British Science Festival Day 4 :D

Hello 🙂
So, day four has occurred.

All of the talks I’ve been to have left time at the end for questions and discussion with the speaker. I started the week thinking this would add a lot of value to the lectures but I’m not so sure anymore.

That is because most of the questions run like this:

‘Hello! I am someone who came to this talk because I have my own strong, slightly (through to ludicriously) batty opinion on this topic which I will now use this opportunity to hold forth about, even though it bares little resemblance to anything you actually mentioned in your talk and makes everyone else feel uncomfortable.’


‘Hi guys! I haven’t listened at all to this talk, and just wanted to ask something so blindly stupid/ that has already been so explicitly mentioned, that the lecturer will want to pull out their hair at why they even bother trying to communicate to people without four PhDs and ten years in their field.’


‘ Hey! I’ve pretty much spent the whole time trying to think of the most insightful question possible, so here goes a convoluted attempt to remember whatever half-baked vaguely clever sounding thing I’ve thought of in the last fifty minutes. Did I mention that I keep up with science?’

Or even (genuinely)

‘Though it has nothing to do with the talk even remotely, I am going to tell you all about why I hate paediatricians, not just in my experience, but the concept of any medical intervention for children and babies in general.’

To which, the poor beleaguered speaker has to either admit they don’t know what they are supposed to be answering or say ‘oh, what a good question!’ and then proceed to talk about something else they wanted to add to their talk all along.
Also who hates paediatricians?? That has to be the strangest prejudice I’ve heard in a while.
Questions are a good idea, and are probably needed for completeness, but this whole week I don’t think there had been anything asked of significant insight that it justifies all the squirming.

Anyway, less of the vague comedy. Onto the serious list of interesting things I’ve heard about today…

Climate Hazards in a Globalised World
This talk was mostly about drought in China and the Middle East– apparently drought is the most significant killer of types of natural hazards, though we might initially think of earthquakes, having killed 12 million people since 1900.
Some of the things I found most interesting in the talk were the cultural quirks of the different counties in how they dealt with drought– China, for example fired large amounts of ammunition into the sky to seed the clouds and bring back rain and shouted about this approach in propaganda. Whether it works at all is debatable, and certainly it doesn’t put more water into the air, so seeded rain somewhere only deprives another area. Other things they have introduced in some areas are more sensible, for example needing to swipe a card to access water pumps to ensure less water is wasted.
In Egypt on the other hand, the army distributes grain, which is an important food as it accounts for ~1/3 of calories consumed by Egyptians and has often been a sign of protest when costs of bread rise too high.
The speaker also pointed out the role of lack of food and water in causing Syria’s civil war and also in helping increase the protest before the uprisings in Egypt. In Syria, crops were lost due to drought, 85% of livestock died and bankrupt farmers moved to cities with already scarce jobs and little government response. Now, the situation is even worse as no one is growing crops in the war-torn area– as was pointed out, why would you if someone with a gun can come along and take it from you anyway.
The UK is apparently a good model of dealing with climate hazards, but still because of difficulties investment and uncertainty, only 5% of money is spent on prevention compared to 95% on responding once devastation has already taken place.
An interesting quote was also brought up: ‘there has never been a famine in a public with a free press’ because then, the plight of its citizens is in the national interest to be resolved.

Gauging sentiment on the social web
This talk was about how much information is out there on various social media platforms to be mined for some interesting things like who or what organisations are most influential in political decisions, and also some boring things like targeted advertising.
There are obviously some difficulties in trying to teach a computer to gauge the sentiment of tweets or similar– as demonstrated when the speaker bravely used audience suggestions for subjects to search on twitter and run a small data analysis program written by an undergraduate student. (Sadly, this hilarious thing isn’t online but I will look out for something similar.)
We first searched for the sentiment towards Pizza, which, quite understandably, produced some confusing results. The pie chart of sentiment was about 20% fear of pizza and I think another 20% hatred.
The next search was a bit more controversial- Scottish independence, which came out as 58% positive sentiment overall, with ‘betrayal’, ‘valiant’ and ‘sacrifice’ being rated as some of the commonly associated and significant words. So that could be a goodbye for Scotland then- you heard it millionth here.

From Sun to Socket: a journey through photovoltaic materials
This speaker (Piers Barnes) helped me in my spectroscopy labs in second term last year and was as endearing a speaker as he was helpful and descriptive at answering my stupid spectroscopy questions. This was exactly the kind of talk I would aim to give myself- it started off with what was going on in the sun as well as estimates of the energy scales involved and also included a demonstration of the photoelectric effect with a balloon rubbed on his hair used to charge some cut-up crisp packet filament.
He went through serval types of solar technologies, form those mirror arrays that focus the light onto a single point, to these towers (there is apparently a plan for a 1km high one in Australia) with skirts of solar panels that direct hot air up the centre of the tower.
The most interesting thing for me was his discussion about a synthetic form of chlorophyll that can be turned into a photovoltaic material…. I will do more research on this because I’m not quite sure I have it all right first time around, but it sounds fascinating and can also be used to make coloured glass windows that collect electricity!

