Science & Environment

Reporter's log: Science festival

The 2010 British Science Association Festival is underway in Birmingham and our "Gossip Girl" Sue Nelson will be sending us the latest scientific titbits in her daily reporter's log. You can also catch Sue each evening at the festival's X-Change event.

SATURDAY: GOING OUT ON A HIGH

What can I say about Vatican astronomer and keeper of meteorites, Brother Guy Consolmagno? Funny, smart, self-deprecating, he arrived wearing a hoodie and was unafraid to tackle any question - be it scientific or on the Catholic Church's treatment of Galileo.

Image caption Oh brother - what a way to end the week!

No wonder he was a big hit at the X-Change.

The humour, and the fact that he's a sci-fi fan, probably explains the inevitable "ET Phone Rome" style newspaper headlines today because when asked during an earlier press conference if he would baptise an alien, he responded cheekily "of course".

Brother Guy is also part of today's Life, the Universe and Everything session at the festival. The audience is in for a treat.

The science festival ends on Sunday with Tony Robinson hosting Archaeology through the Ages and sessions ranging from the Lunar Society to the science behind ethical shopping.

In future, the festival may need to reappraise its format. Less will have to mean more since it's unlikely to escape the Spending Review and funding dictates content. This may not be a bad thing as while many lectures were packed, attendance at others was shamefully low. Some of these speakers deserved better.

Also, if sponsors such as Jaguar, Land Rover and Goodrich put on science or engineering-themed lectures and charge admission fees, no matter how low, the quality bar in some cases needs to be raised.

The quality of academia-based science communication on display, however, was some of the best I've encountered.

Aston University, in particular, provided numerous scientists who could translate their research to an audience with simplicity and enthusiasm.

And when you're used to seeing the same scientists at these festivals - I first attended in 1990 for BBC radio - finding new faces is a refreshing surprise.

There'll definitely be one new face at the 2011 science festival in Bradford as I've decided, after four fantastic years on the X-Change, that this will be my final appearance as host.

My thanks to all the X-Change volunteers and the British Science Association for the farewell bouquet and kind words.

It's always good to go out on a high and last night's guests included stand-up mathematician Matt Parker, radar surveillance expert and juggler Colin Wright and the extremely witty Aston University toxicologist Mike Coleman.

Oh, and one of the Pope's astronomers of course. Exactly. How high can you get?

FRIDAY: SLIP OF THE TONGUE

It was an unfortunate slip of the tongue. Or maybe the science minister, David Willetts, engaged only one of his two brains.

Either way, his mistake raised more than a few eyebrows at the British Science Festival dinner last night.

Mr Willetts had already failed to reassure an audience of worried scientists and science organisations by reinforcing "we are going to have to take tough decisions on science funding."

Then he turned his attention to the just published Academy of Medical Sciences report based on a public dialogue with scientists about research involving animals containing either human cells or human-like genetic material.

The majority of participants didn't have a problem supporting this type of research, he said, "provided it supports human wealth".

There was a collective intake of breath from the audience.

"... supports human health," corrected Mr Willetts.

Too late - resigned shaking of heads was all round. Can a man with two brains make a Freudian slip?

Today I'm scouring the Bliss or Blues? talks on human emotions and several laser sessions for potential speakers on tonight's X-Change.

Lasers celebrate their 50th birthday this year, which is why I recently visited the Space Geodesy Facility at Herstmonceux in Sussex for a Planet Earth podcast.

A taxi driver told me "everyone loves the big green light in the sky", and he was right. It travels 20,000km and tracks satellites with millimetre precision. How cool is that?

Almost as cool as knowing that the Vatican's astronomer is one of my guests this evening. I have not been this excited in a long time.

Bliss or Blues? Definitely bliss.

THURSDAY: HERE COME THE GIRLS...

Sex always grabs people's attention. Add the issue of gender difference, research into the brain, and a scientist's vocal point of view, and you have the makings of a media storm.

From the moment Professor Gina Rippon spoke on Monday's Today programme, the story has continued to gain momentum. Her point is that the brain shows more similarities than differences between men and women and that many "neurotrash" books ignore the evidence and resort to gender stereotypes.

A fair point, you'd think. But yesterday Cristina Odone attacked Rippon in the Telegraph accusing her of being in denial and having "an equality fetish". Her defence appears in today's Daily Mail. And Rippon's talk at the festival - Sexing the brain: How neurononsense joined psychobabble to "keep women in their place" - doesn't even take place until Saturday.

Luckily she's on this evening's X-Change, highlighting the increasing talents and range of female scientists appearing at the festival.

