British Science Festival 2013 – Day 3

Today began with a fascinating lecture entitled ‘Making Waves: Energy and Society’ which discussed a huge range of issues related to our use of energy. The focus was very much on the ‘Energy Trilemma’ – reducing greenhouse gas emissions, using resources efficiently and making energy accessible to all. Interesting examples mentioned included the Kazakhstan blackouts and the recent movement in Greece to convert agricultural land into solar farms. Also discussed was the use of renewable energy sources in developing countries, where issues with the supply chain causing people to convert their solar powered lights for battery power due to damage to the panels – thus negating the original aim of the lights. The final key topic was the potential of a ‘Smart Grid’ which switches off non-essential electrical appliances during peak times of energy use to smooth out the daily energy consumption curve and thus reduce pressures on power sources and allow renewables to be more easily incorporated into our energy infrastructure. The wide range of examples and issues discussed was very interesting and insightful – although the focus was more on renewable sources of energy and potential technologies rather than discussing current controversial topics such as fracking as I had hoped.

I then ran to the next talk – Engineering the Climate. Presented by researchers investigating the technology, science and engineering of particle injection into the atmosphere to combat climate change, this talk was an exciting view into potential geoengineering solutions to the problem of global warming. Although they promoted the use of geoengineering as a ‘Plan B’ after reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the statistics given suggested that it is a serious possibility for the near future. The focus of the talk was on their current research into a balloon delivery system, although other potential solutions were touched briefly upon. They also explained the possible effects of injecting particles into our atmosphere – not only global cooling but also issues such as a reduction in the sunlight reaching plants and crops on the Earth’s surface and regional changes in both temperature and rainfall. Overall, this talk was very informative – not only describing potential solutions to climate change but raising many issues and questions about their viability, long term effects and political problems.

I continued my exploration of climate change in the next lecture on coral reefs – presented by Dr. Michael Sweet who has the incredible job of visiting coral reefs across the world to investigate diseases such as the imaginatively named ‘White Band Disease’. Who wouldn’t want their lab to be a beautiful remote island in the Maldives?! Dr. Sweet introduced us to a huge range of problems being faced by coral reefs – not only rising sea temperatures but also the apparent spread of land based diseases to marine ecosystems. He has discovered in his research how ciliates (small single celled organisms) influence the spread of diseases on coral reefs as well as feeding off dying tissue and thus killing the coral. However, although he also discovered that antibiotics are very effective against such diseases, the difficulties in controlling dosage and preventing contamination and the development of bacterial resistance mean that a different solution must be found – he particularly favours encouraging ‘good’ bacteria in coral reefs to defend against pathogens, a solution he describes as a ‘marine Yakult’! This really was a fascinating and insightful talk!

No rest for the wicked! I next rushed off to the nearby International Centre for Life for a workshop on mammoth DNA. This involved using electrophoresis for ‘DNA fingerprinting’ to identify the species of an unknown sample of DNA as well as discover the closest modern relation to the woolly mammoth – essential if we want to use cloning to bring one back to life! I really enjoyed being back in a lab and doing some experiments – even though the workshop was aimed at complete beginners to the subject I still had a lot of fun!

After a quick dinner, it was off to the Festival of the Spoken Nerd! This amazing comedy show included everything from singing, jokes and fun science experiments to binary scarves, breaking a wine glass with the power of the voice and just general nerdy-ness! An awesome end to an awesome day!

Kate Prescott

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