The Knowledge
This was a talk about a book written by the speaker Lewis Dartnell, who is an Astrobiologist, though the book is about surviving an apocalypse and rebuilding the world from scratch. He was a very confident and dramatic speaker, clearly just so excited by his research (which includes him making fire, forging a knife and printing a page of his book on paper, ink and press made from scratch).
I actually bought the book– if you are interested you can find out more on his website– from what I understand there are videos of him and a lot of extra content that he simply couldn’t cram in.
The lecture was full of fun facts, for example, you could survive about 55 years in an average supermarket eating all the food, but 60+ if you ate the pet food too. He also told us how to power a car using wood. He has thought about this a lot. In fact, I think he might now actually want the end of the world to hurry up and come just a little bit too much. I hope astrobiologists don’t have too much in the way of world-destroying expertise.
He has also contributed to The Long Now Foundation (, another thing I will be looking up in the future, which is trying to make us think about the far future, including by building a huge mechanical clock that will count the decades and centuries for future humans to perhaps re-discover and be confused about.

And, finally, the best thing of all: Hypnosis
This talk was given by Dr Peter Naish who I think might just top Professor Roberts as my new favourite speaker. He was so professional and confident and careful to be exactly clear with what he was saying about what is a topic laced with people’s prejudices. The talk had wonderful anecdotes to support his points- he is often called to be an expert witness, so has been very involved with some fascinating and tricky cases.
The whole time he stressed that hypnosis was a vehicle for therapy, not a therapy in itself, and that you should always look for a trained therapist first and then see if they do hypnosis. False memories of terrible things like abuse and trauma can sometimes be accidentally implanted in suggestible patients whose therapists don’t know exactly what they are doing, which can lead to awful and confusing court cases where the accuser is left with a head full of memories that no-one believes.
He also debunked the idea that when a person is ‘age regressed’ in hypnosis that their brain actually resets, although it can appear that way to them. Drawings they do in this state, though they look childish, show distinct adult signs and they also struggle at the Stroop test the same as their adult selves who can read.
However, suggestion is still very powerful, as he demonstrated throughout the evening, and hypnosis is not just accounted for by the placebo effect, which can be shown when this is taken out of the equation by a drug that stops the brain reacting to endorphins that produce the placebo effect. In this case, placebos don’t work, but hypnosis continues to.
We watched a video of a patient having their two front teeth out and replaced by false ones, all while conscious and being talked to by her hypnotist, who was gently telling her that she was at the beach. It was pretty graphic dental stuff. The speaker also got a volunteer on stage and made them try to hold a pendulum still, while demonstrating that he could get the man, who swore he was trying to hold it still, to move it from side to side, back to front and in a circular motion just by suggesting it. Dentists apparently use this power of suggestion themselves, because it has been shown to reduce blood flow from a wound, by saying ‘that gum should bleed a little, but no more,’ which encourages it to then do so.
Despite the fact it works (not equally on all people), as we don’t understand consciousness very well (a talk I am going to later on this week) no one really knows exactly what is going on. He hypothesised a little about how control of the brain might be being handed over to the right hemisphere a little more, which is interested in a general overview of things and not that bothered by external stimuli and new information. This is from studies showing that people with PTSD, whose brains are more active in the right hemisphere, behave similarly in some test to those people who are highly susceptible and hypnotised.
Right at the end of the talk, he very kindly hypnotised the crowd including me! It was super weird actually– he started by saying all the general stuff of relaxing and then talking about how we were on a beach, which felt a little nice and strange, but the best thing was the hand lifting! At the end, he told us that one of our hands would start to feel tingly and then start to get lighter and lighter until it felt like it was being pulled up by invisible strings. My hand was tingly, thought it seemed pretty heavy to start with, but when he mentioned the strings, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t noticed them before!
Turns out, I am quite susceptible to hypnosis which is pretty awesome. I think it helped that he always framed it as you not being a gullible idiot, but in fact that your brain was doing well and being rather clever by relaxing and letting itself do these fancy shenanigans. I do love a compliment.

One of the best stories that came out of the talk was about a chap called Mesmer who thought he was magnetic and could magnetise people (and trees) to hypnotise them but I will save the rest of that for when I can properly do it justice.

If you want to hear about some of the other highlights of the festival, google the x-change and I think there are podcasts and videos– I tired to check but can’t seem to access them on my iPad, though I’ve been informed they are there.

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