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Ted and Sarah's Festival Blog

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Thursday 16 September - How historians can save lives

Building in Conception ‘Better lives through science’ is the somewhat arbitrary theme of this year’s festival writes Sarah Day. It’s a fairly uncontroversial choice – most people, when pressed, would give improving our quality of life as one of the main reasons why we do science. Some fields, of course (sorry, quantum physicists) would struggle more than others to live up to this.

But the phrase is a rather an old fashioned view of science – science as our salvation, the only way to improve society, and the people who do it as inhuman machines. That’s one way to read it. But so far, as the events I’ve reported from have all shown, there have been plenty of reasons to see science as a way to improve our lives by interacting with them – not isolating itself, but talking to other disciplines to find new ways of thinking.

Earthquake perception, protection and prediction is a pretty good candidate for a science that improves people’s lives. But it isn’t that simple. As Ian Main of the University of Edinburgh explained today in the BGS session of that title, seismologists knew all about the risks faced by Haiti, and some tried to communicate them to the Haitian authorities, but it wasn’t enough. It takes politicians, planners and most obviously money, to make a difference. This is even more important because earthquakes are impossible to predict – forecast, yes, but not to the extent that will allow evacuation before the event. Planning buildings, emergency responses and educating the public are the only ways to avoid tragedies on the scale of Haiti.

And seismologists need help from non-scientists in other ways. As Roger Musson of the BGS explained, one thing which is key to earthquake forecasting is establishing when they have happened in the past. This can’t be done through science alone – geologists are increasingly working with historians to collect data.

‘Vancouver and Seattle are both good examples’ explains Musson. ‘Although from the configuration of the Earth’s tectonic plates we can infer earthquake hazard in this area, it was only relatively recently that the scale of the largest possible earthquake that could affect these cities was realised.

“The last major earthquake in the Pacific North-west actually occurred in January 1700, well before European settlers arrived. Japanese historians discovered records of a tsunami that didn’t seem to be associated with any local earthquake.

“The native inhabitants of the region had no written history, but it was found from folklore research that an oral tradition of a great disruptive event could be traced back to about this period. Furthermore, geomorphologists working in Washington state were able to find indications of recent changes in land level, including drowned vegetation, that could be dated back to around 1700. The final link in the chain was provided by studies of the sea floor off the coast, which discovered submarine landslides that indicated not just a magnitude 9 earthquake in 1700, but a chain of previous similar events stretching back over thousands of years”.

Studies like these show the power of interdisciplinary research. They also make more sense of the idea of ‘better lives through science’. Science has a lot to tell people, but also a lot to learn from them.

Wednesday 15 September - Fire from the sky!

Artist's impression of an asteroid impact Sarah Day writes: The Halstead lecture appears annually at the British Science Festival, in honour of the late palaeontologist and science populariser Beverly Halstead - famous amongst geologists for his work on vertebrate palaeontology; famous to BA-goers for his notorious children's event, delivered at a BA meeting in the distant past, in which he and his wife donned costumes to demonstrate the mechanics of 'how dinosaurs did it'. That's, did IT, in case you were wondering.

Organised by the Geologist's Association, the lecture never fails to attract a charismatic speaker with some exciting science tales to tell. This year, the Natural History Museum's Kieren Howard more than fulfilled the brief with his talk 'Fire from the sky - the geology of meteorite impact cracters and ejecta'.

For blog regulars - this was another great example of how science and the social sciences can work together. Meteorite scientists, more than any, struggle with a lack of material to work on.

'It's incredibly frustrating', Kieren told me. 'Most scientists can say, "right, I want to know more about this place, that formation, those animals, and go off on a research trip to find out". For us, we're basically waiting to see what lands'.

Meanwhile, a potential mine field of information about meteorites is waiting to be unearthed - not in rocks, but in people.

