British Science Festival Day 5 :D

Today was my last full day at the festival, which is sad, but to be honest I probably have more than enough things that I need to do more research into by this stage.
One thing I’ve noticed this week is that so many speakers still apologise for putting maths and science into their talks… This is surely nonsense. There is no need to say ‘there will be no more maths, I promise! ‘or ‘this is the last sciency looking graph you will have to deal with’ or ‘I’m sorry this is a log scale.’ For goodness sake. If people don’t know what a log scale is they aren’t going to burst into tears or run out of the talk. Frankly they probably should know, and if they don’t the speaker certainly shouldn’t be the one apologising for the audience’s lack of willing to google something basic that they don’t understand.
Oh, and I’ve also learned that a lot of sciency audiences still snigger at the mention of SIEMENS, the headline sponsor. That’s some insider journalism you probably don’t get in the guardian coverage.

I went to three talks and the x-change today:

Use it or lose it: active ageing
This was a packed talk, with three speakers each presenting their own research on ageing and lifestyle changes that prevent cognitive and physical decline. Though there was obviously a lot of the traditional things we all know- exercise is a wonder drug, keeping good friends and family connections and your brain active in later life is good, but there were also some more unusual messages.
The talk started by setting out definitely that though the pathology of the brain differs from person to person and also changes as we age, there is no reason that it can’t compensate for most of these changes and perform the same in memory and mental agility tests. Cognitive decline isn’t inevitable, and can be influenced directly by lifestyle. Some of the numbers were interesting- current and recent cognitive activity predicts 14% of the variability of cognitive decline in the last years of life.
Each day of mental activity, in one study, even when the activity was short, delayed cognitive decline by 0.18 of a day.
Even the exercise bit had some surprises– when older people lost muscle mass in an experiment with a leg in a cast for two weeks, most of them never regained it. Never. After the two weeks they had four weeks of intensive exercises to attempt to regain it (which is what quickly happened in younger people) but even eight weeks of it did not help. So, periods of bed rest and illness in older people can be permanently significant in increasing frailty to levels that can’t be recovered from.
The most surprising thing for me however was that poor oral hygiene is linked to dementia, diabetes, lung disease, preterm birth and lots of other horrible conditions. This is because gum disease, Periodontitis is inflammatory and can increase incidence and severity of these other, inflammatory diseases in other parts of the body. So let’s brush our teeth!

Crafty crows and space shuttles
I went to this lecture on a whim when I had nothing on for an hour, and am so happy that I did! My little-coveted best speaker of the day award goes to Dr Christian Rutz who delivered this entertaining talk about Caledonian crows and their tool use.
Caledonian Crows are the only animals except for humans that are known to have made a hook, similar to what humans were working out a few tens of thousands of years ago to fish with. The crows fish too, but for larvae of beetles that live in wood. They do actually ‘fish’ too, in that they tickle and provoke the larvae into biting, a very dexterous movement that takes imitating human researchers a long time to master.
This tool use is especially interesting, as unlike chimpanzees and other mammals that use tools, we are separated from these crows by 310 million years of evolution– that is 179 million generations (I love this approximation by the away– it sounds so much more dramatic to me!) This means their tool use must have evolved completely separately.
Dr Rutz was awarded the talk because of some brilliant cameras and electronic devices that he was involved with inventing to put on the birds and get some brilliant footage of their everyday life and to determine their social networks.
Some of the best bits of the talk were the videos– of the birds making the tools, them fishing for larvae in the wild and also from the larvae’s point of view in the lab, and of course some bits of the cameras attached onto the birds. I will try and find them online because some of them are adorable!
Working with these birds in this beautiful landscape, doing experiments to rear them and teach them tool use as well as depriving other birds of seeing it (to see if nurture/nature) looks like the best job. Biologists have all the fun.

The x-change
This is a talk show with various different speakers in the Flask and Bunsen- the main cafe.
My three most memorable bits were a speaker from the ugly animal preservation society talking about some of the miraculous qualities of frogs, some of who, carried their babies in their stomachs and then vomited them up. These species are now extinct, but are apparently the first species that is going to be attempted to be cloned and then reintroduced to the wild.
Other frogs grow babies in their back, where they eventually burst out like some sort of gross alien (a friend went to this talk and said the picture is soo gross so I will look this up too).
Still other frogs break their toe bones and push them out through their skin when they need claws, which then heal back up without even scar tissue. The host wanted to know about the practical applications of these frogs abilities to produce medicine and such, but surely stuff like this is invaluable knowledge in itself, if even just for conversation. For any pre-freshers wondering what to talk about, this is surely the perfect topic to begin life long friendships.
Another speaker mentioned that humans have eyes that are suitable to detect UV radiation, but have a filter to screen it out to prevent cataracts. This deserves so much extra research. I want the UV!
Jim Al-Khalili also spoke a little about the history of chemistry as alchemy and celebrating its Arabic heritage. He gave his opinion that although there is now some investment in parts of the Middle East into developing good universities, this can never be the same as a society where curiosity and questions are encouraged above religious restrictions. Interestingly, he mentioned how the early days of Islam had encouraged and even advanced science, for example by need in a spherical geometry system to see which way Mecca is, and cleanliness being important in better medicine.

After this, I met my grandparents in central Birmingham to see the new library (which is immense and definitely worth a visit if you are nearby) and went to see the Roland Emett exhibit (the guy who made all the contraptions in the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, as well as loads of other hilarious and detailed drawings and wonderful machines.)

Forests of the future: building a greenhouse without walls
This talk was essentially about a new research program that the University of Birmingham is setting up to investigate the response of trees to changing CO2 levels. The experiment involves 30m diameter circles where pumps will be used to increase the levels of carbon dioxide inside the ring of mature woodland. This is about as difficulty as it sounds- the gas has to be pumped upwind, even to respond to gusts and changes in wind direction of less than a second. It is also very expensive, difficult to set up without disturbing the environment, and will end up with reams of data. For these reasons, it has been said to be the LHC of ecology. The results will come from the epigenetic and metabolic changes in the old trees, as well as the genetic changes in microbes in the area over many many generations.
Exactly how good trees are as a carbon sink is not exactly known, as well as whether some trees produce metabolites that can mix with nitrous oxides in cities from traffic pollution and actually contribute to the problem, so this research has many important applications.
The speaker, Rob MacKenzie, was clearly very interested in getting the audience onside with the project and was incredibly patient and genuine with questions and concerns from the audience, which I really admired.

This evening, I took my grandparents back into Birmingham for their first ever sushi meal, and then spent the evening eating cake and saying goodbye to most of the people I have met on the student bursary scheme. 🙂
It’s been a really fun and interesting experience. I feel a little overwhelmed from so many varied talks, but overall completely enthused by the speakers and their clear dedication to their various subjects. Thanks again for picking me to come! I’ve certainly taken a lot away from the experience. 😀

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