Cheltenham Science Festival

by Ruth Perkins

We love festivals at science made simple. Music festivals, food festivals, science festivals, I’ve taken our shows across the country and abroad to all sorts of festivals, and I’ve loved them all. This year I was lucky enough to perform at Cheltenham Science Festival. I went with high expectations from the experiences of other ‘science made simplers’. Cheltenham not only lived up to my expectations but went far beyond and turned out to be one of my favourite experiences of the past 6 years so here is a little taster of it: the events I was part of and my ‘best of the fest’ as an audience member.

On Stage

As science made simple have been working with the science festival for many years, I was given the honor of introducing a few of the events. First up on Thursday 5th June – Jim Al-Khalili and Richard Pettigrew for:


Jim, who happens to be our patron, kicked off with a stroll through the history of the concept of infinity. Zero got it wrong with his ‘Achilles and the Tortoise paradox‘. Olber’s paradox posed the question – “Why does it get dark if we have an infinite universe?”. Surprisingly Edgar Allan Poe tackled that in his prose poem “Eureka” with the idea that the universe had a beginning and we get our light from the stars close enough for the light to travel to us in the time the universe has existed.

Richard started with Aristotle’s work on potential infinity versus actual infinity, then Hilbert’s Hotel – a brilliant demonstration of Canter’s maths explained in this video.

Giving the concept that you can add anything to infinity (including infinity), multiply it by anything (including infinity), and that will equal infinity! There is always an infinity higher than any infinity.

It was a brilliant discussion with a bonus quote from Woody Allen, “Infinity is a long time, especially near the end.”

Bubbles and Balloons

I had the time of my life performing our ‘Bubbles and Balloons’ show on Friday 6th June, with Abigail Reed’s invaluable help, to an eager audience of 600 who apparently love bubbles and balloons as much as we do! After the show we took our extra big bubble wands outside to fill the gardens with giant bubbles and soon attracted a crowd desperate to take pictures or pop them. Zoë Gamble was also part of the primary school’s programme presenting our ‘Izzy’s Incredible Adventure’ show to 2 lots of 400 youngsters.

Abigail gets bubbles in the gardens at cheltenham science festival.  Photo: science made simple (All Rights Reserved)

Abigail and Zoë make bubbles in the gardens at Cheltenham Science Festival. Photo: science made simple (All Rights Reserved)

The Over-Ambitious Demo Challenge

On Saturday 7th June this was the one thing I was equally excited and terrified to be a part of knowing who my fellow contestants and audience were. As the programme said:

“Steve Mould and Andrea Sella host the infamous Science Festival Demo Challenge, our annual contest for the most spectacular, impressive and show-stopping demonstration that our resident scientists can conceive. Expect madness and mayhem as this year’s contestants Ruth Perkins, Katie Steckles and 2013 defending champion Zoe Laughlin try to outdo each other – who gets your vote?”

Zoe started us off with a set of painstakingly crafted hammers of different materials to see which would break, with an accompanying love story, and later shared the secret of silent farts. I wish I could have seen more of it from behind the curtains! Katie, amazing as ever, showed us her talent of producing any letter of the alphabet from a sheet of paper with some clever folding and a single straight cut. Her stunning finale of using a single cut to make a life size cut out of herself blew everyone away. No wonder she won the contest! I used two of my greatest loves for inspiration, and did an introduction to the science busker’s orchestra including the world’s biggest glove-a-phone, a theramin, and a Makey Makey vegetable/fruit piano keyboard like Zoë’s. With some audience help we played the theme from ‘Space Odyssey 2001/Also Sprach Zarathustra‘ and ‘The Flight of the Valkyries‘. A particular highpoint of the night for me was having 400 people and a saw sing me happy birthday!

Make those bananas sing.  Ruth uses Makey-Makey to play the bananamaphone at Cheltenham Science Festival's Overambitious Demo Challenge.  Photo: science made simple (All Rights Reserved)

Make those fruit and veg sing! Ruth uses Makey-Makey to play the fruityveggiemaphone at Cheltenham Science Festival’s Overambitious Demo Challenge. Photo: science made simple (All Rights Reserved)

Robert Winston’s Utterly Amazing Science

This was my last turn at introducing an event, on Sunday 8th June, and it was great to see the 600 seater theatre packed out again with excited families.

“Rocket launches and erupting volcanoes, magnets and electricity, forces and motions! Discover the incredible world of science and prepare to be amazed as Robert Winston demonstrates exciting, hands-on experiments from his new book.”

I really enjoyed the Q&A session at the end where Robert tackled tricky questions such as “What is your favourite ever experiment?”.

Top picks

Thursday 5th June

Trust, Lust and Love

“What makes you attracted to someone when you first meet? What makes you fall in love? Are we all slaves to our hormones or is there more to what makes us trust, lust and love? Psychologist Viren Swami and endocrinologist Gareth Leng discuss the mating game.” This was another interesting and well attended discussion. There is a write up of part of the research presented here.

