“Off to the pub?”

For its 4th exhibition, the Royal College of Physicians bewitching-poisonhas selected a theme that reaches out to everyone. In ‘This bewitching poison’, visitors explore 300 years of drinking history.

Friday afternoon, after a week of slogging away in the office what better to start off the weekend than a well earned drink? After a long day, the masses swarm off to the local, desperate for a refreshing pint to be enjoyed amongst friends.

Alcohol features prominently in our society, whether it be the after work drink, socials, festivals, parties and even at sporting events, where alcohol has become very much part of the sport itself: the football World Cup stands testimony to this, with beer adverts plastered everywhere and anxious fans downing pints as the game gets underway. I visited the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) to unearth alcohol’s art of seduction, curious as to why so many fall prey to its power.

The RCP campaigns on matters of public health and the current president Professor Jane Dacre is making a stand for a minimum unit price on alcohol. I half expected to be preached at on the dangers of alcohol. Instead, I was delighted to find that the RCP present a balanced and light-hearted view on the subject. After all, I discover that the RCP are in fact renowned for their extravagant drinking and dining habits, so it would be hypocritical if they lectured on the woes of drinking.

‘The College suspended’ by Leslie Wood, (1988) is a fine satirical print made at the expense of the RCP’s legendary reputation. Taken from the 1785 novel,The Surprising adventures of Baron Munchausen, it illustrates one of the Baron’s embellished tales, describing how he attached the RCP to his hot air balloon and left it suspended in mid-air for three months. Those concerned with the guests’ welfare needn’t worry, though, Munchausen explains they had so much food for one feast that they could have stayed in the air for twice the time.

The exhibition is divided into seven overarching themes, spanning the last 300 years of alcohol intake. The content both shocks and amuses as it charts the pitfalls and pleasures of wine, beer and spirits. Beginning with the gin craze of the 1700s when London was in the grip of an ‘epidemic’of drunkenness, we travel through the centuries and finish off with the binge drinking youths of today. As one journeys through time, one experiences drinking campaigns of destitution and disease offset with idealisations of beer and cartoonists’ satires. See if you can resist chuckling at the Mock funeral for Madam Geneva (the nickname for gin) (1736).

The graphic illustrations by Paula Rego serve as a harsh reflection of alcohol abuse. Her artwork focuses on disorderly households with parents slumped in chairs drunk out of their wit’s end and neglecting their children. I find them unpleasant and wonder whether they could possibly deter some from reaching for the bottle? bewitching-poison-councillorsIt’s a relief that these are countered with delightful artefacts and many a witty pro-alcohol sketch, such as the charming etching, ‘Wine in a ferment and spirits in hot water’ (1847) by George Cruikshank. Taking the form of a councillors’ meeting, the alcohols have come together to express their outrage against the temperance campaigner ‘Father Matthew’ with Port acting as the stately chairman trying to calm his fellow councillors.

Alcohol as medicine

In this section, viewers can rejoice in beneficial health claims for alcohol. Spirits were once viewed purely as medicinal and beer prescribed as a remedy for many health issues. ‘Guinness is good for you’ proclaims a Guinness leaflet dating back to 1925. A humorous point is that, in the past, doctors regularly recommended Guinness for their patients. Pregnant women were even advised to drink it because of its richness in iron.

Encouraging sobriety

Here we discover the shocking practises reformers used to deter civilians from alcohol and discourage drunkenness. The ‘Pledge Certificate’ (1935) was the most prominent artefact for me. Children only in their 7th year signed the pledge of abstinence from alcohol. A deceitful tactic thought up by the British Women’s Temperance Association. There was no mention of alcohol, so many children had no idea what they were signing! Alongside, lies George Cruikshank’s impactful etching, ‘The gin palace and the upas tree’ (1842). Using the tree as a metaphor, Cruikshank likens the effect of alcohol to the tree’s poisonous sap. The pile up of dead bodies amid the roots is a warning of drinkers’ fate.

The pub and the social spaces of drinking

A nice cabinet showcase celebrating the pub in all its glory. In some areas of London there are more pubs than shops! Photos and etchings show the British in high spirits as they raise their glasses high, clinking in good cheer, singing and gaming. The importance of the uniquely British institution resonates. An effective snapshot, justifying why such an establishment has been, and will probably be forever more, a popular haunt for us British.

