An ode to science: reflections on the festival
In the week following a celebration, it’s always important to reflect on the impact of an event. The Norwich Science Festival took place between 21-29 of October, hosting in excess of 125 events (and thousands more people!) ranging from a talk by Helen Sharman- Britain’s First Astronaut- to a (slightly philosophical) discussion hosted by Evolutionary Biologist Ben Garrod into how unique homo sapiens actually are and our responsibilities as present-day homo sapiens. Nevertheless, the biggest reflection -in every sense of the word- was felt during the Incredible Power of Light Roadshow, a laser show hosted by the Science and Technology Facilities Council.
Amongst the hazy hustle and bustle of Thursday, a rather humble stall, furnished by no more than 15 artifacts, caught the gleaming eyes of many children. They shuffled past before stopping to stare in awe at the rather less gleaming relics. Dr David Waterhouse, Senior Curator of Natural History at the Castle Museum, could be seen discussing the rich history of a heavily deserted world: the Mesozoic era of Norfolk (approx. 252-66 million years ago) onwards. The table was littered with artifacts including a Narwhal tusk, 3D replica of a footprint from the earliest modern humans in Happisburgh and a 90 million year old sea sponge from West Runton. However, Dr Waterhouse noted his favourite piece as being the tibia of a mammoth (also from West Runton) because it is by far the biggest found in Britain.
Science is the basis of which our understanding of the world stems, influencing everything from classic literature, theology and art to determination for future innovation. It’s extremely important to bring these things together to inspire the scientist in future generations, encouraging more thought and insight into the clockwork of our- rather hectic- modern lives.
Sunday 29th October
The last day of the fantastic Norwich Science Festival, focused on food and agriculture, has drawn to a close.
Dr Jacob Malone started the day with a fascinating talk about life in the soil.
While often not given much thought, Dr Malone highlighted what a diverse community of bacteria and fungi can be found at the interface between plants and the soil, known as the rhizosphere.
Some of these organisms may be pathogenic to plants, devastating crops and causing significant economic loss, many provide benefits to plants. Some bacteria can produce their own version of plant growth hormones, which leads to boosted yields while fungi known as the Mycorrhizae, found on 80 percent of plants, are essential for getting the crucial nutrient phosphate.
We also learnt how the bacteria and fungi have had significant benefits us too, as well as plants. 75 percent of antibiotics used in medicine, were discovered from bacteria in soil and many by scientists working at the John Innes Centre. Competing to get the sugars and minerals produced from plant roots, bacteria will produce chemicals to kill other bacteria, but ultimately have saved many human lives.
Another interesting application has been from the pathogenic bacterium Pseudomonas syringae. One method of attack utilised by this particular species is nucleating ice crystals on the surface on the plant, rupturing it and allowing the pathogen to enter. This miraculous ice nucleating ability of Psuedomonas is used to make artificial snow!
The Battle in Your Backgarden drew a crowd of all ages, and provoked many questions from the audience, showing what an exciting place soil really is.
In the Forum’s atrium full of people of all ages examining pea plants, eating ice-cream, and identifying mysterious smells, Dr Sarah Schmidt took the stage to tell us about bananas.
Until the 1950s, Gros Michel was the main variety of banana grown and eaten. However, this changed dramatically as disease struck in the form of the fungus Fusarium. Another variety, Cavendish, is resistant to this devastating pathogen and enabled banana production to continue.
However, the once saviour of bananas, Cavendish is now under attack itself as a new strain of Fusarium has emerged, TR4, which unlike the strain in the 1950s, it does not have resistance for.
Dr Schmidt explains, how fighting disease against bananas is a particular problem, “most bananas do not have seeds”. This means that breeding in bananas is tremendously difficult, and the process of introducing resistance from other varieties would take considerably longer compared to other crops.
Increasing globalisation means disease is spreading faster than ever. This means that other quicker strategies need to be used for bananas to survive. Dr Schmidt points out, while here they form a relatively small part of our diet, bananas are a key crop in places such as West Africa.
While some forms of genetic modification are being explored (inserting resistance genes into Cavendish), another strategy appears more promising.
Dr Schmidt is currently identifying species of bacteria that can stop the growth of Fusarium, thereby stopping disease. She is hopeful that bananas will remain on our supermarket shelves for years to come.