'Black ink pens hurled from the sky by the god of thunder', or Lei gong mo, is how the Chinese have referred to tektites - material thrown up when a meteorite strikes, returning to the earth as strangely shaped black or dark green lumps. Despite the fact that human sightings of tektites landing on earth must be both extremely rare and extremely ancient, there has somehow emerged the shared cultural knowledge that they are in some way 'of the sky' - long before scientists confirmed that this is the case.

Despite this extraodinary level of understanding, scientists have so far been shy of calling on local knowledge of impacts and their effects in order to develop their own theories.

'One problem is, for a lot of early cultures that have studied this, it's something very special', says Kieren. 'It's sacred to some - there are groups that will refuse to touch a tektite if you hold one out to them. So for a western scientist, getting this information out of people is often different.

'Really excitingly, there's an American researcher working in Australia at the moment, talking to Aboriginal communities, hearing their stories about when they have seen "bright sky", legends about things forming craters and shaping the land, and trying to relate this to impact events. He's had success recently just outside of Alice Springs, there's a traditional story about a bright explosion, an angry serpent forming a crater, and he's now found a structure there'.

Of course, another reason why studies like these are few and far between is the hostility which has, and will probably always exist, between the "hard" sciences and the social sciences. Hard enough to attract funding at all, without claiming you need it to travel around amazing places listening to people's stories and legends. But there must be an extraordinary amount to learn. As with climate change (see yesterday's entry), science alone can only go so far. Keiren admits to being slightly jealous of those researchers who have managed to combine the two succesfully. 

'It's a side of what I study which I generally have to neglect as not being part of the "hard science" that I do. But it's definitely something I think about late at night'.

Tuesday 14 September - why we disagree about climate change

Professor Mike Hulme Sarah Day writes: Being an event with a long historical pedigree (the first meeting of the British Association was held in 1831), the festival has a number of odd hangovers from the past. One of these is that it continues to be organised in 'sections' - the geology section, the chemistry section, etc. Most of these are based on classic science subjects, but a few have sneaked in which might raise a purist's eyebrow. One such is the 'sociology and social policy section'. Is it a science, an art, or somewhere in between? Professor Mike Hulme of UEA would have it that sociology is the 'third culture' - where C P Snow divided the sciences and the humanities, others, such as the Harvard psychologist and author of 'The Three Cultures', Jerome Kagan, suggest that the sciences, the humanities and the social sciences should be given equal weight.

In his book, 'Why we disagree about climate change', and talk of the same name given earlier today, Professor Hulme casts a sociological eye over the now very familiar issue of climate change. It has, as he points out, become an extraordinarily powerful idea in our culture, permeating much of our thinking about economics, science, politics and even our every day language. No wonder, then, that sociologists have started talking about how we think about climate change.

It turns out that the simple framework of 'scientist' vs 'denyer' isn't even half of what, according to Professor Hulme, is going on. He identifies six 'frames' which shape the way we think about climate change, and what we believe is the solution. Which of these frames you subscribe to depends, not on your reaction to the science, or your intelligence, or even your capacity for logic. It's a result of everything that makes up who you are - your beliefs, values, cultural background and so on. And it can't be fought with evidence or argument from any camp.

So, you could see climate change as a 'market failure' - the solution is to put a price on pollutants, introduce cap and trade measures, and see what's going on as an economic opportunity. Or it's a 'technological hazard', a manufactured risk like asbestos or nuclear waste - we just didn't know what we were doing, and now we need to fight the problem by engineering new technology that can provide us with alternatives sources of energy. Then there are the less 'academic' viewpoints - climate change is caused by global injustice, or overconsumption, which we can solve by making the world a fairer place.

The two frames which will probably be most familiar to geologists take us back to the traditional view of the debate - we are either facing a planetary tipping point; on the brink of armageddon, or its all a natural process which we couldn't stop if we tried. The first is the frame, according to Professor Hulme, which has led to research into geoengineering solutions as the only way we can save ourselves before its too late. The second is one reason all this continues to be so hotly debated by the public, the media and scientists themselves.