The future

The closing exhibit brings to our attention the extent of alcohol advertising and the expertise of companies’ subliminal marketing strategies. In bold and gleaming white lettering ‘Carlsburg’ stretches across the front of a child’s Liverpool football shirt. This is an ideal feature piece to showcase the dominance of beer branding. I was startled by the fact that children, aged 10-11 years, recognise alcohol branding, such as Carlsburg and WKD, more easily than Mr Kipling cakes or Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. You may ask yourself: ‘What is the Government going to do about it?’ To which the RCP provides a statement on the Government’s responsibility and expectations.

‘This Bewitching Poison’, albeit a small and disjointed exhibition that monopolised the first floor landing and has a few displays slotted in amongst the existing treasuries collection on the ground floor (the RCP justifies its reasons for doing this), is a fascinating combination of paintings, prints and rare books. After viewing it, will you still be joining your friends for a drink in the local or avoiding the bottle entirely?

 The ‘This bewitching poison’ exhibition is on until 28 July 2014 at the Royal College of Physicians, Regent’s Park.

The Knowledge

The premise of this talk was that the world hasthe_knowledge_sm undergone some unnamed apocalyptic event that annihilated most of the population and lay waste to modern society. It’s based on Lewis Dartnell’s recent book The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch, which is billed as a how-to guide for fast-tracking several millennia of technological development in the aftermath of some devastating global event.

As a speaker, Dartnell has a slow and certain delivery designed to add weight to his meaning. This worked well when he was being informative, but he didn’t switch to a more familiar manner when describing tongue-in-cheek imagined scenarios or answering questions from the audience, and this made the talk a little monotone, however, a good set of slides and some relevant video footage spiced it up. Dartnell is clearly a young author excited about using multimedia to get his ideas across. You can watch videos and read the How-To guides that accompany his book on the website www.the-knowledge.org.

Could you use a spinning wheel to make clothes? Could you smelt metal? My answer to both of these is no and this is why I will need The Knowledge when the aforementioned apocalypse arrives, if I’m lucky enough to be one of the survivors. Many production methods will be impossible when the interconnected world falls apart, for instance there is no single person who could make a simple pencil – the method requires manufacturing processes that are currently carried out remotely from one another. In fact, given that our dependence on each other seems to be total, would we even have the skill set to preserve ourselves, let alone rebuild society? Dartnell assures us that he’s done the calculations and the stock available on any given day in the average supermarket, including tinned food, would provide enough sustenance for a person to survive 55 years if they took a practical approach to rationing and undertook some simple food preservation techniques. So at least we might be round long enough to give ourselves a chance.

But how about repopulating the planet? Would it be possible and how long would it take? To repopulate the earth, Dartnell told the audience, two survivors is not enough because there isn’t enough genetic diversity. It turns out you need 70 breeding females to repopulate. If we were to colonise Mars, we’d need ten thousand to preserve the interdependent society we have now.

Although the author assured us he isn’t predicting a societal collapse, the intensity of his delivery gave cause for doubt. That said, his figures were fascinating and the idea provoked a rewarding exercise of the imagination. More than that, he’s exploring the multimedia opportunities available for modern authors by combining book writing with a website and a slides and video-driven series of public talks, which is helping his ideas reach new and wider audiences. Although Dartnell’s public speaking needs a bit of tweaking, his enthusiasm and approach to authorship is packed full of purpose and promise.

Lewis Dartnell spoke about his new book The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch at the White Hart pub on 8 June 2014 as part of the Stoke Newington Literary Festival.

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Pint of Science

Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club was the pint-of-sciencelargest Pint of Science (PoS) Venue in London and was packed. In fact, a substantial number of latecomers had to be satisfied with standing at the back. The large crowd wasn’t disappointed as two excellent speakers gave very interesting and very human presentations of their research in the ‘Understanding Our Bodies’ arm of the PoS festival.

