Tunnel Cheltenham Science Festival

Lessons in inspiring and communicating ideas

I spent three days last week speaking, learning and being inspired at the Cheltenham Science Festival. Now in it’s 17th year, it is a roaring success, despite me having spoken there for the last three years! I contributed to three sessions this time (a secondary schools event, and sessions on resilience, then truths about exercise), was interviewed a couple of times and grabbed a superb podcast recording with Liz Stokoe, (that we’ll share with you on 5th July). I took my 11 year old daughter along for the second year in a row, and despite her having to listen to daddy a couple of times, it was delightful to see her eyes light up with wonder as new and old ideas were unveiled or built upon. Cheltenham have a track record of outstanding events and having worked with the development team to share some thoughts many moons ago, I then saw how they curated those ideas into stonking sessions.
Here’s four take home messages from such a great event;
Don’t shirk the science
I attended a talk entitled the Science of Marvel. Now while I was expecting to hear about the tensile strength of Spidey’s web squirts, instead I got a blend of what is possible, what isn’t possible and the might be possible but we haven’t figured it out yet and the underlying hard-core physics that underpins it. Everywhere I went around the festival, I saw and heard simple and tricky concepts communicated in an accessible but unadulterated manner. I think this is a responsible way of transmitting ideas – don’t dumb down, rather communicate clearly. As my daughter put it after the Marvel session – “I didn’t understand some of that, but it’s amazing to hear that time travel is (theoretically) possible! So Dad, how is time travel possible? (cue 15 mins on google).
Stimulate imagination
Each year CSF hosts a ‘Maker-Shack’, it’s a free to enter area brimming with an assortment of methods, modelling and mayhem. You can programme a robot, decode a genome (well a bit), make slime, 3d print, create fabrics, mould plastics. In my opinion, this shack could easily be doubled in capacity and contents because it embodies what science is all about. It presents a variety of ideas and methods as a blank canvas to explore, create and to learn. All too commonly learning is locked into a rigid programme, step-wise conveyor-belt towards assessment. Instead, the Maker-Shack is a playground for wonder and discovery. The number of times you could hear gasps and wows, to engage the imagination and then 5 minutes later, “How does that work?” For me this is the right way around!
“It presents a variety of ideas and methods as a blank canvas to explore, create and to learn. All too commonly learning is locked into a rigid programme, step-wise conveyor-belt towards assessment.”
Build it and they will come
The Chair of CSF Mark Lythgoe hosted our session on exercise and told us that 17 years ago he and a group of post-docs got together in the town hall and shared their work and ideas together. All these years later and 77,000 people attended the event, from all walks of life, from all ages and backgrounds. What a mighty achievement and testament to the programme development and curator team. The programme reeked of quality, with Profs Alice Roberts, Jim Al-Khalili to name a few. Taking Danny Boyle’s mantra for preparing an Olympic opening ceremony, “If you get enough great people together that know what they’re doing – it might not be shit!”, is a full-proof plan! Once you have that in place, you’ll naturally attract curious and interesting minds to engage with in the audiences!
Make it fun
Whether it was hard-core ideas or family favourites, you could hear laughter and engagement all around the festival, making these interesting ideas fun. This was typified by the master Stefan Gates, who for two years in a row has blasted a marsh-mallow at my face with a leaf blower. This year was about the science of sweets and insects vs humans and while this often involves explosive farts, kids scoffing sweets, exploding chemicals – it also involves a full explanation of the mechanisms, the polymer, the acid-base reaction, the toroidal vortex. Stefan and his Gastronaut TV team have found a formula with which to get minds, young and old, awake, alive and engaged. Next year, he tells me, he is brewing up a full sensory session, ‘fartology’ – that’ll be a hot ticket!
Hat tip, Cheltenham Festivals, same again next year please!
I’d be fascinated to know if you go to a similar event wherever you are in the world?

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