A week ago, I’d never been to a science festival. I’d never been A Journalist. I didn’t know anything at all about physics and I certainly couldn’t tell you what dark matter is supposed to be, or how spacetime works. I’d never seriously considered artificial intelligence as viable. I knew that mathematics is used to solve crime because I’ve seen it on Numb3rs, but it hadn’t occurred to me how useful the same algorithms are for analysing the social network of the world. I knew a fair bit about evolutionary biology, and the concept of island biogeography, but I didn’t know how a physicist would approach them.
I do, now. I have, now. I can, now.
Science festivals are brilliant. I’ve never felt so surrounded by the potential for new ideas, or enough people who laugh at the phrase, ‘Everyone who loves parabolas put both arms in the air!’ (I feel obliged to say that came from Matt Parker). It’s opened my eyes to how many ways there are of communicating the wonders of the Universe to everyone. Some of the events I attended were lectures like in university, but many of them weren’t. The highlights for me were the interactivity of Victoria Herridge’s lecture on evolution, and Michael Mosley’s face as he presented a video of himself dosed up on nitrous oxide (laughing gas), cheerfully jabbing away at a muscle spasm-inducing button that under normal circumstances would have caused him excruciating pain.
It wasn’t just about education for education’s sake as well. There were many events involving education Because It’s Hilarious, which were inspired. Hats off to Festival of the Spoken Nerd, for the only time I’ve ever had to google ‘how many radians in a triangle?’ during an interval. By a mile, the best was Dark Matters, an almost theatrical explanation of the journey from ‘What’s that stuff?’ through ‘we have an idea!’ to ‘Seriously, what is it?’ It was so brilliant, I couldn’t take notes.
As a biologist, I was pleased to see Paul Nurse advocating the ‘bigging up’ of grand biological theories, which aren’t as often celebrated as the whizz-bang physics ones, like relativity and quantum theory. As a layman, I was greatly amused at the stunned faces of physics giants Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw when a tremendously insightful boy of about eight piped up during their talk, ‘If particles can be in any place in the Universe with equal probability, how can it be expanding?’ – a conundrum which provoked great applause from the whole room, while the two on stage just stared blankly. He got an answer in the end though.
I met many people this week, and every one of them gave me something new to think about. I did meet Prof. Cox, and my ‘interview’ quickly descended into a very excited discussion of evolutionary biology. It turns out we have a similar approach, but I hadn’t considered its novelty or implications until prompted by that conversation.
But that’s what it’s about, isn’t it? What better way for all the clever scientists to improve their ideas and know that they really understand them, than to be challenged by other clever people and scientists? To learn new ways of approaching problems by integrating the approaches of people from other fields? It’s the best way around the danger of stagnation that comes from generations of people in a given field learning by the same method. Science festivals are hugely necessary as a medium for that. And if that’s not successful, at least we all got together and made a lot of good jokes about graphs, mess, and friends who appreciate all of the above.
Lucy Wyatt is a student at Queen Mary, University of London and contributes to their student science magazine QMSci, which you can also follow on Twitter. Lucy is attending the Festival as part of the Student Bursary Scheme.