A dietary root to a healthy heart – it’s a NO brainer

Dr Vikas Kapil was first up with a run through of the beneficial effect of nitrogen oxide (NO) in the blood. This molecule is good for bringing blood pressure down because it relaxes blood vessels and so enables them to open further. Relaxed blood vessels reduce blood pressure because less effort is required to pump the same amount of blood around the body. Nitrogen oxide has been shown to be a good way to reduce heart attacks and heart disease but the problem from a treatment perspective has always been with the efficient delivery of NO into the bloodstream.

Vikas’ research focuses on this area and his findings are fascinating. Eating food with nitrate in it will only put more NO in the blood if previously eaten nitrate is released into the mouth in the form of saliva. Bacteria in the saliva converts nitrate into nitrite, which is a similar molecule but, crucially, has a slightly different structure. Nitrite can then be converted into NO in the stomach and the nitric oxide can be absorbed into the bloodstream. Interestingly, if we simply swallow a pill containing nitrite, NO won’t be created in the stomach in the same way and so we won’t see the same benefits of NO in the bloodstream.

The above explanation is full of complex-sounding words beginning with ‘nitr’ but Vikas’ explanation, using slides and in the comfort of a pub environment, was much clearer. My favourite slides were his black and white videos of beating hearts. They were atmospheric and clearly showed the difference between a healthy heart and one suffering from heart disease. He also had some nice family photos of him with his father and his son, which were especially relevant as his father has suffered from heart disease. He used the slides to dispel the myth that potassium and fibre are the components of fruit that help prevent heart disease, and to criticise recent newspaper reports that eating beetroot reduces heart disease risk. He was at pains to emphasize that this assertion was not yet proven.

Vikas was confident with answering questions at the end and, although some of them were slightly above my knowledge level, he always rounded off his answers with a simple-language summary of the point he’d been addressing. It was a jolly atmosphere and fun to be a part of.

Starving Cancer. Killing Cancer.

The same jolly atmosphere stuck around for the headline speaker Professor Kairbaan Hodivala-Dilke, or ‘Kebs’, as Steve Cross introduced her as. Again, she was a very open talker and just seemed comfortable in the pub environment. She talked about looking for ways to eliminate cancer tumours without necessarily searching out methods to directly kill the cancer cells. Her cancer work has shifted to taking a whole organism approach. For instance, one of her lines of thinking has been studying incidents of cancer in Down’s syndrome patients. For some reason, people with Down’s syndrome don’t get many solid tumours and the reason for this appears to be that blood vessels don’t grow towards their solid tumours if they develop. Without a steady supply of blood, the tumour can’t survive and so solid tumour cancer becomes less of a problem. Starving cancer in this way is one of the whole-organism approaches that Kebs is investigating as a cancer treatment.

Another point she brought up was that, while testing cancer biopsies can provide insight, they can only be useful to a certain degree because the testing is done outside the body and so doesn’t take into account how the tissue from the biopsy will react within the bodily environment. Kebs injected the talk with fascinating facts such as that every minute you make 12 billion new gut cells, that the danger drug Thalidomide can actually be useful in treating cancer because it stops blood vessels growing, and that we all have cancer, but it will only develop in a third of us. As with Vikas, her presentation was easy to listen to, interesting and human.

The Pint of Science festival happened over three days between May 19th and May 21st in 44 pubs across eight cities in the UK. This short talk event described above was one of 48 in London during the three days and 33 of those sold out in advance, while there was good attendance at the other 15. The Pint of Science festival is a great format that has expanded into France, Australia, Switzerland, Ireland and the USA. It’s risen rapidly since it started two years ago and, with events as informative and enjoyable as this one, the festival can only continue to grow.

The talks ‘Starving Cancer. Killing Cancer’ and ‘A dietary root to a healthy heart – it’s a NO brainer’ took place at Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club on 21 May 2014, as part of the Pint of Science festival.

“A looking glass into the depths of science”

When we look upon nature we can appreciate beautiful-science-smthe beauty of science. An obvious but prime example is flowers. Plodding through Columbia Road Flower Market one cannot fail to acknowledge the abundance and wealth of interesting shapes, patterns and formations. Therefore at the surface level many of us value the beauty of science through nature, but we all know that beauty is more than just skin deep. Scientists delve beneath the obvious, peeling away and examining all the layers, to admire the smaller dimensions that make up the whole.

