the x-change yearbook Surrey, 2009 SU
5- RR 10 EY SE PT 09
welcome to... the x-change 2009! Hi and welcome to the x-change 2009 yearbook! Over the course of the week, our tireless team of volunteers scoured the British Science Festival in Guildford for the weird, wonderful and downright scandalous. The x-change is a highlight of the Festival programme that brings together the best of the Fest. This year saw some allstar turns (Robert Winston, Bill Bryson, Simon Singh and Jim Al-Khalili), science magic from Lorelly Wilson (‘Chemistry with Cabbage’), a racing car made from the leftovers of your weekly shop and a 3ft tall penguin named Bob. So join us for a behind-the-scenes look at the x-change... If you couldn’t make it, see what you missed and if you were there... re-live it! All this couldn’t have happened without our team so we’d like to say a huge thank you to Nerys, Olivia, Tom, Henry and Cat, our intern Toby and, of course, the hostess with the mostest... Sue Nelson.
Caution. The following contains nose-hair plucking, curly fries and clingfilm bondage. Oh, and some science.
meet the team About me: I graduated from the University of Bath with a degree in maths and physics and I’ve also spent time at the BBC and in New York!
My highlight: This is tough because I had a great time. I really enjoyed the last day from putting one of our t-shirts on the Alan Turing statue to managing to pull off the evening event despite the fire alarm going off and Bill Bryson’s train being delayed! Favourite speaker: Another tough one. All the speakers were great, but my highlights were Stuart MacBride for being unexpectedly hilarious, Tamsin Gray for bringing Bob the penguin and discussing defrosting cheese, Maria McNamara for wrapping a volunteer in cling film and Jim Al-Khalili for rounding off the last x-change so entertainingly. The x-change?: Brilliant experience. I got to meet some great people and see some fun science. Very busy and tiring but definitely worth it. I’d recommend it to a friend. Favourite cheese: Cheddar Superhero power: Invisibility
About me: I graduated from the University of Leicester with an MPhys in physics with astrophysics with a year in Europe. I spent a year studying in French at the University of Nice and I spent most of it climbing up mountains, lounging on the beach and eating lots and lots of French bread. I'm starting an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College in October. I'm très excited. I also play ultimate frisbee and I’m taking up street dancing. My highlight: Either buying Robert Winston a coffee or when I saw him break dancing in the x-change office
[long story – Ed.] Favourite speaker: Tamsin Gray. She talked about her work in Antarctica, including: how cold does it have to be for your tongue to stick to a metal pole...? Most unexpected bit about the x-change: Learning about the confessions in Honesty Lab; the things some people have done…
meet the team About me: I’m an interdisciplinary scientist. This means I do a little bit of everything. From zoology at Edinburgh to an MRes/PhD program at UCL where I’ve learnt a lot about physics, maths, computing and microbiology.
My highlight: was when I stumbled across the schools programme. It was great to see so many youngsters getting excited about being taught science (well, actually they were excited by predicting how much pain their hairiest teacher was about to experience… but they were still learning). Favourite speaker: Robert Winston was on form, Simon Singh was charming and Jim Al-Khalili’s rug has to get an honourable mention. However, my highlight has to be Stuart MacBride and his discussion of how much crack you can fit in your… crack. I’ve never seen so much laughter at a science event and it gave a perfect example of how expert opinions can vary (or results can depend upon experimental methods). Favourite cheese: a really good cheddar... Super power: The ability to dig right to the bottom of the barrel in order to find a poster pun? About me: At the moment, I am fresh out of university, and I have a BSc in neuroscience and psychology (I know, not a real science) and a huge passion for all things sciency.