Friday 27th October
Exploring the potential of plants
Prof Sarah O’Connor from the John Innes Centre fascinated her audience at the Forum’s auditorium today when she discussed the wondrous chemical potentials of plants, particularly medicines.
“Plants make molecules essential for everyday life”, she said.
Prof O’Connor introduced a range of commonly known plants and spoke about the medicines that can be isolated from each, such as features of periwinkle being used to produce anticancer agents.
The audience was shown the step by step process of how the John Innes Centre examine the plants molecular formation to see how molecules are created with different enzymes inside the plant to see if these processes can be recreated outside of the plant for mass production of medicines.
Prof O’Connor explained how sometimes it is far cheaper and easier to breed the plants in a different way to produce more medicines then it is for procedures to be done inside a laboratory. Scientists must consider all these factors when developing and producing medicines.
This presentation gave the audience a real insight into the practical uses of pants and the complexity behind creating even the most basic of medicines.
Food for thought…
Aptly scheduled for lunchtime, Dr Tarang K. Metha presented his talk ‘Food for Thought: evolution, biodiversity and cichlid biology’ to a full auditorium in the Forum. I will admit that I didn’t know what a cichlid was initially, but was quickly informed that it is a large family of fish comprising up to 1,650 species. They evolved around 125 million years ago – very ancient, in comparison to humans.
Dr Metha explained how evolution works more generally. He used diagrams to highlight the multitude of development and changes different species have experienced. It revealed just how recently homo-sapiens have been around for.
He introduced his research on fish, specifically cichlids. They are great model systems, with a genetic similarity to humans, with 70 percent similarity between the coding for human genes and in zebrafish, for example. They are also simply very easy to house, and take care of.
At the moment, he is working with the Earlham Institute to encourage aquaculture – fish farming – rather than wild fishing. In developing countries especially, fish can offer many national benefits individuals may be lacking.
“We do a lot of the genetics behind it” he explained.
The benefits of exercise
At 11am the Forum’s auditorium was packed with individuals readily waiting knowledge of how to improve their lives with exercise. UEA’s visiting professors and Phd students gave this out in abundance. It was discussed how exercise preservers pathways to the brain, offering us speedier recovery times, encourages individuals to socialise, helps the brain be more alert and vastly improves the memory.
Discussions took place on how exercise preserves pathways to the brain offering us speedier recovery times, makes you become more socially involved, helps you be more alert and makes your memory vastly better.
One of the key features in this talk was on how to find motivation to encourage us to exercise. One way to overcome our programmed need to conserve energy is by giving yourself an extrinsic motivator, such as dog walking or adding social action to your exercise.
Dr Atkin spoke about limiting sedentary behaviour, such as sitting at the computer, or watching television. We spend 8-10 hours a day doing this type of activity, and this tends to increase with age. It was mentioned that getting the right amount of sleep by listening to your body is essential for a better life.
“Sleep is under threat by the modern life style and the proliferation of smart phones and tablets”, he said.
“Sleep deprivation has torturous short and long-term effects”.
Thursday 26th October
An afternoon with an astronaut
This afternoon, Helen Sharman, OBE, welcomed an anticipatory audience into Norwich Cathedral for an inspiring talk on her journey to becoming Britain’s first astronaut.
Sharman had no clear career plans in her youth but said: “I thought science would help me understand the world better.” This led her to study chemistry at university, resulting in her taking up a career in the electronics industry working on display screens.
In a surprising turn, she then worked for Mars Confectionary making ice-cream, until hearing an advert on her car radio about astronauts wanted with no necessary experience. “I never imagined I had the opportunity”, she said.
She began training at Star City, Russia in 1989 which lasted 18 months; three months were spent learning Russian. She claimed “the best bit of any astronauts training is the weightless training”, which she called a “fabulous feeling”.
Entertaining the audience, she described one particular simulator as “the vomit comet”, which helped her learn to manoeuvre herself. Sharman shocked the audience as she explained the sheer speed of the rocket was approximately 8km per second. You could travel from UEA to Thorpe End in 1.3 seconds, she said.
Whilst in space, Sharman carried out a variety of biological experiments, including studying how chlorophyll-containing plants grow in space.