Situated in the open plan space of the Folio Society Gallery, the British Library presents a small, thought-provoking display – Beautiful Science: Picturing Data, Inspiring Insight. Proclaimed to be its first ever science exhibition, the British Library’s Science and Digital teams have been given the reigns and produced a compelling showcase.

This exhibition is a strong advocate for the long standing ‘two cultures’ debate. We are shown that scientists are effectively artists; employing imagination and creativity to translate the sea of data that surrounds us. Translating data into pictures serves as an essential part of communicating scientific ideas. Scientists choose to tell their stories through pictures. This point of intersection between science and graphics successfully conveys the power of art and its necessity in science.

The key display items have been artfully selected; the historical texts, charts, maps and illustrations have been chosen based on scientific criteria rather than historical value. They reflect the trends and concerns of the present and emphasize progress towards better and more accurate approaches to data visualisation.

It is divided into three key themes: Weather, Public Health and Evolution and effectively merges modern digital displays with historic texts and images. A few small screens are neatly integrated amongst the displays, inviting visitors to watch a video where leading academics and professionals share their perspectives. Spirograph designs decorate the walls and the jagged alcoves housing each display create a sculptural fluctuating line graph. One feels immersed in the science world of trends, correlations and associations.

Weather and Climate

A splendid document in ‘Weather and Climate’ is the Rochester Ship’s Journal (1709-12). The Captain’s exquisite penmanship loops and flows across the pages, whilst a charming sketch of a duck paddles along his waves of writing. The Captain coloured his location and weather recordings with drawings of ships, wildlife and places. This artistic approach to data collection invites the audience to see the aesthetic characteristics and qualities of science.


Robert FitzRoy’s ‘The Weather Book’

The viewer then observes how impressive visuals capture the dynamic nature of our global system as wisps of blue and red battle against each other in Robert FitzRoy’s The Weather Book (1863). FitzRoy was the first forecaster and his illustration on how storms and cyclones develop on the border between warm tropical and cold polar air was the forerunner of charts and graphics in the modern met office.


Public Health

The power of visual data is made clear in ‘Public Health’ where we are shown how data serves as an effective tool of persuasion for public opinion and government action. A principal artefact is the pioneering ‘Rose Diagram’ by Florence Nightingale who, we discover, was a superb statistician. Her abstract rose with protruding ‘petals’ of information, brought mortality data into the political realm and helped to drive public health reforms.

Apart from the ‘Rose Diagram’, I personally struggled to the see the “beauty” in the Public Health artefacts, and was unable to see beyond the clinical aspect of the graphical data visualizations. The phrase “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” certainly sprung to mind given the subjectivity that surrounds this topic. Nevertheless, I was impressed by the graphical precision and elegant portrayal of complex information. Fundamentally, this section shows how graphics can catalyse a call to action and be responsible for the launch of drastic policy changes.

The Tree of Life


Robert Fludd’s ‘Great Chain of Being’

Branches intertwined and grew in my favourite theme, the ‘Tree of Life’. Here we encounter the roots of our past, investigating the interconnectedness of all life and understanding hereditary relationships between organisms. I admired Robert Fludd’s Great Chain of Being. At nearly four hundred years it is the oldest exhibit on display: an enchanting depiction of a hierarchically ordered universe with highly detailed imagery that illustrates a chain beginning with the celestial being Sophia the Goddess of Wisdom, and extending down to man, animals and plants.

It was a stark contrast to Zoologist Georg August Goldfuss’s System of Animals (1817). His simplistic egg shaped system functions as a potent metaphor for the creation of new life, within which he represents the stages of animal life as nested circles and overlapping ovals.

Alongside the historic texts stands a machine: The One Zoom Tree interactive. It is an impressive programme, one that has been cleverly designed by James Rosindell from Imperial College London. Using a branch of mathematics, called factual geometry, Rosindell helps us explore the relationships between 10s of 1000s of mammals, reptiles and amphibians. I was engrossed, happily exploring the branches, zooming in on images and listening to the range of animal vocalisations. A simple colour coding system allows one to instantly identify critically endangered species (indicated by bright red) and species of least concern (green) that correspond to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list of threatened species. One Zoom Tree is an exemplary model for the translation of vast amounts of data into digestible and comprehensible portions.

