Scotland, science and this year’s Festival

Famous Scottish scientists – (Top, from left) Lord Kelvin, James Hutton, James Watt, Alexander Graham Bell, Joseph Black, John Napier, John Logie Baird, Robert Watson-Watt, Alexander Fleming and James Clerk Maxwell.
Thanks to the National Library of Scotland for compiling this image.

Scotland is no stranger to good science. Quite the opposite, a quick internet search will flood your screen with an overwhelming amount of revolutionary discoveries and theories, revealing a country whose history is deeply interwoven with that of contemporary science’s own development. Such an abundance of feats would be an impressive amount for any country, but is even more so when you consider Scotland’s relatively tiny size (just over 5million in 2010, 1.6 million in 1801). There is clearly something special in the Scottish character that has allowed inquisition, discovery and innovation to all flourish, and as such Aberdeen provides a worthy home for this year’s British Science Festival. From mathematics and philosophy to technology and engineering, Scottish scientists have done it all, and there are more than a few participants at this year’s Festival that would relish a comparison to some of the fabled greats. This series of posts will explore a few such parallels.The story starts with John Napier and his invention of logarithms in the seventeenth century. His relentless pursuit of a simplified method for arithmetic calculation offered the world access to a much deeper level of scientific investigation and laid the foundations for all Scottish scientists that came after him. Logarithms have been instrumental for not only maths but all science, including physics, engineering, and more recently computer science.

Computers are undoubtedly a subject that would have fascinated Napier as the chief motive behind his work was the development of computational methods with practical applications, as shown by his invention of an early abacus, the “Napier’s Bones”. Human interest in computation only grew from Napier’s day, and the Festival is this year celebrating the centenary of the father of computer science as we know it today, Alan Turing, in Turing: The human vs the machine.  Despite being born in London, Turing was of Scottish decent too, and his work in the early 20th century not only helped crack German codes and win World War II, but served as the blueprints for the modern computer. To commemorate this London South Bank University have organised a talk overviewing his life and his achievements. The audience can take part in the Turing Test, an investigation looking at whether people can distinguish, when blind-folded, a human’s conversation from a computer’s one. Although this type of computing is a long way from Napier’s early abacus, it illustrates the boundaries we have been able to break thanks to his mathematical innovation nearly 400 years ago.

Not long after Napier’s death in 1617 came fellow mathematician and astronomer James Gregory. Born in Drumoak, Aberdeenshire, barely more than 10 miles away from the site of this year’s Festival, Gregory taught at both St Andrews and Edinburgh University during his short but illustrious career. He was the inventor of the first reflecting telescope (the “Gregorian Telescope”), a device which corrected the various optical aberrations of other telescopes from that time. He also described a method for using the transit of Venus to measure the Earth’s distance from the Sun; a pivotal insight for work done later in determining the Astronomical Unit.

Gregory’s captivation by the stars and cosmos is shared by many today and the Festival is exploring this in many of the space-related events taking place back in Gregory’s home of Aberdeen in September. Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw talk in the Quantum Universe about the incredible theories of quantum physics which make bizarre yet real predictions about the world around us. Moreover, for an introduction to the elusive and enigmatic dark matter, cosmologist Andrew Pontzen (BBC Stargazing Live) and LHC physicist Tom Whyntie will be explaining what it is and why scientists are so desperate to prove it exists in Dark Matters. Or if it’s the slightly more tangible side of the universe you’re interested in then head to The Extreme Universe to learn about star-annihilating explosions and matter-crushing black holes during an exploration of space’s vast physical forces. It’s odd to think that, despite the lapse in both time and knowledge between Gregory and today’s space scientists, the same bewilderment with the distant universe still exists unchanged.

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