Children in the audience were enthralled by her description of the space toilet, which she called it “the most ingenious part of the whole space station”. Most of the waste was recycled with a purpose, e.g. the water from filtered urine being electrolysed to produce more oxygen. Following her eight days in space, she said she believes there must be some form of intelligent life in space, but she doesn’t think she’s seen it yet.
An audience member asked if she would ever return to space, to which Sharman exclaimed: “I’d love to go back!
Sophie Miller and Sindy Nung
With Halloween less than a week away, spiders are all the rage. However as Dr Helen Smith points out at the beginning of her Spiders, Stripes and Sorting hats talk, depictions of these spindly creatures is often grizzly and menacing.
Throughout the captivating hour, Dr Smith addresses this image problem spiders have, illuminating how talented, exciting and beautiful spiders are. Their incredible silk is full of wondrous possibilities for human medicine along with their venom too. For example, their silk can be used in stitches in the most delicate parts of the human body such as eyes and in neurosurgery. Their venom is currently being researched to treat stroke patients.
Describing spiders’ astonishing diversity, Dr Smith recounts the inspiring tale of conservation efforts to boost the number of populations of a rare spider found in Norfolk – the Fen raft spider (including her kitchen being taken over with plastic bottles full of spider nurseries). One of the biggest spiders in Britain, these miraculous creatures can walk on water, sail and hunt underwater.
It was hard to come away from Dr Smith’s talk without feeling a warm appreciation for these humble organisms, that not only have a possibilities for the world of medicine, but can have a great boogie too.
Lights, camera, planetarium…
The light road show was full of lasers, space and all things light.
Children of all ages had fun discovering lasers and light, and watching the plasma ball light up. An especially daring boy was absolutely amazed when the laser when through every bit of glass, and still came out the other side. Another girl was enjoying passing electricity through herself and her nan, all the way to the ground, and lighting up a bulb.
As soon as it opened, children and adults alike were taught about the size of the moon, sun and Earth; they were amazed at the size differences.
One thing particularly incredible about the Science Festival is how it is educational for both kids and adults. One young girl was shooting a laser through a glass block and learning that light looked different inside the glass and it was refraction, and at the same time her parents were learning that refraction is how fiber optics work.
The main attraction, of course, was the planetarium, where people of all ages queued to see the planets and the stars. One family even got there half an hour early!
Miriam Darlington, author of Otter Country, led a stunning presentation about the magical secrets of the wild otter this morning.
The Forum auditorium was full of bright inquisitive eyes as she revealed the tales of her adventures, using her wonderful literary knowledge to create vivid images in the audience’s mind of these wonderful encounters.
Darlington explained how her love of otters flourished through her early childhood, while she discovered literary work of many authors, encapsulating the beauty of these magnificent creatures and inspiring her admiration for them. This eventually led to her creating her own piece about the animals.
She shared with us her personal battle to immerse herself into some gruesome otter dissections with the Cardiff Otter Project. She had decided she wanted some scientific knowledge to add to her repertoire of otter based information. She described the removal of the pellet and her displeased reaction to the whole ordeal, but said she eventually ended with an appreciation for otters’ delicate hearts.
She brought her book to life, trickling little extracts of it in through her presentation. The vocabulary highlighted her breathtaking journey to the wild otter. The talk was not only informative but breathtakingly beautiful. It almost felt like a love for otters and collective yearning for an encounter was instilled in the audience by the end, due to the use of Darlington’s enchanting vocabulary.
Wednesday 25th October
CSI, biology, and gummy bears…
Darwin is arguably one of, if not the most, well known biologist. His theory of natural selection, which describes how all life that we see today is the result of evolution, forms the basis of all modern science.
However, while he was the first to publish these ideas explicitly, there were many other thinkers and observers that went before him and laid the foundations. It is these individuals that Rebecca Stott has spent a decade researching and put together in the book Darwin’s Ghosts.
Condensed into an hour long talk this afternoon, Stott gave a captivating insight into the lives of such individuals that span continents and centuries. From more well known thinkers such as Aristotle in Greece through to Al-Jahiz (776-868) in Basra who spent his nights in bookshops and days with pigeon breeders to learn more about the natural world, Stott teases out the qualities that unite these intellectual characters. A curiosity across disciplines, reflection of the past and present and liberal financial support along with often a passion for languages, among others are some of the such qualities she identifies as allowing the flexibility to create and challenge ideas.
