In which I go to a science festival

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Last week was the week of Cheltenham Science Festival. They like a festival in Cheltenham. They don’t really care what it’s a festival of – horse racing, literature, food, jazz – they are entirely unfussy. So long as there’s a bar and some quality use of marquees the good people of Cheltenham are quite satisfied.

But last week was science. I was only able to get to a few sessions but what I did was suitably fascinating, because here’s the thing. Despite everything that happened in secondary school physics lessons to convince me otherwise, science is quite interesting. Actually that’s unfair. Secondary school physics was also intereating, but that was because my physics teacher was a certifiably insane man who, if you asked for a new exercise book, would drag you over to a picture of then Education Secretary, Kenneth Baker, and shout, “A new exercise book? You’d better ask Mr Baker if you can have a new exercise book. It’s all up to him these days!” He also used to demonstrate gravity by jumping off the table at the front of the room. So, from my secondary school physics lessons I know two things:

1. Education Secretaries personally sign off on all distribution of paper goods to school pupils, and;

2. The laws of gravity are mainly to do with what happens when insane people jump off tables.

Anyhow, what was I talking about? Yes. Science Festival. Right. At the science festival, we saw a live version of Dara O’Briain’s Science Club where we learnt why it’s much worse to drop a dog out of an upstairs window than a hamster. (At least I think that was the main point.) We saw some poor innocent victim (volunteer?) get MRI-scanned live for our entertainment. We saw a massive game of top trumps for science’s great unsung heroes, where it turned out that Hedy Lamarr (of siren of the silver screen fame) was also a proper top notch mathematician.

The best bit for me was seeing Dr Kevin Fong talk about the extremes of the human body’s ability to survive. He’s very clever and interesting, and it’s well worth seeking out his book on the same subject. He does a clever drawing of parallels between our exploration of the planet (and beyond) and medicine’s exploratory journey in relation to the human body during the past 100 years. It’s all jolly interesting and very much to be encouraged.

So science, it turns out, is marvelous, even if you’re a fluffy-headed arts and humanties girl like me. (My degrees are in History and Creative Writing – alternatively known as Old Shit and Makey-Uppy.) Instinctively though, I’m drawn to the belief that stuff is knowable. It’s a thing that frustrates me, in conversation, when the person I’m talking to says, “Of course there are some things that are just beyond our understanding.” It seems to be an attitude that lacks ambition. I also don’t accept that things get less interesting for finding out more about them. So the shape you thought you saw out of the corner of your eye wasn’t a ghost after all? It was your brain interpreting the shape of a face in a plume of steam, or shimmer of light. That’s fascinating. Why would your brain do that? What’s the evolutionary benefit of facial recognition and why would that extend to seeing faces that aren’t there? What else that we think we see is created in our brains rather than in the physical world we think we’re seeing exactly as it is?

So, in summary, finding stuff out is good. Another paradigm shifting conclusion for you there folks. Hurrah!

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