Edinburgh Science Festival: It’s cool to be a nerd

The Edinburgh Science Festival begins on Saturday, and the bustling and eclectic programme of events shows how science, once regarded as nerdy, has rapidly become cool, writes Shân Ross

It’s fair to say Professor Andrea Sella is not your typical scientist in a lab coat. When we speak, he starts to paint a picture of the light outside fading and the city’s glitzy cocktail bars filling up. In the image he is building, groups of women order margaritas, Cosmopolitans, or whatever new drink has caught their fancy, perhaps Lily’s New Knickers or The Rose. Then a deep male voice interjects to ask one of them: “Hey baby, can you pick up this ice cube using this thread?”

The voice, in a smooth American accent, is that of the professor himself, and he has a fascinating trick to show the woman. She gives it a try. After watching her unsuccessful attempt to snag an ice cube out of the water, he plays an old bartending trick. He sprinkles salt on the top of the ice cubes, lays the thread on them, then lifts the ice out easily.

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It’s a story Sella enjoys telling, and it’s the kind of trick that is likely to be played out when the professor, from the department of chemistry at University College London, appears as a star turn at this year’s 25th Edinburgh International Science Festival, which begins on Saturday.

“It’s a lovely demo for me as a chemist,” he says. “The salt in the ice and water makes the temperature plunge so you can pick up the two ends of the thread and lift the ice cube out. The salt is doing something totally counter­intuitive.”

Sella’s festival session, Molecular Mastery, is on Thursday 28 March, and in it he’ll be accompanied by world-leading mixologist Tony Conigliaro. Sella says: “Cocktails and mixology are an absolutely fantastic vehicle for explaining the fundamental physical principles about how the world, chemistry, engineering, physics work in a non-threatening way before trying to explain something like the Big Bang. I capture the universe in a glass sitting in front of them.”

Sella and Conigliaro’s event highlights future food – one of the main six themes of the festival. The other five cover future cities, challenges, life, worlds and play. This year’s festival has attracted world-famous scientists including Professor Peter Higgs, who posited the existence of a new boson – that famously took his name – to explain how particles have mass, and Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who first discovered pulsars.

Hundreds of events range from comedy through the award-winning Janis Claxton Dance Company performing a work based on emergent mathematical patterns, to workshops for families and children – such as robot chariot races and Adventure-Bots and the Temple Gods, which uses a specially designed version of Lego Mindstorms – as well as exhibitions at venues across the city.

One of the main highlights of the festival will be the presentation of the 2013 Edinburgh Medal to Professor Higgs, whose groundbreaking research in 1964 at the University of Edinburgh led to the detection last year of the long-sought, elusive Higgs boson at CERN, near Geneva. Higgs, who is being awarded the medal along with CERN, will give an address at the Signet Library with Professor Rolf-Dieter Huer, CERN’s director general.

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The My Dangerous Idea events invite a number of Edinburgh Medal winners such as Professor Chris Rapley – who has hammered home man’s contribution to climate change and the need to tackle the world’s population explosion – to discuss how their findings, some considered highly radical at the time, shook up perceived ideas, rattled vested interests and helped shape future policies.

And not to be overlooked in a world of cutting-edge technology is a symposium marking the 80th anniversary of the first modern sighting of the homely Loch Ness Monster.

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The bustling and eclectic programme of events will show how science, once regarded as nerdy, has rapidly become cool. This is evident from, for example, the popularity of The Big Bang Theory – the comedy TV series whose characters include an astrophysicist and an aerospace engineer – or the fact that everyday chats will use engineering terms such as 4G to describe our phones (which just happen to have technology more powerful than Nasa had to put Neil Armstrong on the Moon).

Sella himself says things have changed since he was a student. “Science was not something we talked about in polite conversation. When I was at university I tended to hang out with rather artsy students, we’d read 18th-century novels and go to the theatre. I had to camouflage myself. That’s all changed. Now it’s possible for someone like me who is basically ‘Joe Chemist’ to go into a theatre and do a ten-minute set. It blows me away.”

One student who certainly doesn’t hide is Ian Harrison, who has had magnetic strips inserted into his fingertips by a master body modification artist. Harrison, a PhD student at the department of cybernetics at University of Reading, says: “I can feel the electromagnetic waves from the microwave, which is quite cool, and can feel the waves from the security pillar when I walk into a bank. The idea behind it is that the human body has a decent range of vibration which we don’t exploit and could be used as new way of alerting the body which, for example, could be beneficial to blind people.”

Harrison will be joined by body modification specialist Mac “Dr Evil” McCarthy, psychologist Michael Prolux and Anders Sandbert from the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford, to examine how the brain adapts to alterations in the senses.

This playfulness is the platform for Pat Kane’s Future Play event Why We Play. Kane, writer and one of Scots duo Hue and Cry, will be joined by Patrick Bateson, Emeritus Professor of Ethology at the University of Cambridge, Wendy Russell, senior lecturer in play and playwork at the University of Gloucestershire, and Alex Fleetwood, director of Hide&Seek Productions game design studio.

Kane, who wrote The Play Ethic, raises the issue of how technological advances have the potential to free many from the Protestant work ethic and how play in all its many forms helps create a more civilised society. He says: “Why we play is a classic Science Festival question, both really demanding and simple. We waste energy doing it and open ourselves to risk. It is maladaptive, but, among other things, it helps us rehearse living with other human beings. Play is absolutely tied to freedom. It is very much about having the choice to do what you want and who you want to do it with.”

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But for those to whom science is about “going where no man has gone before”, Dr Kevin Fong and Bas Landorp are the Future World talks to book tickets for. Lansdorp is the co-founder and general director of Mars One, recruiting volunteers for a first interplanetary migration in 2023. Fong, an expert on space medicine and co-director of the Centre for Altitude Space and Extreme Environment Medicine, will detail the physical difficulties these pioneers will face. “Their bodies will soon begin to feel the effects of the prolonged absence of gravity, and we would expect things like muscle wasting, deterioration in hand-eye co-ordination, and heart problems.”

Fong says research is under way to simulate gravity, such as a “sunbed” type invention, spinning at around 40 times a minute, in which space travellers could lie for a couple of sessions a day.

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“The thing is, even if you are a complete couch potato on Earth you are always doing exercises against gravity even if you are just reaching for the television remote control.”

Cocktails, magnetic fingertips or just reaching for the biscuit tin – it’s all science.

Highlights of the Edinburgh International Science Festival include:


29 March-14 April, free

world-renowned artist Jason Hackenwerth creates a massive double-helix balloon structure over the Grand Gallery of the National Museum of Scotland.


24 March, Signet Library, 7pm, £10/£8

Professor Peter Higgs and Professor Rolf-Dieter Heuer, director general of CERN, share stories about the discovery of the elusive sub-atomic particle.


23 March-6 April, City Art Centre

Fun opportunity to stand inside a giant bubble, turn a bubble square or catch one filled with smoke. Host of other activities available for children.


4 April, Teviot Row Debating Hall, 8pm, £8/£6

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Leading astrophysicist Professor Joycelyn Bell Burnell in conversation with Professor Andy Lawrence, of the Royal Observatory Edinburgh, discuss astronomy’s biggest challenges and opportunities – scientific and political.


5 April, National Museum of Scotland, 8pm, £8/£6

Bas Lansdorp, co-founder and general director of Mars One, the organisation recruiting volunteers for the first interplanetary mission to the Red Planet in 2023, explains his ideas.