Category Archives: Edinburgh Science Festival

Edinburgh Science Festival – Universe Challenge

Once we had ‘crawled’ up the horrendous hill to get to Edinburgh’s Royal Observatory and the Institute of Astronomy, I was greeted by Tania Johnstone as ‘the blogger person’, in the nicest possible way, as she had forgotten my name for a split second. She agreed about the hill, but remarked I should be happy I don’t have to climb it every day.

I’d brought my brother, who’s a cheap companion, seeing as he got in on a student ticket. We were handed clickers and directed to the Universe Challenge. The room filled up with ‘boys’ of all ages, and also some girls. Dr John Davies, as chair, jokily said that if we got a question wrong, the little clicker would give us an electric shock. Dr Davies wore a rather wonderful waistcoat, which would really stand out in a crowd, and he carried a UK Space Agency bag, which I really really want.

Once the games began, on one side we had three members of the Astronomy Society in Edinburgh; Dr Dave Gavine, Ken Thomas and Carol Gentle.

On the other team, the professionals, were staff from the Royal Observatory; Drs Duncan Forgan, Fergus Simpson and Ken Rice. After a couple of test runs for the audience to understand how the clickers worked, we had go for lift-off!

The questions ranged from the very simple like ‘Name the four Galilean moons’ and ‘Who directed the Star Wars movies?’, to some quite complicated ones like ‘If you take the Ring Nebula and take away the Andromeda Galaxy and the Crab Nebula, which city are you travelling around?’ Once you know the answer, you can understand the question. [As a little test, let’s see who can answer the question. If you think you know, send the answer to ‘Contact’.]

We all knew who would win, seeing as the teams never really were neck-and-neck, and the astronomers from the society won 73 points to 52! Which just proves that having three doctors on a team doesn’t guarantee victory. Sorry, Royal Observatory.

They also had a little competition for the audience, and the adult with the most right answers got 79%, and the best child 58%, which is extremely good. Personally, I didn’t do too well. The main questions would have been easier, but the questions for the audience… Oh well, there’s always next year. I hope this event will be repeated, as it was brilliant. It was a lot of fun and entertainment and if the professionals would just revise a little more, they might do fine!

So, overall that’s 5 out of 5. Great night. Apart from maybe the hill… which was great in its own way.


Edinburgh International Science Festival – Dynamic Earth: Life on the Rocks

Our Dynamic EarthOur Dynamic Earth

Arriving at ‘Our Dynamic Earth’ too early – again – I sat outside, enjoying the sunshine, before wandering in to find  the room with the drinks. Over the next half hour people trickled in and began to mingle, enjoying their drinks and nibbles. I had an opportunity to chat to the Director Stuart Monro who  recognised me from earlier events.

Promptly at 7 o’clock we all moved into another room for the presentation. As Stuart described it, it would be one long reminiscence, his personal story. He started off by talking about his role model, David Attenborough, and then moved on to the purpose of ‘Our Dynamic Earth’; the things that he hopes will inspire, motivate, excite and stimulate children of all ages, from 9 months to 90 years.

Block of Ice

NeanderthalStuart talked about the Earth, the tectonic plates and their effects on the landscape. We travelled around the world, from the Himalayas to Iceland. From Tenerife to New Zealand and  to Yellowstone. He discussed subduction zones and constructive plate margins and how the Himalayan mountains were formed.

Realising that he might have made us all slightly depressed with volcanoes and the end of the world, he showed us an entertaining clip of an antelope crashing into a tree next to a pair of lions, with ‘Always look on the bright side of life’ playing in the background.

Power of the Human Mind

Next, we were given a tour of the museum; where without children we could be the children. We travelled back in time, looked at fossils, underwater creatures, life in ice and even travelled around world in the 4D theatre. And to finish off the night we were given the option of watching ‘Astronaut’, a planetarium show about the risks and advantages of being an astronaut.

This was excellent, and you could tell just how passionate Stuart Monro is about his subject, and how much energy he has put into ‘Our Dynamic Earth’ to encourage others to see the great things about our Earth.

Edinburgh Science Festival – Hall of Science: A Night of Extreme Demonstrations

Exhilarating, exciting and electrifying.

That’s yesterday’s ‘Hall of Science: A Night of Extreme Demonstrations’ for you.
It was introduced by Richard Wiseman, this year’s Guest Director. He made it clear that he had nothing to do with the experiments themselves, as he’s simply a psychologist. Although he did perform an experiment on the audience by asking them to hold out their arms straight and close their eyes. He joked it was just for personal amusement, but then had everyone imagine a helium balloon attached to one hand and a pile of books in the other. When everyone opened their eyes again, he explained what type of person you are depending on what position your arms were in.
‘Lets get the dangerous experiments started! You’re going to really enjoy it, unless you have a pacemaker, in which case you’ll enjoy it for a very short amount of time.’ As no one collapsed, we can conclude there were no pacemakers in the room!

