First day at the Science Festival and I don’t see how it can be beaten. The Edinburgh Enlightenment Exchange was the only event that I’d booked up in advance, knowing that I would be really disappointed if I missed it. The concept of putting together all sorts of scientists and artists for an extended conversation was right up my street.
It certainly didn’t disappoint. Twelve short talks on an incredible diversity of subjects, chaired by the marvellous Quentin Cooper. What really struck me was that it didn’t feel like ‘education’. It didn’t feel like being lectured at. It was just intelligent people sharing their passions with other intelligent people. A lovely concept and very fitting to the Enlightenment ideals.
The full details of the event are here (and CraftyGreenPoet gave a good account here), but here are some of my personal highlights. (I’m amazed that I have anything left to say, given how much I tweeted. Apologies to my followers.)
Polly Arnold‘s chemical kick-off got us straight in the mood, with some lovely dry asides about general chemical geekiness and an introduction to the uranium-eating molecule called Pacman. I was rather encouraged that we may find a better way to deal with nuclear waste than just sticking it in the ground.
Chris Lintott was incredibly engaging on citizen science. We learnt that one of his research findings was that “a student will look at about 50,000 galaxies before telling you where to stick the rest of them’ and were introduced to Hanny’s Voorwerp and the endearingly-named project Old Weather (which pretty much does what it says on the tin).
I have a feeling that the work of the Found collective (represented here by Simon Kirby and Tommy Perman) may become one of my weird obsessions that I try to push onto my innocent friends and family. The idea of the Cybraphon autonomous music-playing machine that changes what it plays based on its emotion (which in turn it derives by googling itself to see how popular it is) really pushes all my buttons for nerdy techy goodness. And they’ve made a 7″ single out of chocolate. I’ll be very excited to see their installation called #UNRAVEL at the Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art next month.
I loved Suzy Glass‘s thoughts about the importance of the process of making things (something we don’t do enough these days), and about art projects that really relate to the places that inspire them. She also encouraged us to get out there, try things and not be afraid of failure. To paraphrase, ‘when you fall over as a child, you’re proud of your grazed knee. When you fall over as an adult, you get embarrassed and glare at the innocent paving stone”.
Some common themes emerged. Both Suba Subramaniam and Peter Lovatt (Dr Dance) had us out of our chairs and dancing (I’d love to see the video!), while Sabrina Maniscalco talked about how both physicists and circus performers got out of their comfort zones to create the rather beautiful Quantum Circus (coming to Edinburgh next year!) Climate change was also a common theme across several of the talks, as was embedding art in public spaces and working with the whole community. Tilo Kunath‘s work with stem cells and Parkinson’s was a neat counterpoint to Peter Lovatt’s work on how dance can help the symptoms of the same disease.
Many of the participants, both scientists and artists, felt that the grant process could be overly constraining, in requiring them to predict outcomes before starting and in favouring small incremental shifts from existing knowledge. Gavin Starks was passionate about the need for blue-sky research to generate the ideas of the future.
There was a divergence of views about the creative process itself – Richard Wiseman maintained that the process of artistic creativity and scientific problem-solving are very distinct, but Gavin said that creating in cosmology doesn’t feel any different to him than creating music.
Angus Farquhar (whose project Speed of Light I am enormously excited about) made a controversial statement when he said “scientists are much nastier than artists”. He did elaborate to say that this was about the knocking down of ideas that is necessary in science, while Steve Blakemore was at pains to say that in his experience, this does happen in a very friendly manner!
I really enjoyed how the different speakers bounced off each other, and it was great to get the chance to buttonhole some of them at the breaks (although it did take me a while to muster the nerve to do so!) It really added something to have them all there for the whole day.
If I had one tiny, tiny criticism, it would be that I’d have been interested to have a writer as one of the speakers – maybe next year? But overall, it was thrilling and enriching, and I’m enormously glad that I was there.