Professor Hulme's outlook begins to look rather gloomy - we are wrong to think as C P Snow would have, and leave everything to science. People's proposed solutions are nothing to do with science, they come from whichever 'frame' we subscribe to. Culture, as ever, is prior to facts. But, he claims, this might be a great advantage. Our global obsession with climate change, as well as encouraging scientific research, might go as far as changing the way we think. It could help us refocus on the needs of the poorest people in the world, find new ways to govern with equality, promote new social movements and entirely new ways of thinking about our relationship with the future. But all this has to come from us - not from a governmental policy, but the people the policies affect. Whether this is something that might actually happen, or just something for sociologists to muse over at science festivals, remains to be seen.

Tuesday 9 September – the Festival Press Conference.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville - incoming BA President Ted Nield writes: The end of summer, for science journalists in the UK at least, is signalled not by the yellowing leaves, autumnal mists or the sound of 12-bores echoing through the covey, but by the arrival of the invitation to the embargoed press conference for the British Science Association’s Annual Festival of Science.

“Ah well, another year gone. How’s it been? You going for the duration? Which hotel did they put you in? Oh bad luck.  Things must be worse at your place than they're saying…” and so on. All in all, this event does not find science journalists at their perkiest. Even a week out of the office and a twin room at a Premier Inn somewhere under Spaghetti Junction hardly makes up for the fact that it’s all rather a nasty jolt after the summer hols.

The first order of business, after Sir Roland Jackson has welcomed the media and told us how important the BA thinks we are, is the preview of the incoming President’s Big Speech, which is delivered on the Festival opening day (Tuesday 14 September) and whose contents are embargoed for one minute after midnight on that day. This year, after the tenure of Sir Bob May, former Royal Society President, it’s the turn of Lord Sainsbury of Turville, the former science minister.

Names may change but the order of business stays the same. Each year the President introduces, through a preview of his speech, something that the Association describes not entirely laughingly as the Festival “theme”. It is just as well that he has this opportunity, because otherwise any kind of theme is always completely undetectable – though organisers of sessions (like the Geological Society) have to bear it in mind when proposing topics. This is what makes the BA a bit of a roman à clef – everything makes sense as long as you know beforehand what it’s supposed to be about.

This year, Lord Sainsbury has chosen as his theme “Making people’s lives better through science” – though what he will be saying in detail, of course, I can’t tell you until one minute after midnight next Tuesday. I can however reveal that the Geological Society’s session will be held on Sunday 19th, the Festival’s last day, and be aimed squarely at the good people of Birmingham, explaining how geoscience contributes to improving their lives.

Titled Unpoisoning the Land, the subject is of course the remediation of brownfield sites – something of which our soi disant Second City is not short. It will take place between 11.00 and 13.00 on that day, and be chaired by Prof. Paul Nathanail of Nottingham University – the Engineering Group’s 2009 Glossop Lecturer. The price at the door will be a princely £3.00.

The BA Festival, as we used to, but must now not, call it (it having morphed last year into the “British Science Association Annual Festival of Science”) is the biggest and longest established of its kind in Europe, generating more media coverage every year than any comparable event. The Festival consists of more than 250 individual sessions and exhibitions, involving about 350 scientists engineers and commentators and taking place all over the City of Birmingham - and not only on the campus at Aston University.

The BA says it expects a footfall of around 75,000 visitors – though that audience is dwarfed by the millions who hear of the Festival through the activity of the Festival’s very busy Media Centre, where a small army of sweaty hacks bash out the stuff from early morn until opening time. Veteran readers of Geoscientist’s Media Monitor section may well remember this piece describing the media’s typical day at the BA. It won’t have changed that much, except there will be more foreign journalists and more people writing for non-traditional media (and complaining that the ether does not have space constraints).

During the 2010 Festival, Sarah Day will be out and about, while I shall be based I the press centre, observing the media at work - and possibly also at play. Join us on this blog for the Festival buzz.