Written by Danae Dodge

The British Science Festival is over for another year! The packed programme brought over 100 events to Coventry & Warwickshire between 10-13 September, ranging from talks to hands-on activities. But what were the highlights? Here are some picks from Festival Social Media & Blog Assistant, Danae Dodge:

Most Brits want scientists to make the decision on how to reply if E.T calls

If aliens ever contacted earth, how would the British public respond? From a poll of 2,000 people in the UK, most of us would choose scientists to decide if and how to respond.

This poll came courtesy of Dr Peter Hatfield (Physics Department) and Dr Leah Trueblood (Department of Law) who presented the talk Close Encounters of the Political Kind.

They posed the question of who has the moral authority to create and send out messages to alien civilisations. Therefore, we need to be able to decide who has that moral authority in the first place.

Other options included representatives, a citizens’ assembly, or a planet wide referendum. What proved fascinating was that each of these options has an inherent meaning behind it. Choosing scientists means valuing the experts and taking a technocratic approach. If for example, we choose elected representatives, we are essentially choosing an authority based on political ideologies that not necessarily everyone voted for.

Interestingly, the possibility of deciding by a global referendum was taken with a pinch of salt by British citizen audience members, even though some international audience members saw value in choosing this approach. 

So, it appears – for the time being at least – that the UK wants the scientific experts to take the lead in deciding.    


Results from a Twitter poll asked at the end of the talk

Having cocktails while hearing about science is one of the best things in the world

(...Bonus points if the venue is gorgeous)

On the first evening of this year’s Festival, against the beautiful backdrop of greenery and the roof light of The Botanist (well known for its delicious cocktails), chemists and biologists gathered to explain various topics: antibiotic resistance, sustainability, herbicide resistant testing and more.

The Warwick Integrative Synthetic Biology Centre turned up with a virtual reality headset to allow people to do some genetic editing for themselves. Alongside this, Principal Partner Lubrizol provided various activities: in Ball-Nado (which was very similar to the Crystal Mazes’ Dome), you would be given a molecule and for each of the differently coloured atoms, you had to grab the right number of them in order to make up the molecule. Molecular giant Jenga and darts had a similar concept - pulling the atom labelled bars out and hitting the right atomic ring on the dart board. Of course, the pressure of against time or competition provided the perfect element of fun to it.

 The Botanist, Coventry & the 'Ball-Nado' challenge 

A lot needs to be done to challenge the culture around the quest for a ‘perfect body’

BSA President Professor Alice Roberts chaired this panel featuring Professor Heather Widdows, Professor Muireann Quigley, and Dr Victoria Goodyear all from the University of Birmingham. They discussed the societal pressures for the endless search for the health and beauty ideal in the debate Perfect Bodies. Each presented a unique angle that combined covered a suite of factors.

Heather Widdows commented that we have integrated health and fitness into our identities, and Victoria Goodyear talked about the impact of social media, emphasising that society had these cultural hang ups even before social media. Muireann Quigley took a sci-fi approach explaining how we are putting technology into our bodies for our health and fitness. She used the term ‘everyday cyborg’, referring to those that have already merged with technology, with pacemaker or metal hip replacements. Coming from an anthropological background meant Alice Roberts had looked at past perspectives of the body. For example, how older anatomical textbooks portraying the body came about through the dissection of criminals. She also touched on where genetic engineering can take us, asking how far we are going to take this.

What became clear at the end of this discussion is that in order to challenge this damaging culture, we need to work together and tackle it from different directions: we need to stop body shaming (Heather Widdows); we need more education (Victoria Goodyear); we need more social, economic and political pressures to tackle these issues (Muireann Quigley); and we need more autonomy in our identity (Alice Roberts).

 When Alice Roberts was engineered into a marsupial

Virtual reality combined with laser scanning can transform how we see unexplored, hidden and lost narratives in Ancient Greece and beyond

There is a problem of getting people to connect with Ancient Greece, explained Professor Michael Scott (University of Warwick) in his talk Ancient Greece, Virtually. Generally, there are four topics that people tend to focus on when they think of this ancient culture: Venerating its legacy (i.e. its politics, or philosophy), tourism, dramatisation of its literature, and its use in fiction (e.g. Percy Jackson). The glamorous image that we have of it –  the Acropolis, or a group of old bearded men debating – is actually unrealistic.

The reality is that Ancient Greece was so much more than this - it was a mosaic place with different traditions, practices, diverse people and lives. Michael Scott took us on a journey revealing how he conveyed this while making the BBC programme Invisible Cities: Athens.

 Michael Scott showed us a clip of him virtually exploring the Erechtheion 

He showed us that by combining 3D laser scanning technology and virtual reality we can travel and see art where it used to be. It allows us to see everything - to see the unexplored and lost stories of the ancient world, and by doing so, we can truly connect with it. 

Find out more about the British Science Festival here.