I’ve had a pretty incredible day today at the British Science Festival 2013 in Newcastle!
The first talk I attended was called ‘The Randomness Show’ which was all about the incredible way maths can show us order and logic in what appears to be random, unpredictable events. However, it was not the standard dry lecture, with Dr Maths bringing the science to life with fun card games, ‘magic’ tricks and fun games. He explained how most of the demonstrations worked, while leaving a few mysteries for the audience to ponder (and I still haven’t worked out how he did them!).

Next up was an exploration of ‘The Culture Lab’ where a huge range of fun workshops were being run – mainly aimed at younger science enthusiasts but still great for everyone else! I looked at the bacteria on my cheek cells (note to self: clean teeth better!), saw the effect of gravitational lensing around my body and found out about earthworms’ rather rocky poop! There was a lot of fun crammed into an unfortunately small room, and I wish I had had a bit more time to find out more before I had to rush off for a quick bite to eat and another talk!

‘Everest: going to extremes for medical research’ was a surprisingly exciting and educational talk – I had booked on it initially more to fill up some empty space in my schedule! The speakers had been to the Everest base camp and carried out the research themselves which really added a spark to the talk, beginning with a fun re-enactment of a climber heading out into the low-oxygen environment from a tent! I was particularly interested to find that there are in fact a lot of similarities between the vital signs of our healthy bodies at high altitudes and those of intensive care patients – which explained why the research carried out by the Xtreme Everest team is so useful for medicine!

After a quick break during which I explored the fun ‘Dr Maths Giant Logic Puzzles’ which are dotted around campus and surprisingly challenging, I attended a great talk called ‘Are we still evolving?’ which involved a small panel of experts discussing the evidence for recent human evolution. Although they were clearly very knowledgeable and gave a wide range of interesting evidence, I felt that the talk lacked a bit by being rather one-sided rather than a proper debate. However, despite this I still learnt a great deal about current human evolution – did you know that lactose tolerance is only really common in Europe and the USA, whereas in countries where dairying began later the vast majority of people are lactose intolerant! Another interesting topic discussed was current research into tribal hunter-gatherer populations which still exist in the more remote locations of the world and show further evidence for current human evolution – although there is less of a selection pressure in the developed world. Overall, a very interesting talk but not really a debate.

I finished the day with an amazing talk by Robert Winston about his current bill in the House of Lords. Not being an expert in politics I’m still not entirely sure what exactly that entails, but the basic idea is that he is suggesting that the government make it obligatory for pharmaceutical products which have used animal testing (i.e. pretty much all of them) to clearly state it on their packaging. The hope behind this is that the public will realise just how important animal testing is for our health and the protection of the human race. Interesting issues which were brought up included the possibility of people refusing to take their medication due to being opposed to animal testing and also how the British pharmaceutical industry could suffer from people buying less medicines or from opposition to animal testing abroad. Concerns over the ethical issues around animal testing produced reassurances that the subjects of such tests were usually kept in far better condition than on farms due to the enormous amount of legislation and restrictions on such research – much more so in the UK than in other countries. The general consensus was that improved public awareness of animal testing should reduce the large amount of opposition to important medical research.

After a fantastic day, I’m pretty exhausted but looking forward to more science fun for the rest of the week! Keep checking back to see what I’ve been up to.

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