The British Library is the perfect institution to exhibit the overlap between art and science. ‘Beautiful Science’ takes you on a journey through the “looking glass into the depths of science”, where we discover that beauty lies in the art of visualised information, helping us to quickly understand, navigate and find meaning in a complex world.

Beautiful Science: Picturing Data, Inspiring Insight is on at the British Library until 26 May 2014. 

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Synthetic biology Late

The Victoria And Albert Museum was alive with v_and_a_lates_live_lab science demonstrations, video installations and live talks on the topic of synthetic biology. This is a relatively new field that’s similar to genetic-engineering but focuses more on the whole process of growth of the organism, not just the genetic code. Synthetic biologists can grow coloured inks using bacteria, for example, or make toxin biosensors with engineered organisms.


DJ playing in the Grand Entrance

At the Grand Entrance of the V&A was the Live Lab, a glowing hut containing goggled and white-coated scientists from Imperial College carrying out synthetic biology experiments involving green fluorescent protein and DNA testing. Just to the right was the DJ mixing tunes and above him was the ‘No Straight Line, No True Circle’ installation – a video from Royal College of Arts students projected onto the ceiling above the DJ had taken its inspiration from the knowledge and methods of synthetic biology (check out the film). To the right of the Live Lab was the bar.


Sound of ‘Lucy’ recreated

The V&A is a handsome building inside and out and was an ideal place to meander through on a Friday evening. Demonstrator tables attended by chatty synthetic biologists were set up at various points in the museum, along with sound installations that included a recreation of the long-dead vocals of ‘Lucy’, a hominid of the species Australopithecus afarensis. This ancestor of our species, Homo sapiens, lived 3.2 million years ago and the sounds produced came from her vocal tract and cords, which were recreated from her partially preserved skeleton. The voice of ‘Lucy’ was overlaid with some typical squawks and rustling sounds of the jungle to create a spooky, other-worldly atmosphere in the colossal chamber of the Raphael gallery; all the more intriguing for juxtaposing the ancient sounds with paintings from a High Renaissance master.


Xylinum cones

There was so much to see on the synthetic biology theme is was hard to get round everything. A discussion to launch Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg’s new book, Synthetic Aesthetics, was introduced by Minister for Science David Willetts, and in the learning centre there was a series of talks on ‘Blueprints for the Unknown’. A particularly interesting stall was called Xylinum Cones. The designers Jannis Huelsen and Stefan Schwabe were using bacteria to grow geometric forms, but the final form of the object had been programmed into the bacterial growing patterns using synthetic biology. Other programmable properties of the object included flexibility, texture and colour and the method could potentially be used to replace plastic object with entirely renewable bacteria-grown alternatives. Applications in industrial composite materials have also been proposed.

The occasion explored new perspectives on synthetic biology and brought the public face-to-face with some real processes of this relatively new science.


Friday Late took place at the Victoria And Albert Museum on Friday 25 April and is held on the last Friday of every month except December.

The Marianne North Gallery

I have fond childhood memories of traipsing through Marianne_North_Gallery_sq1Kew Gardens; exploring the tropical jungle of the infamous Palm House and swimming through a sea of exotic orchids in the Princess of Wales Conservatory. For many years I have been ignorant about one enchanting place, the Marianne North gallery. It was only last summer, while working at Kew Gardens, that I became aware of its existence.

Only true garden explorers are fortunate enough to find this heritage gem nestled in a far easterly corner. Beyond corridors of trees and ancient archways stands the legacy of a formidable woman, Marianne North (1830-1890), the Victorian naturalist, artist and explorer. Within her gallery blossoms the finest collection of botanical art, with no fewer than 832 masterpieces.


Periwinkle and green frogs, Mahé

She travelled the globe to capture nature’s splendours on canvas. What is remarkable for a Victorian lady of her stature is that she did so unaccompanied and to areas virtually unknown to many Europeans. For 13 years, she ventured to America, Brazil, Jamaica, Chile, Tenerife, Japan, Singapore, Borneo, Sri Lanka, India, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Tasmania to paint the flora and fauna of the world. It 1879, she wrote to Sir Joseph Hooker, offering to build an art gallery in Kew Gardens to showcase her extensive collection. The gallery opened in 1882 and over a century later it is still appreciated by nature enthusiasts.