My highlight: Being in the same pub as Robert Winston, Jim Al-khalili and Bill Bryson. Favourite speaker: Jim Al-Khalili. I’m no physicist but he is an excellent speaker with a marvellous hairy chest. Although saying that, there were lots of memorable speakers/speaker moments. Favourite cheese: I want to be different and say something like Cornish Yarg but we can't always get what we want so it's got to be Cheddar. Superpower: The power to morph into anything I like. Final comment: I absolutely loved my week at the festival, it was like a big geeky holiday and I'd do it again in a second.
meet the team About me: After studying natural sciences at Durham University I headed over to Australia to study for a Graduate Diploma in Science Communication. During the year we travelled around the country, performing science shows in regional schools. Nowadays, in my spare time I'm a freelance science writer.
My highlight: I'm torn between chatting to Bill Bryson on the phone, Stuart MacBride's opening quote regarding the extent of his research for his books ("Mostly, I just make s**t up") and going out with the x-change team for a well-earned break! Favourite speaker: Got to be Jim Al-Khalili - such a good sport, and possibly the only man I've seen unbutton his shirt on stage in the name of science equations. Favourite cheese: Camembert Superpower: To be in six places at once
Toby About me: Once I was a simple physics with nuclear astrophysics graduate... Then I got the call from the British Science Association and became an intern working at HQ in swinging London. My job was to coordinate the x-change team and help them out as best I could... I’ve had the most amazing time and I didn’t really want to leave! However, time makes fools of us all and I went off to study for an MSc in Science Communications at UWE in Bristol. My highlight: Seeing the two most famous moustaches in the business in the same place at the same time - Dick Strawbridge and Robert Winston! The whole week was just the most fun though - unbelievably exhausting but brilliant. Favourite speaker: Paddy Regan for being such a sport and Simon Singh for being utterly grand. Favourite cheese: The soft one with garlic and herbs... I’m classy. Superpower: Time travel... So I could be in more than one Festival session at once.
Sue Nelson Our host for the x-change was the bubbly, magnificent Sue Nelson. Journalist and broacaster, Sue has been presenting the x-change for the last 3 years and this year she faced every topic under the sun... From dark matter to bumblebees and emperor penguins to the history of space travel, Sue expertly steered each evening away from the M25 of disaster towards the country hedgerows of discovery... Stopping to sniff the flowers of entertainment along the way. [That’s probably enough metaphor for now... Ed.] “This year’s x-change was the best yet. 2009’s guests included Robert Winston, Bill Bryson, Simon Singh, Jim Al-Khalili and crime writer Stuart MacBride – who triggered an unforgettable discussion about how much cocaine could be stored inside a ‘man passage’. The team is an important part of bringing it all together on the day and everyone delivered. Communication is vital, a sense of humour is essential and energy levels need to remain high (though afernoon chocolate and coffee always helps). Perhaps it’s because I’m a physics graduate, but Frank Close’s talk on antimatter and space scientist John Zarnecki’s tour of the solar system were among my favourite festival talks. Both appeared on the x-change, as did the Honesty Lab’s Stefan Fafinski and Emily Finch, who surprised us all with an entertaining debate on social science and the legal system. Highlights from the x-change? There were so many. But it’s the unexpected that often delights. So my top three, in no particular order, were: Stuart MacBride (see above); Phil Nathan – who plucked nasal hair from a nuclear physicist’s nose to find out which part of the body has the most pain receptors – and Jim Al-Khalili flashing his chest hair. When scientists and those who use science can explain their work clearly and with humour and occasional naughtiness, the x-change simply dazzles.” the perfect science communicator where: H = number of hand gestures J = brightness of jacket A = number of times someone says ‘amazing’ C = amount of chest hair, lushness of moustache or height of quiff (use as appropriate)
x-change - the blog DAY 1 - butts, books and bees As you might expect on day one of the x-change it was hectic. Five science graduates sporting the brightest pink t-shirts ever seen were let loose on the Festival. Having spent all day attending events across Guildford, at 6.15pm in Chancellors Bar it was show time and the day’s build-up culminated in a mixture of nerves, excitement, confusion and curly fries. Kerry Kirwan caught the crowd’s attention early on by waving chocolate and wine in the air. It transpires he’d used waste fats and alcohol to power his lean, mean, green F3 racing car, and carrots to make the steering wheel. Little did I know that I could use the fibres to fashion car parts. I just thought you could roast them for dinner. How naive. Next up Nikki Gammans took us through her work, reintroducing a species of bumblebee that had become extinct in the UK. She’s planning to go over to New Zealand at the end of the year (it’s a tough life being a scientist!) where the species still thrives, in order to select and breed a population of queens to bring back with her. And then… well… Stuart MacBride. Top crime author. ‘How do you research the science for your books?’ Sue asked. ‘Well,’ he replied, ‘Mostly I just make stuff up.’ Interesting. When asked further as to whether he ever checks his science facts, Stuart