Freezing a MarshmallowWalking on Glass

Drs Ken Skeldon, Alun Hughes and Andy Schofield began with the history of Victorian style science exhibitions, and iterated that this was only the second time they’d ever done the show.

They talked about John Henry Pepper and his ‘Boys’ Playbook of Science’ (not to be mistaken for the ‘Playboys’ Book of Science’) which is full of after dinner science, and proceeded to demonstrate one of the experiments: Two large glasses of wine on two tables supporting a wooden rod. The aim: to snap the rod with a broom handle and not break the glasses or spill the wine. The volunteer was successful, which was lucky, as the prize was one of the glasses of wine.

Another experiment was to set light to hydrogen in a keg and make the whole run jump. Then they upped that trick and made a Spud Gun with 5 times the power of the other hydrogen keg. But just before they did it they ‘realised’ that the gun proved a danger to themselves and the volunteers. So they handed out goggles and hard hats. Three pairs, leaving the volunteers to fend for themselves. The gun went off, hit the target and destroyed it at the same time.

The Faraday Cage

Next some myth-busting experiments, which rely on the audience not having any specific physics knowledge. Then they opened up a bed of nails and invited a volunteer, ‘demonstrating’ how to get on it. He did so, and was clearly not in any pain. When he got up, one of the scientists lay down, asking the volunteer stand on top of him. As a surprise, the other two scientists decided to break some concrete over his chest. But right at the moment of doing so, one of them realised that they didn’t know if it was reinforced concrete, as the guy in the shop didn’t know!
From then on they did more experiments; everything from walking on glass and a video of the same scientist walking on hot coals to dropping things into liquid nitrogen. Using a Tesla coil with a million volts in it and ‘electrocuting’ a member of the audience within a Faraday cage; and juggling florescent light tubes whilst having electricity running through their body.
Definitely a good show, although I had seen many of the experiments before. Judging by the faces of the audience, it was a smash for them, as were those I hadn’t seen before. Let’s hope they will tour with this show.

Juggling Fluorescent Tubes

Edinburgh Science Festival – Incoming! Or, Why We Should Stop Worrying And Learn To Love The Meteorite

I was early again! But aTed Nieldfter half an hour the doors opened for ‘Incoming! Or, Why We Should Stop Worrying And Learn To Love The Meteorite’. Stuart Monro, director of ‘Our Dynamic Earth’ was there to introduce Ted Nield, describing him as a rare character; a man who can explain everything in his books. ‘Even’ Stuart can now understand the physics of meteorites. As Stuart says, ‘Geologists are good company, especially for other Geologists’.

Ted Nield began by telling us the true, groundbreaking fact about meteorites. Every day 30,000-40,000 tons of meteorites hit the Earth. Mostly in the form of dust and sand, but some come down as shooting stars and even as the occasional fireball.
Then he moved on to the history of meteorites and, to my surprise, talked about the Geology behind it all. He spoke about the mid-Ordovician period with the sudden Ted Nieldincrease in biodiversity, the KT boundary and the last mass extinction and how meteorites relate to each of these events. He discussed the research done by his old university lecturer Derek Ager, and also that of Birger Schmitz, a Swedish geologist he met while doing his doctorate. Ted also explained the complex ideas surrounding mass extinctions and their causes, including the ideas of Ernst Öpik.

He finished with Shakespeare in Cymbeline, ‘Fear no more the lightning-flash, Nor the all-dread thunder-stone…’  Although meteorites might have assisted in the deaths of the dinosaurs and other life forms at that time, they also allowed mammals to evolve; and might even be said to have kick-started life back in the Ordovician period. ‘So don’t stop watching the skies! But if one of those meteorites or asteroids has our name on it, according to science fiction novels, we have the chance of deflecting it; though maybe without sending up Bruce Willis on a giant bomb.’

This was another excellent talk and Ted Nield is a great speaker who can simplify ideas for the man in the street. Or at least to us in the audience at the Informatics Forum. And his answer to my question about Chicxulub and the KT boundary should help with my Geology exams.

Edinburgh Science Festival – Frank Close

I caught Frank Close’s event ‘Neutrino’ – based on his book – at the Manchester Science Festival last October. So having arrived at the Informatics Forum far too early on Sunday, I decided to try and chat to him after his event.

Frank Close
I took lots of photos as he did his book signing, and that got his attention. Luckily there were more fans wanting his autograph! I did get an opportunity to talk to him about Physics, including getting a recommendation for a book to help explain Particle Physics. His… And a quick chat about why I didn’t get into Oxford (his own Exeter College) this year, and that he went to St Andrews (who have given me an offer) for his undergraduate studies.

Frank even asked for copies of some of the photos!!

Frank Close