The talk finished with an interesting discussion, about how now, under different circumstances, mavericks of scientific world can flourish. It was concluded, that just like the barnacles Darwin spend decades studying, scientists will adapt to the conditions they are in.
Dr Mandy Heartly used to be a forensic scientist, helping to reunite families and she was here at the forum today telling children of all ages about DNA, and also about World War II.
Tuesday 24th October
Time to go home…
Chemistry is considered by many children as the best science of them all and that could certainly be felt in the Forum today. Queues of children waited at each table to have a go at their own experiment.
While there weren’t any explosions, Briar Chemicals- the sponsor of the Chemistry Commotions day- spent the day building a giant model of sodium chloride with the help of many children. Anyone could have a go at painting a polystyrene ball to add to the molecule of salt. Briar Chemicals are known for their work on herbicides and “plant Medicines” but they also support STEM education. They aim to inspire the next generation of chemists, from the the happy faces of young people it looked like it was definitley working.
The Journey of Discovery Trail led visitors around a mixture of information boards and experiments. Children could find out the contents of tomato juice while mixing a concoction of brightly coloured chemicals together, meanwhile someone else could discover why onions make you cry. It showed how food in everyday life has special chemical properties that lead to reactions within our bodies.
Visitors could also guess food from the smell and find out what caused a particular scent. While some of the smells caused repulsed faces, even adults got very excited when they correctly identified the food.
Overall, the day was enjoyed by people of all ages. It pulled visitors attention towards chemistry in everyday life and showed that you don’t have to be a scientist to be exposed to it. A tomato, an onion or a grain of salt will never be thought about in the same way again for the people who got involved with this day of chemistry.
An evening at UEA…
This evening a large crowd heard Professor Jenny Gill fill us in on the what’s been going on in avian migration over the last few decades.
While many migratory bird populations are believed to have declined in numbers over recent years, one has not – Icelandic black-tailed godwits (Limosa limosa islandica). Along with increasing numbers, the destination for the birds to spend their winters (and escape the extreme cold weather of Iceland) has changed.
Traditionally, the godwits have had their getaway in sunny Portugal but increasingly more are spending their winters in Ireland and here in the East of England. Why this change is occurring is one of the many questions Professor Gill tries to answer.
Such changes have been documented, as Prof Gill points out on several occasions, thanks to the dedication of volunteer bird-watchers. Those who have logged an impressive number of godwits have become known as the ‘Godwitters’ and no doubt made up some of the audience.
Professor Gill described how this wealth of long-term data helps to identify the processes behind such changes. More and more godwits are fledging Iceland earlier in the year, meaning the last to leave often have no fellow godwits have to follow.
Without any guidance to Portugal, these godwits have landed in East of England, which although has worse food and weather, is tolerable. It seems changes in timing result in the changes in spatial patterns, a pattern that Prof Gill believes is likely the same with other populations and species of migratory birds.
It appeared promoting early fledging may help migratory birds settle in new areas and therefore support and promote populations numbers. With this knowledge from populations on increase, conservation efforts can be targeted to help those on the decrease.
A talk by the Mad Scientists in the Forum’s Gallery was a wonder to behold. Dr DNA and Atomic Anderson held the entire audience spellbound with their fiery experiments showing the Sun’s massive power. Who knew that light travels 90 million miles to reach the Earth? Light was turned into a rainbow by ‘magic diffraction glasses’, providing a brilliant demonstration of how Newton first discovered the colours of light.
It wasn’t long before Dr DNA recreated the reactions found in the centre of the Sun; a massive burst of flame lit up the Gallery, illuminating the smiles on everyone’s faces. Next, a plasma ball emerged, with argon gas that brought a dazzling display of light in shades of purple and scarlet. An electrical current passed from the ball into a slightly startled young boy, and then into a lightbulb.
This brilliant display left all the children in wonder, hanging back to ask their questions, which varied from “Why does the Sun move through the sky?” to “Can I rent myself out as a phone charger?’”
Something in the Water?
The Forum explores chemistry as it enters its second day at the Norwich Science Festival and scientists Louise Atkinson and Michel Munden from Anglian Water began this day with a very interesting and rather smelly talk about chemical analysis and sewage, where they explore what is in our water.