launched into a story regarding his research into just how much cocaine a character could smuggle inside his body. A gastroenterologist from the audience joined in this discussion. 10 minutes later, half the crowd were in tears of laughter, a quarter were appalled and another quarter were really wishing they weren’t in the middle of eating dinner. We never did find out how much you could smuggle – perhaps we’ll have to read the book. A brisk return to science fact from science fiction came with the final speaker of the evening, Paddy Regan of the University of Surrey. As a leading physicist on exotic nuclei Paddy, (or Professor Polonium) was heavily involved in the UK media coverage of Alexander Litvinenko’s death from Polonium 210 poisoning in 2006. How can you top such a brilliant evening of diverse science spiel?
x-change - the blog DAY 2 - nudity and cling film First up was antarctic meteorologist, Tamsin Gray who brought her friend Bob the penguin on his summer hols in Guildford. She ran a workshop for children to design Antarctic bases and the kids came up with monster truck wheels to keep it out of the snow and buildings that are also boats! Tamsin also taught us how cold it needs to be for your tongue to stick to a metal pole and that hard cheeses like cheddar do not defrost well.
Next was Alex Murphy, an expert in dark matter. Alex told us that dark matter particles haven’t been found yet because detectors are not sensitive enough, but with technological advances being made, we should have the tools to detect dark matter within the next 25 years. Expect big headlines when that happens (or embarrassed theorists if it doesn’t!)
and complaining that the literary types do not embrace science. Ted pointed out that the arts exist to be appealing and entertaining; science does not and he ended on an interesting statistic: in the UK more people are members of badminton clubs than have a science degree! Ted’s message? Scientists: get out more. Palaeontologist Maria McNamara told us about her unusual approach – she doesn’t look for fossils, she makes them. Maria watches birds decay in the lab and found that her birds (unlike fossils) were not losing their wings – a mat of bacteria and fungi were forming around the bodies. Maria demonstrated this with a volunteer from the audience and a roll of cling film. When wrapped up Maria asked how easy it would be for her wings to fall off, “rather difficult” was the reply… We discovered that Sue Nelson has met our final speaker, Professor John Lucas, before but had only seen him semi-naked – they go to the same swimming pool! John moved swiftly on with the arms race between agriculture and pests. An audience member suggested that disposing of one pest would leave the niche open for another. John agreed that this was certainly possible and a reason the arms race continues.
“if the British Science Festival were a Geologist Ted Nield discussed C P Snow’s two cultures – scientific and pub crawl, the x-change would be literary minds. The audience got concentrated jello shots.” involved debating if this is still relevant
x-change - the blog DAY 3 - space, lies and libel From good, honest plants to dishonest people, saw criminal lawyers Emily Finch and Stefan Fafinski take to the stage to discuss the results of our online survey ‘Honesty Lab’ looking at public perceptions of honesty. The answer to the question on everyone’s mind, “How do you know if the people taking the survey are telling the truth?” was, they don’t but they hope that people will be honest…hmm… Simon Singh
Kick starting the penultimate evening of the x-change was particle physicist, Frank Close. Shamelessly promoting his new book ‘Antimatter’ in the form of a fetching t-shirt, he briefly guided us through the ins and outs of the matter. Talk fell to the inaccuracy of Dan Brown’s novel, ‘Angels & Demons’. Few people in the audience admitted to having read the book and fewer still the film that came out of it. His slot ended with the question “So how did you make publishing history writing a book about nothing?” Bringing us back down to earth (quite literally) with plant medicine was Dulcie Mulholland. Her recent work included studying plant species in Africa and Madagascar, as well as a plant used by a Zulu tribe, to induce labour contractions. Concluding, she reported that there are still many rainforest species yet to be explored. Dulcie and her Botanist sidekick still have plenty to keep them busy.
