British Science Festival 2013 – Day 4

I’ve had yet another amazing day at the British Science Festival!

First up was an interesting talk on Science and Cosmetics, which mainly focussed on skin creams, how they are advertised, the scientific evidence claims are based on, and the potential damaging effects they could have on the skin. I was particularly interested in the fact that a few skin care product ingredients had in fact undergone full scientific investigation and peer review, although others had no clear scientific benefit for the skin – for example one product contained gold nanoparticles! The lecture also discussed the structure of the skin – with many hair and sweat gland pores as well as a range of good and bad bacteria – and how this links to methods active ingredients could cross the skin, but also potential causes of problems such as the accumulation of nanoparticles in pores which has not been thoroughly investigated yet. Some of the various factors skin care designers have to consider were also discussed – for example how the active ingredient will cross the skin barrier and potential problems caused by skin disorders such as eczema or acne. One particularly interesting product mentioned was a recent anti-wrinkle pill launched by Unilever, and thus the emerging market of ‘cosmoceuticals’ which lie between skin care products and drugs – leading to a range of concerns over regulation and testing. Overall, the talk was very interesting and I learnt a surprising amount!

This talk was followed by a quick visit to the x-change, a show held each day over lunch. Topics discussed ranged from climate change to bronze age weapons, with experts from around the festival dropping in for a short discussion on their specialisms. The x-change was fairly interesting, with plenty of props and audience engagement, but unfortunately today none of the topics particularly excited me.
Next I rushed off to ‘Origins: Planets, Galaxies, the Universe (and everything)’ – which included surprise special guest Dr. Brian Cox!!! The event began with a lecture from Dr. Suzanne Aigrain discussing the origins of planets. She discussed several exciting discoveries, including the particularly exciting possibility that stars may be unable to form without also forming planets, since the planets conserve the angular momentum of the system and thus allow the star to settle into it’s stable state, and the positions of planets in a single plane suggests that they probably all formed from the same ‘accretion disk’ around the star. She finished with a discussion on how to find exoplanets and the different types, before Dr. Brian Cox began his part of the talk on the Big Bang. He first introduced us to particle physics with a mention of the LHC and the standard model – explaining that in the first moments after the big bang physics just consisted of these particles in a sort of ‘soup’. This was followed by a short exploration of the famous equations and quantum field theory, before finishing with an explanation of how the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation links the big bang and quantum mechanics. This topic was then continued by Carlos Frenk, who explained how small quantum fluctuations in the very early universe led to the formation of structure in the universe. He described some evidence for the big bang, particularly Edwin Hubble’s observations of the recessional velocities of galaxies and the CMB. His talk also included a short video tour of our local universe and a brief mention of how the positions and angular velocities of galaxies provides evidence for dark matter. Overall, the event was incredibly exciting and informative – probably the highlight of the day!

Unfortunately it also over-ran, so I had to run down to the International Centre of Life for a fun workshop entitled ‘How old is the universe?’. This began with a short talk about the origins of the universe, how we measure distance and velocity in space, and some of the maths behind the workshop. Then, we moved on to the computers where we measured the lengths of galaxies in the famous Hubble Deep Field image and their redshift – using this information and the help of a computer spreadsheet to calculate the age of the universe. Interestingly everyone over-estimated this value – I calculated an age of 17.6 billion years – and this systematic error was attributed to dark matter. The workshop was finished with an exciting tour of the constellations in the night sky at the Planetarium.

My busy day ended with ‘The Huxley debate’, a discussion between two leading scientists with opposing views on the importance of epigenetics to our lives. Interesting points raised were links between grandparents smoking and cancers in their grandchildren, the formation of gametes removing almost all traces of methylation in DNA and thus preventing such information from being passed on, and evidence from mice experiments indicating the opposite. Although the debate did not come to any particular conclusion it was still fascinating and provided some interesting insights particularly against the importance of epigenetics – a topic which is often hyped up by the media as the future of medicine or the victor over Darwinian evolution.

After another awesome day, I am really looking forward to the last two days of the British Science Festival!

Kate Prescott

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