It is the only gallery of its kind and the only permanent solo exhibition by a female artist in Britain. Its uniqueness is befitting of the unconventional woman who created it. The ornate interior decor, patterned floor tiling, as well as North’s floral displays lining doorways and panels create a rich and vibrant atmosphere. An exquisite feast of tones and textures is created in a space that encapsulates viewers and invites them to explore the wonders that she experienced. The place aids viewers’ interpretation of the art, which delivers beautiful Brazilian seascapes alongside romantic Indian sunsets. Viewers delight in North’s animate wildlife: hummingbirds flitter amongst bright red flowers, flying lizards crawl over Pomelo fruit and luminescent green frogs peer out beneath pink periwinkles.

The North gallery favours a ‘cluttered hang’, whereMarianne_North_Gallery_sm1 the lower walls are lined with tier upon tier of paintings set side-by-side. The only intervening space between them is the dark bold frames. The strong border is a visual aid, enlivening each painting and distinguishing it from its neighbour. This grants the gallery considerable likeness to a ‘postage stamp album’, providing snap shots of the world over a hundred years ago. The ‘cluttered hang’ may be an old fashioned relic of nineteenth century exhibits, but the spectacle is dazzling.


Buphane Toxicara, Grahamstown

The beauty of North’s draughtsmanship is how she recorded nature. Typically, botanical illustrators focus on the flower alone, but North defied conventional methods to produce vivid compositions that illustrate how a plant interacts with its surrounding environment. Rather than simply painting the flower itself set against a plain background, she depicted it growing within its natural habitat. The realism and accuracy of her paintings was acknowledged by scientists, who identified four new species from her oil paintings.

North’s thirst for adventure, botanical interest and artistry provided Victorian scientists and the public with documentation of the exotic wonders that lay beyond.  This gallery is her gift to the nation, exhibiting work that still has huge resonance today. Her paintings are a timeless scientific tool, particularly for conservationists, and provide a useful comparison between what was then, and what is now. In a world facing dynamic environmental shifts, this helps researchers identify how the landscape has changed over time and North’s work is testimony to a field and culture too often dismissed by scientists. Now one hopes those skeptics can appreciate arts importance and the purpose it serves.

The Marianne North Gallery is a permanent collection at Kew Gardens

Bill Bryson at the Royal Society

This witty and interesting interview by bill_bryson_at_rsJim Al-Khalili with world famous author and honorary fellow of the Royal Society Bill Bryson was well worth the long queue time along Carlton House Terrace.

In his early career, Bryson was categorised as a travel writer although he’s since managed to defy easy categorisation by writing on a variety of subjects including science. His A Short History Of Nearly Everything came out in 2003, won the Aventis Prize for best general science book in 2004 and has sold over 1.3 million copies worldwide. He followed up with On The Shoulders Of Giants (2009) and by editing the Royal Society’s 350th anniversary book Seeing Further: The Story Of Science, Discovery And The Genius Of The Royal Society (2010).

But this talk wasn’t just a science biog of Bryson. Al-Khalili, who interviews regularly for his The Life Scientific show on Radio 4, orchestrated a well-measured conversation that took us from Bryson’s early career as a struggling reporter in London to the secret of his success – his curiosity.

“I don’t think there’s anything unusual about my level of curiosity, but I think curiosity is a very good thing,” said Bryson. He has an ability, cultivated during his journalism career, to chase every kind of fact to its end point and then relay it in an entertaining way. Given his aversion to science at school, this talent was crucial to writing A Short History, and he conceded that from the moment he started thinking about the book he knew it would never be anything other than superficial because of the amount of history and science it covered. “The one advantage I had” he recounted, “was the infinite capacity to be amazed.”

He blamed his lack of interest in science at school in part on how it was taught and while writing the book kept asking himself why teachers hadn’t mentioned all this human interest stuff in classes. Stories like Newton prodding his own eye with a knitting needle to study light gripped him, and yet at school none of these tales were told. He went so far as to say he feels space should be made in the current science curriculum to capture students who aren’t going to make it as scientists, but who still have that human interest. He pointed out that, as much as anything else, this would be a good PR exercise.