Moving on from the dishonest public to the journalists who just love to use (mostly) made up equations, Simon Singh told us why this really bugs him. He believes when non-science journalists and PR agencies approach a mathematician or a scientist asking them to make up equations it’s giving the wrong impression about science. He warns that some equations are supported by serious scientific evidence, so the public needs to use logic. Ultimately, Simon advises any budding science journalists to watch out for our English libel laws. The final speaker of the night took us back into the atmosphere and space. Space scientist John Zarnecki talked about Titan, Saturn’s only satellite that has its own atmosphere, with liquid methane for water and ice for rocks. His latest plan (the Titan Mare Explorer) is to work with NASA to fire a probe up to Titan in the hope it lands in one of its seas, to allow more investigation of the satellite.
x-change - the blog DAY 4 - hair-raising... As the September sunlight waned it cast its orange glow on the evening skies over Guildford and the last few events at the Festival closed their doors to the applause of satisfied science enthusiasts. An unusual calm settled around; everywhere except, Chancellors Bar, where a buzz was growing... The first guest on at the x-change was Robert Winston. During the build up he caused the barmaid to run out screaming to tell all her co-workers when she served him a coffee. With our host Sue Nelson, he raised the issue of de-restricting access to fertility treatment, which is currently not happening in the health system. The moustached man was followed by chemist Lorelly Wilson. She was promoting simple science experiments that can be done at home to encourage children to get involved with science. She demonstrated a few experiments that she uses in her show while firing banter at a front row of particularly lively University of Surrey physicists. Craig Underwood took us into orbit with his tale of the first UK satellite UoSAT-OSCAR 9 which he helped build for amateur radio. The satellite features the voice synthesiser chip from an educational toy so school children could tune into the talking clock coming from space. He even did an accurate impression of the robotâ€™s voice.
Sue Nelson talks to Bill Bryson
Phil Nathan was on next, leading an experiment in trying to find the area of the body with the most pain receptors. The aforementioned physicists must have regretted their liveliness when one of them was chosen to have hairs pulled from his head, chest, foot and nose. The writer Bill Bryson appeared at ease on stage despite this being his first Festival. Talking about the magic that science carries, he mentioned the need to have science classes in schools that cater for those children who will not go on to persue a career in science. The final guest Jim Al-Khalili closed the last x-change with a riotous outgassing about Sue Nelsonâ€™s blatant discrimination against him in her perfect science communicator equation in her blog. Sporting neither facial hair nor a large quiff [vital for a communicator - Ed], he demanded the equation be changed to include chest hair â€“ he then demonstrated to the audience that he had a clear advantage over the competition.
x-change - get involved! The x-change is an annual attraction at the British Science Festival and you could get involved next year! In 2010, the British Science Festival will be coming to Birmingham and the x-change will be at Aston University! If you’re a science under graduate or post graduate with a strong interest in public engagement, initiative and enthusiasm, you could be part of next year’s team. It consists of four days of intense work at the British Science Festival where your abilities to multi-task, think on your feet and work under pressure will be pushed to the limit. However, you’ll get fantastic experience in many aspects of public engagement, event management and the chance to get involved with one of the most popular events of the Festival. For information about how to apply and more about the x-change, take a look at: www.britishscienceassociation.org/x-change. Or if you have any further questions, email us at events[at]britishscienceassociation.org
the x-change in Europe! Over the past 6 years, the x-change has been part of the Euroscience Open Forum in Stockholm (‘04), Munich (‘06) and Barcelona (‘08). It will be coming to Turin in 2010 so keep an eye out!
Sue Nelson with the x-change team and Jim Al-Khalili