So then… Cheltenham Science Festival 2012

It might be a while back now, but I have some fab memories of working the festival. So many, in fact, that leaving it until now has allowed me chance to focus on the things that really stuck out. There is so much going on and even though I was only there for the last four days, I really need to crop the frame to get the best of it.


Set up of the BBC science zone on Wednesday night looked like a mammoth task as we were still unloading the vans at 8PM, we had to be out at 11 and we had to be ready for first thing the next day. However, it’s easy to forget how well people know their roles. Up steps Fran Scott with her ever-present toolkit belt and stuff just ‘gets done’. With fellow busker Ned Yoxall, we built the busking table but we weren’t able to get the gazebo up over the top as we were short by about 12 inches. The weather forecast wasn’t pretty and we’d seen it too. We’d also seen the BBC programme and thought about what we fancied watching.


Over the days the busking team grew with regulars, Chris Hampsheir and Vicky Dennison joining. While people queued for some of the events, we busked along the line away from the table. And what queues too! Even first thing in the morning, the preview of the Dinosaurs 3D series, drew a crowd that reached back to the ice cream van. I didn’t expect them to fill the house in the rain but it appears that the reminder that humans are generally insoluble seems to have got through. In fact, when the rain came I secretly wishing that visitors would just leave. But no, the hoods an the brollies went up. I was pleased after for two reasons, firstly, it told me that we were doing something interesting to people and secondly, because Tanya brought me a fresh, dry T-shirt.

IMG_0616[1]As for the BBC events, I managed to catch a couple, but nowhere near the amount I wanted to. I managed to have a catch-up with Jim Al-Khalili after I met him at the British Science festival in 2011. It was fantastic listening to him sharing his career pathway and describing how his colleagues had tried to dissuade him from focussing on just his research. Now, he says that while his time is divided between teaching, research and public engagement, they substitute that latter for sitting on committees. Who had the last laugh?IMG_0608[1]

An informal manner seemed to pervade through all the events. When Jem Stansfield performed his demonstrations, it really felt like ‘Bang Goes The Theory’ unplugged. So much more of his personality shone through as he took to the stage to no fanfare or music. It was like your favourite band playing in your local. When Adam Rutherford, Kevin Fong (pictured in the best T-shirt of the festival) and Dallas Campbell turned up to play a ‘Great Scientist’ version of ‘Top Trumps’, the banter was thick and fast as each championed their chosen hero. Dallas needed the toilet though, which lead to much hilarity and mocking. It was funny how large a crowd was drawn by the preview for the ‘Wonders of the Universe’ series due in Autumn of 2012. Brian Cox wasn’t mentioned anywhere in the blurb, which suggested that people who attend science festival must have some sort of psychic skill. As he was rushed in to the tent, his presence was heralded by the cries from a group of queuing mid-teen lads shouting, “We love you, Brian!” So popular was he, that he was rushed from the tent immediately after questions to give him a head start from his audience.


The end of the festival brought us full circle to watching previous winner Fran Scott compete in the ‘Overambitious Demo Challenge’. She attempted to ignite a camping stove and launch rockets by channeling static generated through a Van der Graaf generator and she had a good measure of success. Fran’s sense of time permitted was a constant gag for the presenters and led to her eventual and hilarious disqualification. I hope she’s back next year. Her competitor, Marieke Navin, (whose demonstration had exploded earlier in the day) played the glass harp and directly inspired my ‘buzzer’ activity at the recent Sci-Tech conference. Thanks Marieke. She also was joined by ringer, Yan Wong, who stirred up some wave science via audience participation. However, the winner had to be Ian Simmons. For one demonstration, he used liquid nitrogen to freeze and then smash some objects. People were happy with the banana but the cute puppy teddy caused quite an “ahhh”. But it was his first demonstration that clinched it. He cut through sheet steel using a cucumber and three sticks of ‘continental sausage’. All in all, that was quite scary, somewhat unbelievable, and a deserved win.

In all though, I found that the biggest winners of the Cheltenham Science Festival are the people who work non-stop to provide the public with the events. When I was introduced to Kathy Sykes, by the BBC producer, I realised that this is the biggest networking event for people working in the science communication and engagement industry that the UK has. I’m sure others will grow, but for now, I’m glad I took the advice from Timandra Harkness in March, who told me I had to be at Cheltenham.