Holding up a bottle of sewage, senior scientist Louise Atkinson explained the processes, through BODs (biochemical oxygen demand) and FOGs (fats, oils and grease) and other tests tests, that take the water from our toilets to our taps. It’s actually quite all right, she explains, all the bits have been filtered out – thank goodness I thought!
I suppose that sampling and analysing sewage for a living makes one rather unaffected by the sights and smells that this entails and a bottle of sewage becomes a normal sight, but it seems that a sample of sludge was just too much in the opinion of scientists. “Sludge samples really are pokey smelly” said Atkinson.
Chemistry Day starts with a bang…
Dr Stephen Ashworth conducted a riveting visual display at The Forum’s Auditorium this morning, leaving the audience on the edge of their seats. Kitchen Chemistry: Second Helpings was a hit event, both showings completely sold out. He combined informative chemistry with “everything you can find at home if you look hard enough”. Dr Ashworth enthralled the diverse age ranges of the audience with his gripping kitchen-based experiments.
He explained the concept of emulsions using pipe cleaners and magnets, making complex science easily accessible for everyone in the audience. The polarity of water is an example of another notion which was exhibited in a way that gave the idea an inspiring simplicity for the children, who will potentially become the next generation of scientists.
Dr Ashworth concluded his show with an exciting twist, where audience members had to make their way to the front steps of The Forum to witness the spectacle of a water bottle transforming into a rocket. Mouths were left wide open in awe of the extravaganza.
Sophie Miller and Evie Mason
Monday 23rd October
Today, the general public descended on the University Technical College, in a day full of science, engineering and LEGO! With companies such as KLM and the RAF attending, the day provided the perfect opportunity for young people (and adults) to gain a wider understanding of the world around them.
A number of activities were on offer, including Architecture Workshops, and a session run by the Royal Air Force, looking at how to stick to a brief when coming up with new engineering projects. Pauline Thompson, who led the workshop, described how the event provided “a new and exciting experience for young people, teaching science through a variety of engaging and innovative techniques”.
Speaking to people at the event, it was difficult to find anyone who could fault the event, and everyone seemed in agreement that the Science Festival could only have a positive impact on the communities around Norwich.
The Periscope Workshop attracted a great number of children, most around six to twelve, along with their and parents and grandparents), as part of the festival’s Engineering Day. The workshop was presented by two vivacious and theatrical women, Gemma and Natasha.
It began with a dramatic and engaging ‘History of Light’, and Gemma, one of the leaders of the activity, posed to the group the question: “What makes it so magical”?
Volunteers rose from the audience and took turns directing light, using mirrors, at targets dotted around the room. Gemma explained that light moves in straight lines, so upon encountering an obstacle (such as a mirror), light could reflect. By using mirrors, humans can master this property of light and use it in periscopes so see over, or around, objects.
The audience helped to establish what a periscope actually was, with one participant perceptively noting there are “mirrors at an angle so that you can see over the top” of the periscope.
Their workshop was very interactive, and incorporated science, drama, art, and the actual construction of individual periscopes! Following the introduction to the huge periscope which the workshop company Same Difference were modelling earlier in the day, children (and adults!) were offered the opportunity to create their own, thankfully smaller, versions.
Anticipation rose as we watched a slideshow play before Warren Elsmore’s talk on Lego started. Time lapses of creations being built made young children guess what they could be, whilst their parents watched in amazement and recorded it on their phones. Warren Elsmore is an artist who uses Lego bricks to create models.
After a warm welcome, Elsmore introduced himself by asking the audience if they had seen any of the books displayed on the projection. He said he had written each book, a grand total of nine, with over 60 models in each one – all equipped with full and carefully detailed instruction manuals. He talked about using a design software programme in order to create the models and showed a few of his favourites to the audience. If you’re a budding designer, he suggests Lego Digital Designer and Stud.io, as well as LDraw (which is what he uses) for those with more experience. Elsmore surprised the audience with his incredible work space storage system for all his Lego pieces, which looked like endless drawers, each divided and labelled into different types, where inside each slot, there were pots for different colours. You could truly feel the envy pour out of everyone’s eyes.
Friday 19th October
A trip to Concrete HQ...