Are books like his necessary to communicate science to the public? “Scientists are doing a very good job of selling themselves already,” he said, “But more voices probably help.” 

The Importance Of Science: An Outsider’s Perspective took place at the Royal Society, London on the 15 April 2014. You can watch the full interview on the Royal Society website.

Grantham Institute annual lecture

A confident and inspiring talk from Paul Polman paul_polman_smwas punctuated with occasional self-deprecating jokes alongside genuinely funny ones. Polman is the CEO of Unilever and is also Chairman of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, plus he’s on the board of the UN Global Compact. As the first ever businessman to give the Grantham Institute of Climate Change annual talk, he brought a unique perspective.

One central theme was an approaching tipping point in the business community when companies will realise that the economically favourable path for them to take both reduces energy usage and implements new procedures to lower environmental impact. This process has already started, for instance, Unilever recently took measures that reduced its electricity bill by £300 million per year. Companies like Apple, Nike and Ikea have all developed new sustainability programmes.

The composure of Polman’s speech deserves credit but the depth of his knowledge on the subject, which he demonstrated when answering questions at the end, was outstanding. This exceptional skill came from his habitual consideration of multiple stakeholders whenever he weighed up the feasibility of ideas. One of the main culprits in deforestation is the Palm Oil industry so the logical first step in tackling the issue was to approach the biggest companies in the industry and convince and incentivise them to adopt growing methods that don’t involve deforestation. After this first phase success, the whole industry is now being encouraged to shun deforestation when cultivating Palm Oil crops. His method was to first outline how the idea would be positive for all stakeholders, and then describe the strategy used to get the desired outcome. Cycling this approach again and again in different areas of the business community will reduce the ecological footprint of the world’s population and safeguard habitats and quality of life.

Lectures like this one are informative and educational, but it’s always disappointing how few people get to ask their question, or have their say at the end. This kind of problem could be overcome by creating a Twitter hashtag for the lecture. If there’s someone working behind the scenes to filter out offensive comments, the tweets could even appear on the stage projector screen during the question phase of the lecture so the speaker and whole audience could read them. Speakers as accomplished as Polman would easily be able to respond to or ignore the live feed, and even if a contributor’s tweet was ignored by the speaker, at least they would feel they’ve had an input. This simple step would make public lectures more interactive and more effective as a springboard for discussion.

Project Sunlight: Creating the right climate for growth was the Grantham Annual Lecture 2014 and took place at Imperial College London on 7 April 2014.

Science Museum Lates

There is loads to do at the Science Museum Lates events lates-sq_180
and it well deserves the huge crowds it gets. The theme of the recent Lates was transport and at various points in the evening I was presented with an in-depth account of tracking passenger movements through tube stations, told about the importance of lighthouses over the centuries, and given a performance on teleportation replete with magic tricks, jokes and audience participation.


Demonstration on lighthouses



Building and learning at the workshops

Is it essentially the museum’s late opening night? Yes, but they ramp up the number of things to do and serve alcohol. Lots of people go just for the quiz and many of them were queuing round the barriers of Deep Blue Café in the Wellcome wing 40 minutes before a question was asked. There was a workshop where visitors could build things, a silent disco to go for a dance and a roller-racing game, where pairs raced head-to-head on stationary bicycles. In addition, the rest of the museum was open, including the Collider exhibition.


Roller-racing fun

It’s a great night out. My favourite part was the discussion booth where a ‘facilitator’ was stationed in the centre of a round table with a microphone. Visitors sat in the chairs surrounding the table and were passed the microphone when they had something to say about the topic being discussed. The topic of the evening was ‘Should London transport be automated’? Good arguments were drawn out both for and against the proposition. It was a shame there weren’t more of these booths with more questions, or any opportunity to leave a vote or an opinion at the end. The booth was in the Wellcome Wing and it just felt like the right place to be discussing science issues, especially during the evening with cider in hand.


