion" - we can appreciate science not just as "tricks", but rather as revealing truths about the world.

James Littlewood, from the Natural History Society of Northumbria, presented a stuffed kittiwake, a local seabird that nests under the Tyne bridge, highlighting their conservation work. Of course, the NHSM welcome any nature enthusiast from as low as £20 per year (student price!) to get involved with them - their membership includes regular talks and field trips, and often in collaboration with the Great North Museum.

"Science is not just for scientists!" came a restrained outcry from Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal in his closing speech. This is what science communication is about - getting people with a dollop of curiousity and imagination involved, to further our understanding of the world.

Although some members of the community were almost dragged in from Northumberland Street, struck by the UV waves radiating from our fuchsia t-shirts, the British Science Festival succeeded in arousing the attention of Newcastle’s community. (They even appeared unaffected by Simon Watt’s comparison between a dugong and the finest women of Newcastle’s Big Market, in The Ugly Animal Preservation Society.)

Yet, with the nauseating 50% cut to Newcastle’s arts budget (reduced from 100%), libraries (e.g. Moorside and Walker) and even our City Pool shutting shop, Newcastle must fall back on its internationally renowned scientific enterprise. In the same spirit, Newcastle City Council have pledged to "build upon our reputation to create a new generation of jobs and businesses for the future economy". They must engage young people for this to work, as science appears to be very much Newcastle’s future.

Despite volunteering in many local museums, thanks to different opportunities offered by Tyne and Wear Museums & Archives, I’ve realised that public engagement with science isn’t a stroll in the park. Whilst trying to promote the x-change, I asked members of the public, "Don’t you want a bit of lunchtime science?" When the reply was a cold "No!", I felt parts of my naively enthusiastic, scientific soul begin to disintegrate.

However, for those who claimed to genuinely enjoy the x-change in our feedback, we are pleased to have at least tantalised some of you with our Festival highlights. Talks and events elsewhere in the Festival revealed a small revolution in science communication, with stand-up maths comedian Matt Parker, and Bush & McCluskey politely recommending sex with a panda to save the planet... What with Masters courses in Science Communication on the rise, I’m eager to see how we’ll entertain and inform the masses in 2018. Go ahead and volunteer at the x-change next year - I’d definitely recommend it.

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