My evening’s highlight was:

FameLab International Final

“Nobel laureates James Watson and Peter Higgs called it the most fun they’ve had in years – it’s time for the FameLab finalists to use all of their charm and charisma to deliver three minutes of science in style! Join host Quentin Cooper and watch as the world’s best and brightest battle it out to see who will be crowned international FameLab Winner 2014. Who will you cheer on?”

The overall winner was Irishman Pádraic Flood for Benelux. If you missed it you are in luck – there is a recording of his entry on photosynthesis and the green revolution.

In fact all of the final was captured for your delight!

David Davila did an incredibly versatile talk for France that won the audience vote and joint overall runner up. He signed while speaking about research that has found that sign language activates the same part of the brain as spoken language, Broca’s area.

Ting Ding Li for Hong Kong was wonderfully playful discussing why we evolved to dance.

Marco Ferrigo for Italy put forward the argument that we shouldn’t tell students that they should be interested in maths, but look for the maths in what they are interested in.`

Joanna Bagniewska for Poland was one of the two joint winners of the FameLab international community vote. She spoke about the military life of a honey bee that has been trained to poke out it’s tongue when it smells explosives!

Bogdan Ghiorghiu for Romania asked the big question – Where do we come from?

Ricardo Moure Ortega for Spain was my personal favourite. He used Star Wars and a lot of humour to talk about the energy burning brown fat that lies dormant in our bodies. We can wake it up with exercise or exposure to cold, which both involve the contraction of muscles.

Jennifer Fowlie for Switzerland is a big Alan Turing fan and introduced us to his study of pattern formation from two chemicals. Turing suggested that creatures with the smallest and largest areas have no pattern, but smallish areas have blotches, medium – stripes, and bigger – spots.

Caroline Shenton-Taylor for the United Kingdom was the other winner of the FameLab international community vote with how stirring a cup of tea lead to improving Nuclear Magnetic Resonance.

Lyl Tomlinson for the USA was the other overall runner up, eloquently spreading the news that running has been shown to increase memory. We need to stay stimulated. Aerobic exercise delays demetia!

Friday the 6th June

For my first chance of the day to sit back and relax I chose:

Numberphile Live

“Numberphile’s YouTube channel and their videos about ‘numbers and stuff’ have over 66 million views. Numberphile contributors James Grime, Matt Parker, Steve Mould and Katie Steckles join us for a live version – they’ll make you love numbers!”, One of the highlights came from James who had brought Simon Singh’s Enigma Machine along for a demonstration.

Here’s one of the numberphile videos featuring Katie Steckles and the number 27:

Between shows I took a trip to M&S with fellow sci-commer Brian Mackenwells to find the most suggestive fruits and vegetables for my demo challenge on the Saturday. Cue some chuckling and silly behavior in the aisles.

Next up was:

What Are You Laughing At?

“Comedy, satire and our society have been inseparable for thousands of years, but why is comedy so funny? Why is there something infectious about watching it with other people? Sharon Lockyer has set up a research centre dedicated to understanding comedy. She is joined by Timandra Harkness and Robin Ince to explore why we love it and how it can be used to break down barriers.”

Science of Cake

This was the last show of the evening

“Chemist Andrea Sella, materials scientist Mark Miodownik and pharmacologist Clive Page rise to the challenge of putting the science back into baking. They turn up the heat with ambitious live demos and audience taste tests, sifting the men from the boys in an event that shows you can have your cake and experiment on it too.” Henry Herbert, one of ‘The Fabulous Baker Brothers’ came along as a/with some tasty treats for the audience. Andrea Sella bought his home made sugar glass bottle to smash over his head.

Saturday the 7th of June

Sound Science

“Our world is buzzing with sound, and animals can use it in many different ways – not just to communicate! Bats use it to see in the dark; for killer whales it can be a powerful weapon; and a snapping shrimp’s claw heats water to temperatures hotter than the sun’s surface and creates sounds that can kill a small fish. Join the 2007 FameLab finalists for some hands-on ears-on demonstrations!”,

We heard Dr Martin Coath with the aid of his violin, Nic Harrigan with some hacked stethascopes, Marieke Navin with the glass harmonica, and Peter Zeidman with some unusual aural tricks, including “They sometimes behave so strangely“.

Charming Cheltenham, Spectacular Science, Fantastic Festival

Overall I loved every bubble-blowing, idol-meeting, fascinating factastic minute of Cheltenham Science Festival. The team that put it all together are incredible. I loved the ‘Talking Point’ a place for the speakers to discuss their events with the general public, the BBC Science Zone busking with Jon Wood, Jon Chase, and Anisha Tailor to name a few, and the sense of community I’ve never felt so strongly at any other festival so far. I can’t wait for another chance to go back!


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