Sunday, 26 May 2013

Science Show Off

Science outreach is becoming a big deal - there's a huge appetite for it from the general public. There can be little doubt - science is now cool!

This week I had the privilege to attend the 3rd Bristol Science Show-Off - an opportunity for science-lovers to gather in a boat (well, a boat masquerading as a pub but which does excellent beers) and listen to 10 brave scientists spout off about their favourite sciencey-tidbit.

Notably, well before kick-off the place was pretty much full to the rafters (probably too full for the HSE's liking one imagines), I wouldn't have had a seat had I not been acccidentally roped in to do tech support (by virtue of being tall enough to hang the projector screen up, and happening to have a laptop with me).

The night began with Bonnie Buckley explaining how one tells alligators and crocodiles apart, and what not to do when in the presence of a wild one - mainly, don't feed them, or them may decide that your kids also represent food. In fact, don't feed them with your own body parts either seems like sensible advice. This was followed by Matt Tosh, who showed us the science (pyromania really) behind firework displays, and the importance of not blowing everything up at once. Ceri Wyn-Thomas then brought up a traumatic maternal childhood prank (her mother convinced her that when she was 7 she'd shed her skin like a snake) to talk about ecdysis - how and why crabs, lobsters, spiders etc shed their skins, with much 'stripping-off' innuendo. Karl Byrne talked us through the longest-running science experiments in history, including some fields in Rothamsted and the Queensland Pitch Drop. As fascinating as watching paint drip and/or watching grass grow. The first half finished off with Mark Lewney using an electric guitar to play us through a typical Horizon show - a one stop guide to structuring a science show.

After the break, Emily Coyte and Audrey Nailor explained how cute lolcatz pictures are in fact science because they are memes, while Becky Holmes showed a slightly unhealthy fascination with all things firemen (so we had one talk starting fires, and one putting them out), including proving definitively that a randomly selected audience member looked hotter after donning a fireman's uniform. Things got a little sticky when Joe Wright gave a 'seminal' talk using his microscope to image certain human cells, before Neil Jerome reminded us all of the tricky business of statistics, and the importance remaining scrupulously impartial when we conduct experiments, rather than trying to bend statistics to our will. This included several examples of scientific papers when authors have failed to heed the above advice, seeing what they want to see rather than what the data actually show. An important reminder for us all! Finally, the night closed with Ross Exton building a composite mega-animal (for the record, body of a cheetah, ears of an owl, nose of a mole, eyes of a mantis shrimp, punching forelimbs of a mantis shrimp, and jaw of a crocodile). A word also for the compere Steve Cross who did a great job, witty throughout.

Nothing about shale gas in this post, but I really felt the need to comment on what was a really enjoyable evening. It's really encouraging that so many members of the public are keen to engage with science, and I hope that such events become a regular fixture. It's up to us scientists to get out there and talk science!!