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Our intrepid reporter arrives in Aberdeen on her way, over land and sea, to Orcadia

Sarah Day reviews two approaches to the “science festival” and wonders if science can really be fun

Geoscientist 20.12 December 2010/January 2011

In the weeks leading up to the Comprehensive Spending Review scientists, like everyone else, fought hard to justify their funding. Science is useful. Science boosts the economy. Science improves our lives.

Yet science has never been keener to show that like the arts, it can be entertainment too. Not content with being a useful but remote part of life for most of us, science is on a mission to prove that it can also be fun, and has taken inspiration from the art world to do it. Enter the ‘science festival’.

It is often claimed that the British Science Festival – formerly referred to as the annual meeting of the British Association (for the Advancement of Science) - is the world’s oldest science festival, dating from1831. But its roots lie in a very different tradition – as an annual meeting for scientists, when the most innovative idea was that science was useful, practical and improving - not just an intellectual exercise.

The modern science festival idea is much more recent. Howie Firth, who ran the very first in Edinburgh and now directs the Orkney Science Festival, explains.

Parent & Kid“Back in the late 1980s, Glasgow was beginning to overtake Edinburgh as a city of culture. When it was awarded European city of culture in 1990, there was a real feeling that Edinburgh needed to diversify its image…as a city of science, and Edinburgh City Council came up with the idea of a festival. With the arts festival at the end of the summer, they thought - at the beginning of the season, in the spring, there should be a science festival!”. Most importantly, this new idea held that it had to be fun, rather than ‘improving’.

“It was challenging because until then people had an idea of a ‘science fair’, something schools could do, and the idea of ‘science talks’. Sscience talks are ‘good for you’;, but a festival is very different – something you pay for, that you enjoy, as much as you’d enjoy an arts festival, a drama festival, a music festival. The content has to be lively and enjoyable and aimed at the audience. So really, it was creating a new festival from scratch”.

Having made a success of the Edinburgh Science Festival, Howie took the concept even further north, to a rather unlikely location. “I have to confess, when it was first suggested that Orkney should have a science festival, I did stop and pause. Who on earth would come?!” In many ways, however, the location is entirely appropriate. Not only is Orkney a beautiful destination, but it has long occupied a strategic position that has put it at the centre of scientific developments. An important part of the North Sea oil industry, it is fast becoming the focus for companies testing marine renewable energy technology, providing a home for EMEC, the European Marine Energy Centre.

“And of course, we had some of the first scientists anywhere. The stone circles and the chambered cairns with their entrances aligned to the setting sun at midwinter were all built by engineers, mathematicians and scientists 4-5000 years ago. Our ancestors were scientists, and the amount of scientific research that goes on now in Orkney is remarkable”.

Despite its remoteness, the Orkney Science Festival is currently thriving and, in its 20th year, is the second oldest (true) science festival in the world, drawing in audiences from across the world. The success of festivals like these relies on understanding that education comes second, entertainment first.

“The science is part of it, but you have to think of the people first. Our youngest audience member in Orkney this year is four, the oldest 93, and in each case they’re here because they enjoy it, because they have questions”.

Howie samples the Orcadian brew

Triangle of the forced

Rooted firmly in its historical beginnings, there is a sense that the British Science Festival has lost some of this sense of fun. This year’s festival, held at Aston University in Birmingham, was packed with events and variety, but hidden away in austere lecture theatres beyond labyrinthine corridors. And should the British Science Association come to a decision between ‘science’ and ‘entertainment’, one feels that science would always win – however small the audience.

Meanwhile in Orkney, a bus tour that had very little to do with science drew in record crowds, who as well as sampling the produce at the local brewery, learnt a little – but not too much – about how it is made, as well as the history of milling and brewing on the island.

“We try to make the transition seamless” says Howie. “The success of the bus tour was that it mixed people up – festival speakers with members of the public who may have had a lot of their own knowledge about farming, so everyone has something to contribute – no one is being lectured. And we blend that with very cutting edge science in some of the talks, like gravitational waves and marine renewables. That way, there’s something for everyone”.

There was ‘something for everyone’ in Aston too – topics ranging from earthquakes to economics to chemical engineering; but it was almost too much, lacking clear focus. The nebulous “theme” given to each Festival did not help. Among the most successful geological events was the field trip, which took visitors out of the University to see how science was applied to real life – in this case, to the limestone mines that cut deep into the land beneath Castle Hill in Dudley. Other events were rooted firmly in the lecture theatres and labs of Aston – for the lay visitor, not a welcoming environment, no matter how many posters led the way. And with up to 60 events running each day, the range of offerings was at times overwhelming.

Here, historical pedigree can be a hindrance. Every year has to be bigger, broader and encompass the whole of a world which is rapidly expanding. While in 1831, a few meetings might have covered most cutting-edge research, it might take months, even years, to do the same now. A festival without such a heritage is free to be more selective.

“One thing we’re very emphatic about is quality’ says Howie. ‘I think a festival has a natural size, and it’s better to work within the discipline of a fixed budget and explore those parameters, rather than trying to grow for growth’s sake. It’s lovely to start with a blank sheet every year and put together an exciting programme. We believe that if there’s communication, particularly to young people, it’s more important to get it right than to have a huge amount – that’s why I’m so delighted that the Geological Society is developing workshops for young people and has come here to deliver them.

“One of the things we have to be careful about in communicating science is focusing not just on the known but on the unknown – the challenges. Just as we love detective stories or Sudoku problems, we want a challenge. It’s important that science looks at the horizons and beyond them”.

For a festival held on an island, this is a fitting motto. Like all island nations, the people of Orkney have learned to explore.

“Orkney is a crossroads – it was in the Neolithic, in the Norse period and later in two world wars, when the British Navy anchored here. This is an island community that has always looked outwards, whose people have always travelled distances and welcomed new ideas. So it does make sense to hold a festival of ideas and exploration here”.

Location is just one of the many lessons the Orkney science festival can teach the rest. Another might be that, if they are really to be fun they would do well to adopt a concept familiar to anyone working in the arts: edit, edit edit.