Ed's Blog / Students Blogs

Day 4 and 5 and closing thoughts at the British Science Festival 2012

After feeling a little blurry from attending the Brain of Aberdeen pub quiz the night before, my first lecture of the day was sure to brush the cobwebs away. Given by Peter Naish, the session was titled ‘ From Sense to Non-Sense’, and set out to explain how our brains process visual and audio stimuli. He introduced the idea that our own consciousness deceives us into thinking we are aware of more or less everything. For example he described (as some of the audience had already seen the footage) the following clip http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJG698U2Mvo.

Did you see the gorilla??

This concept that our brains to some extent only process the things we need to see or hear begs the question, what goes on that we don’t see or hear?

The next lecture was called ‘The Real Doomsday 2012’. Are we really facing our extinction this December? It would seem unlikely. Richard Fortey, the presenter of BBC4’s ‘Survivors: Nature’s Indestructible Creatures’, talked through the many creatures that have survived the planets numerous mass extinction events. The biggest occurred 250 million years ago at the border of the Permian and Triassic eras, wiping out approximately 90% of all life on earth. However species of plants and animals always manage to survive. Although if the human race was to experience an event like this our survival would be unlikely. On  the plus side,  the average species survives on earth  about 2.5 million years, so based on this estimate we have 1.85 million years to go.  These mass extinction events throughout time do drive evolution, as one species goes extinct new species rush in and occupy the niches left by those deceased organisms.The next speaker, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, gave a very entertaining talk focusing on what from beyond our planet could bring about our demise. Possible contenders,  like the reversal of the Sun’s magnetic field, seem highly unlikely considering the Sun does this every 11 years, and therefore has happened 250,000 times since humans first started using tools. The more likely culprits will either be our own sun when it starts to become a red giant swelling in size, so that the seas on earth will start to boil, or the colliding of our own galaxy with our nearest neighbor galaxy Andromeda.  Both these events though are estimated to occur 1 billion years from now and the latter 3 billion years . One thing I do know for sure is that I will be starting my Christmas shopping this December. Jocelyn directed the audience to a website www. manyendings.com which states end of the world predictions spanning most years to the present and beyond! These lectures did make me wonder what is the morbid fascination that we as humans have about speculating our demise?

“Due to the lack of experienced trumpeters, the end of the world has been postponed three weeks” anon.

The last talk of the day “Dating, Mating and Relating: The Science of Attraction” was certainly the most steamy of all the talks I attended, and I’m not talking about the evaporation of water! Here I learnt that the more symmetrical a  face  the more attractive, that a little bit of blushing can indicate arousal, where as too much is deemed less attractive and based on our odor, perspective partners can subconsciously tell whether our immune systems are sufficiently different, which will benefit any potential offspring. This last area really interested me and led me to pose the question whether we will soon live in a time when partners are chosen based on their immune system differences. Scarily, according to the Craig Roberts, the lecturer on this subject it  is already  happening!

So to my last day at the festival, and what a beautiful day it was. I spent the morning with Dinesh walking around the Universities Zoology Department, where I learnt how to identify bumblebees. There are 22 different species of bumblebee in the UK, yet many scientists don’t actually know the distribution of each species. The zoologists at the University of Aberdeen hope that by using their BeeWatch system http://homepages.abdn.ac.uk/wpn003/beewatch/index.php?r=user/auth the general public can aid in identifying species of bumblebees from pictures they have taken. Believe me this is harder than it looks.  My first talk was the ‘Charles Darwin Award Lecture: The Surprising Secrets of Land Giants’ given by Professor John Hutchinson. This lecture took me back to being a child again as he talked about dinosaurs and let slip how he was an adviser on Jurassic Park 3! He explained through simple physics how scientists can understand how living and extinct animals, particularly the T-Rex, move and at what speeds, 15-25 miles per hour if your interested.  He also talked of his studies of elephants and their movements, and what mechanisms are in place to allow these large land mammals to move.

In the afternoon I took a stroll into town to the Aberdeen Arts Center for ‘ Science Misadventures: Daring Demos and Scientific Stunts’  by BBC demo developer Fran Scott. This was a very child friendly show with lots of explosions and silly demonstrations but with science thrown into boot. My favorite demo included dry ice + water in a lemonade bottle, with the top fastened place into a bin of ball pit balls. As you can imagine the resulting bang and flurry of balls into the air was quite spectacular!

Perhaps just highlighting what I already know, the five days I spent at the British Science Festival have bought out my inner nerd. From the demos, talks, debates and workshops I attended I have come ever more enthused to engage the public in all things science. Connecting to the public isn’t just about standing and explaining you work or a particular aspect of science. It can be done in a whole manner of different mediums, comedy, music, art, acting….The list really goes on. I met some great people over the week, and had a great time with the other UoB students. There was already talk of next years British Science Festival in Newcastle, which I for one will definitely be attending! Well done Aberdeen

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