Round table discussion on whether London transport should be automated

Another small criticism was that sideshows like the teleportation performance and the lighthouse speaker were too quiet and I had to strain to hear them. Given the expense of the rest of the evening, it seemed crazy the organisers couldn’t arrange a handful of simple PA systems.


Lates is brilliantly constructed and the big ticket events like the Punk Science comedy gig and the silent discos really bring in the crowds. Having good quality, easy-to-hear sideshows is likely to keep them coming, but there’s also an opportunity to make it more than just an entertainment event. It’s the ideal opportunity to get people thinking, talking and registering their view on the big science issues of the day.


Science Museum Lates took place at Science Museum, Exhibition Road, London on 26 March 2014.

The Ig Nobel Awards Tour Show 2014

A variety show easily on a par ig-nobel_sqwith La Clique or Zippo’s Travelling Circus, this had opera, poetry, comedy and there was even some science.

Presenter Marc Abrahams, who is also editor of the magazine Annals of Improbable Research and Master of Ceremonies of the Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony at Harvard, has to be praised for putting this show together.


Ig Nobel prizewinners also got a cash prize this year of ten trillion Zimbabwe dollars

Ig Nobel prizes are given to research that make people laugh, and then think. It gets 9000 nominations a year and the trophies are often bestowed by real Nobel prize winners. This year, alongside the trophy, there was a cash prize of a ten trillion Zimbabwean dollar note (pictured). Marc reminded us that these were being printed at the same time as Zimbabwean one cent notes that were the same dimensions. Of logarithmic interest, he said.

Playing to a packed 800-seater auditorium, Marc started by commemorating Dr Fesmire who died this year. Fesmire won an Ig Nobel prize for his paper on the termination of intractable hiccups through “digital rectal massage”. Marc called on the audience to give a silent digital salute (index finger in the air) to Fesmire’s passing, and reminded us that his groundbreaking technique continues to be a successful treatment for the debilitating condition.


Ig Nobel prize for medicine – testing the effect of opera music on heart transplant mice

Next up was a photo slide run-through of the Ig Nobel ceremony. Stand-out recipients were winners of the prize for medicine, which went to a Japanese team that assessed the effect of listening to opera … on heart transplanted patients … who are mice. To accept the award two members of the research team dressed up as mice and the trio sang their acceptance speech (pictured).

The first ever Ig Nobel prize for probability went to a research team that made two discoveries – first, that the longer a cow has been lying down for, the more likely it is to stand up and, second, that it is not easy to get a cow to lie down after it has decided to stand. Check out the full list of award winners.


QI Elf Dan Schreiber on behaviour near open doors

The award ceremony summary was followed by a game where QI Elves, the questions researchers on the popular television quiz programme presented by Stephen Fry, had two minutes to read out original research papers they had been randomly assigned 15 minutes before the show started. Their two minutes each was strictly timed by audience members armed with a bell.

The most fun performance was probably Andrew Murray who seemed to be describing new Russian military tank technology where the effluent from the lavatory was fed into the gun barrel. Another gem was Dan Schreiber’s paper that described people’s behaviour around open, and partially open, doors.


Ducks in hard hats play out the scenario

There was a bit of a dip after the elves as Mason Porter talked about mathematical models for bipolar disorder, then the poetry of the recognised worst-ever British poet William Topaz McGonagall was read out.


Sarah Redmond sung the libretto of the Homosexual Necrophiliac Duck Opera

The finale was the homosexual necrophiliac duck opera composed by Daniel Gillingwater. This was a reference to the 2003 winner of the Ig Nobel prize for Biology who witnessed a duck, which had died by flying into a window, get mounted by his male companion that continued sexual intercourse with the corpse for a full 75 minutes. The paper author Kees Moeliker explained the story with pictures and then assumed his place in orchestra as player of the duck quacker before the fateful incident was enacted on stage with Sarah Redmond singing the libretto.

Overall, it is a variety show that brings the spirit of the Ig Nobel awards to stages across the country. The awards themselves are a good antidote to the sometimes-esoteric Nobels and draw comedy from the ever-unpredictable pursuit of knowledge. The show is touring the UK with the next stops being Leeds then Portsmouth. Get along to a performance near you.

The Ig Nobel Awards Tour Show 2014 took place at Imperial College London on 14 March 2014.