People & Science

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31/10/2014

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Ripples in the northwest cosmos

There’s something about being in a pub that makes conversation come easy. Could be the environment or the company; could be the effect of whatever you’re drinking, of course. Or it could be the science… because if you’re in northwest England, there’s a good chance that you’ll bump into a SciBAr, one of the ways the British Science Association engages the public with scientists and their research.

There’s something about being in a pub that makes conversation come easy. Could be the environment or the company; could be the effect of whatever you’re drinking, of course. Or it could be the science… because if you’re in northwest England, there’s a good chance that you’ll bump into a SciBAr, one of the ways the British Science Association engages the public with scientists and their research.

In Cheshire, Greater Manchester and Merseyside SciBArs are not just growing but thriving, the ripples of their influence spreading far beyond animated discussion in pubs in Bollington, Didsbury, Knutsford, Liverpool and Macclesfield.

Dave Thompson, who founded the Knutsford SciBAr ten years ago, explains: ‘It’s been more successful than I ever imagined when we started. We’ve had to change venues three times to cope with increases in attendance. There are now so many wanting to come that there’s no need to advertise.’

Mixed audience

David Whalley founded the Bollington SciBAr and recently co-founded the Macclesfield one. He has a similar tale: ‘With attendances regularly getting into three figures we’ve had to change venues and stop advertising too. But that audience is a really interesting mix for a science event. There’s an age range from 6 to 90 plus, between a third and a half of the audience is female and there’s usually ten per cent or so under 16 – and no more than half have education in science beyond GCSE level.’

All of the SciBArs deliberately put on a programme that appeals across the range, with some talks tackling more accessible topics such as sharks and butterflies, others more difficult subjects such as nuclear fusion and quantum physics. The format of events is that the speaker will introduce the subject for between fifteen and thirty minutes and an informal discussion follows until the speaker, the chair or the audience has had enough.

‘There’s no way of telling at the start just where the discussion will lead,’ said Thompson. ‘Sometimes we’ve ended up quite far from where we’ve begun. And even with some more esoteric subjects, such as the structure of the vacuum or dinosaur locomotion, it still surprises me just how quickly people catch on. It wouldn’t do to under-estimate our audience.’

Wider impact

SciBArs have influenced local arts, culture and education. Whalley again: ‘Science events are now part of Bollington’s arts festival, it’s led to science and scientists being pictured on the well-dressing displays prepared by junior schools and the Bollington SciBAr has even been mentioned in parliament. The SciBAr is now owned by the whole town, not an elite group.’
Following their attendance at a Bollington SciBAr event, pupils from Tytherington High School were so inspired they independently booked the speaker and arranged a whole afternoon of talks on quantum physics for every A level student. ‘SciBArs offer easy access to science extension, enhancement and enrichment,’ said Simon Thomson, a science teacher at Tytherington High School. ‘The pupils have embraced them and are keen to explore the potential of similar events in school.’ Knutsford SciBAr volunteers have also been invited by a local school to take classes for a day and teach them science. ‘The SciBAr has enthused the whole town about science and it was wonderful to use that enthusiasm to inspire young minds,’ said Dave Thompson.So be careful when you talk about science in a pub in northwest England. You may find yourself the subject of a great deal of attention!

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Tony Buckley
Tony Buckley is Senior Communications Specialist at the STFC Daresbury Laboratory
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