Last night particle physicist Tara Shears, from the University of Liverpool, enthralled with descriptions of her work at the Large Hadron Collider; while neuroscientist Caroline Witton revealed Aston University's plans for the first high resolution magneto-encephalography (MEG) brain imaging system in the UK to be designed for children.

Cambridge University's Jessica Grahn - who has degrees in both neurobiology and music - made half the audience clap a Western beat while the other half clapped a common Balkan beat to demonstrate the difficulties in determining an unfamiliar rhythm. Grahn is looking at the potential of musical therapies that exploit the link between music and movement to help those with degenerative neurological conditions such as Parkinson's disease.

Even four of the five X-Change volunteers this year are female. Marine biologist Claudia Velhas is an explainer at London's Science Museum. Sian Henderson and Anna Perman, both science graduates, are about to start their Masters in science communication at Imperial College London. Alice Thorpe explains science at Cardiff's Techniquest.

But as Rippon's experience shows, you need to be prepared for the attention - good and bad - if you speak out about science. Luckily, as Rippon has proved, women can also have balls.

WEDNESDAY: OUTING ENGINEERS

The British Science Festival is rather like a marathon in that you must pace yourself, drink loads of water, wear comfortable shoes and get plenty of sleep beforehand.

Unfortunately, instead of winding down quietly after last night's X-Change, I visited the Jeckyll & Hyde pub instead.

For professional reasons of course, as it housed the Association of British Science Writers' press party. Then, by the time you find a restaurant and have dinner… Oh come on, three out of four isn't bad.

The first X-Change is always the hardest. It's the combination of a new team, new venue and the challenge of making the content as varied as possible.

Fortunately, it worked, covering attitudes to climate change, new research into dyslexia, neuromarketing; and then demonstrating - thanks to brave X-Change volunteer and humanist Tulpesh Patel - how applying a magnetic field to the left hand side of your brain affects movement, by making the right side of your body twitch.

Space scientist Giovanna Tinetti turned herself into a planet - and me into a star - to demonstrate the variation in light caused when a planet (Giovanna) orbits and crosses a sun (me) in a distant solar system. And former BBC engineer turned science presenter Kate Bellingham discussed ways to encourage young people into engineering.

Here I must confess a personal interest as last week I became a mentor for Ingenious Women to help female engineers engage with the media.

If I'd known exactly what this profession offered - the women's jobs on the scheme, for instance, ranged from a Formula 1 engineer to building the 2012 Olympic velodrome - then I would definitely have considered a career in engineering.

So, if you're an engineer get out more. Be out and proud, and let more people know about your amazing jobs. In today's cash-strapped society, visibility for engineers - and scientists - has never been more important.

TUESDAY: REASONS TO BE CHEERFUL?

Yesterday a flash mob of around 45 people in white lab coats congregated outside Birmingham Cathedral. The group then danced to science-themed songs including Chain Reaction, Rocket Man and Girls Aloud's Biology before handing out flyers for the British Science Festival.

It was an inspired publicity stunt for today's official opening but the festival needs to smile and show its teeth.

It is showcasing science, technology and engineering during uncertain times. Public funding for scientific research is about to be squeezed and the public engagement of science is unlikely to escape the government's spending review.

For some the squeeze has already happened. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) recently withdrew its Partnerships for Public Engagement Scheme.

Meanwhile, at the festival, performances of Joe Penhall's play Blue/Orange, which examines British psychiatric care, have been cancelled due to loss of funding.

Even the X-Change has been affected. In among the best scientists and science communicators, the event usually features Perspectives entrants.

This popular exhibition showcases posters by science students who also explain their research to festival visitors, bringing the written word - and their work - to life. Not any more. One look at this year's principal partners and sponsors also highlights potential problems ahead. Birmingham City Council, for instance, has just announced that 26,000 jobs are at risk.

So are there reasons to be cheerful? Definitely. The festival, as ever, allows people to engage with scientists and covers everything from climate change and cocktail chemistry to the nature of hallucinations and tours of the UK's largest superconducting magnet facility.

The central location of Aston University, where most of the events are being held, will also appeal. And if young people don't get to experience science or engineering first hand then these subjects may never appear on their career radar.

The festival isn't the only visitor to Birmingham of course. The Pope is due on Sunday and the Vatican's astronomer, Brother Guy Consolmagno, has agreed to come on our final X-Change on Friday. Yes, the Vatican has an Observatory.

At a time when both scientists and science communicators are worried about the future, the Catholic Church is engaging the public about scientific research.

Brother Guy, like all the X-Change's guests, has agreed to appear for free and the offer of a beer. It promises to be an interesting week. I'll let you know if he accepts the beer.