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Aufwiedersehen Cheltenham

By Frances-Catherine Quevenco, on 15 June 2011

Bags unpacked and a new stack of unread copies of Eureka magazine added to my collection, I look back fondly on my week at the Cheltenham Science Festival. From the beautiful scenery of the English countryside, to my fellow bursary students, to the many intriguing science talks and interactive zones, there is nothing I would not happily do again.

Alongside the many talks held at the festival there were also plenty interactive science activities for young, old, and those somewhere in the middle. My favourite in particular was the “Who wants to be a Science Presenter?” activity in the BBC Science tent, where the Brian Coxes of tomorrow could have a go at presenting a little bit of science of their own and to make things more realistic you were given props, a fake earpiece, and a camera filming you live.

The Discovery Zone in the Town Hall was also a haven of fun and learning. I recall standing wide-eyed amidst a group of fifth graders watching a scientist from Liverpool University demonstrate how to make water into dry powder. I also loved the idea of the Talking Point tent that allowed the audience members and the speakers to congregate, ask questions and lead discussions outside of the lecture. I felt that this made science seem more accessible, especially since the speakers were so open to answering questions.

I was particularly intrigued by the huge advances in research in stem cells, illustrated by Robin Lovell-Badge, Nick Goddard, and Molly Stevens. But I would have to say from the many wonderful lectures I had the privilege of attending, my top three were Vivienne Parry’sX Marks the Spot’, Mark Lythgoe and Derek Jones’ Brain Scan: Live’, and Jon Ronson and Richard Wiseman’s ‘The Human Mind’.

Parry delivered a highly engaging talk with witty quips and fun historical facts – for example did you know that the Duke of Edinburgh was Marie Bonaparte’s nephew? The same Marie Bonaparte who was a descendant of Napoleon and who also picked 243 women on the street at random to measure the distance between their clitoris and urethral opening. Lythgoe and Jones’ live brain scan was equally engaging and especially exciting to a neuronerd such as myself. Not only did they encourage audience participation but they had us have a go at reading a mind, which comes to show how much inferences from neuroimaging have progressed.

Lastly, Ronson’s witty talk on psychopaths echoes his book’s light-hearted approach, but simultaneously raised interesting questions on confirmation bias: do we see things because we expect to see them? Wiseman’s talk on paranormality and psychology was an excellent way to end the week. He demonstrated a simple magic trick and explained not only what makes them so effective but why humans are so eager to believe in the paranormal.

All in all I had a fantastic week and I recommend attending the Cheltenham Science Festival to anyone else who has not yet done so. It is not only educational, but fun, interactive and most importantly understandable for those without a science background. Also the festival was ridden by our very own UCL researchers and who knows, perhaps one of us will be the next UCL representative addressing 200 people in one of those tents. Hopefully till next year Cheltenham! I had a wonderful time.

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