Where’s the rocket science?

The Edinburgh International Science Festival sold itself as light entertainment, but there were still a few scientists who could blow your mind.

Stuart Blackman

Topics Science & Tech

The Edinburgh International Science Festival (1) has just come to an end, and I find myself asking a question that occurs to me every year at this time: what are science festivals actually for?

If this year’s festival’s slogan is anything to go by, the organisers have a good idea of what it is not for: ‘It’s not rocket science.’ That was their slogan.

While it is possible that they are simply acknowledging the lack of events dealing with the science of rockets, the chances are that they are actually trying to stress that there is nothing too clever or challenging going on. In which case, why not? It’s a science festival. Who would go to a literature festival with the slogan ‘It’s not Shakespeare’?

The best indication of what the organisers think the festival is for can be found in councillor Donald Wilson’s introduction to the festival programme: ‘I hope this year’s theme – it’s not rocket science – tells you something new about science and technology: that they’re captivating, extraordinary, exhilarating, astonishing, inspiring, and most of all…they’re fun.’ Nothing wrong with a bit of fun at science festivals, of course, like there would be nothing wrong with a bit of an intellectual challenge at Disneyland. But it’s hardly the point of them, surely?

I’ve been to fewer events than usual this year, largely because I’ve been avoiding those that I would normally go to just so that I can complain about them afterwards. Which is why I didn’t put myself through Arc Theatre’s Waiting for Change, for example, an event billed as a dialogue between four actors and the audience about the changing climate and what can be done about it. Isn’t that what pubs are for?

There is, however, a smattering of events where you can hear people who actually know what they are talking about, although I couldn’t go to many of those either because, annoyingly, they seem to have been scheduled simultaneously or back-to-back in scattered venues.

In Stemming Expectations on Tuesday 6 April, three stem-cell scientists gave three excellent talks, which, combined, provided a thorough overview of the biology of adult and embryonic stem cells, the techniques used to isolate, culture and study them, and their therapeutic potential in combating all sorts of degenerative diseases that result from genetic disorders, old age and serious injury.

It’s hard to see how anyone who has a grasp of what stem-cell research actually involves and the enormous benefits it is expected to bring could find anything objectionable about the procedure. This is reflected perhaps in the audience vote that followed the talks, in which only one of 79 people who offered an opinion said there should be no research into stem-cell therapies, and just five out of 69 said such research should be limited to adult rather than embryonic stem cells.

But even if stem-cell therapies do succeed in rendering degenerative disease a thing of the past, we could still all die of cancer, where medical gains are more incremental than revolutionary. However, at Cancer: Drug development and the race against time on Wednesday 7 April (four excellent expert speakers this time), I heard that those incremental improvements are coming thick and fast. And if Professor Karol Sikora is right, in 20 years most cancers will be seen as chronic, controllable diseases rather than death sentences.

It’s all enough to make you wonder whether inventor and entrepreneur Ray Kurzweil (2) is only quite mad (as opposed to quite mad), for striving to stay around long enough to achieve medically assisted immortality. It even makes me almost want to give up smoking. Who would want to die before these treatments become available? Scientific knowledge is a powerful and useful thing, especially when we are given the space to apply it to our lives as we see fit, rather than being told what we are supposed to do with it, which is all too often a problem with anti-smoking campaigns.

In The Luck Factor, held on Wednesday 6 April, magician-turned-psychologist Richard Wiseman (3) also imparted some useful knowledge. The trouble is that he does then tell us what we are supposed to do with it. Wiseman is a skilled debunker of pseudoscience and superstition, a bit like TV magician Derren Brown, but with graphs, and a self-help book to flog. Here he drew on his own research to argue that luck isn’t some sort of external substance bestowed on people in varying amounts according to the whim of guardian angels or planetary cycles, but something that just kind of happens sometimes, and something that people can also make for themselves. His research shows that people who describe themselves as lucky or unlucky actually differ in their propensity to recognise and seize opportunities that come their way. It’s all a bit obvious maybe, but it is important perhaps in an age when many people believe to a greater or lesser extent in destiny and allow those horoscopes and guardian angels to influence their life decisions.

Unfortunately, Wiseman doesn’t stop there. He has that self-help book to flog. So he ends his talk with a video clip from Channel 4’s Richard and Judy show, where he puts three self-proclaimed unlucky people through an intensive two-week course based on his book – including keeping a ‘luck diary’ in which they write down anything fortuitous that happens to happen to them – in order to turn them into self-proclaimed lucky people.

He succeeds, of course. But on the evidence of the video clip, Wiseman also succeeds in turning three slightly irritating, but entertaining, pessimists into three slightly more irritating, mindless optimists. Our guinea pigs’ forced grins suggest that they hadn’t so much applied something useful to their lives as they were merely playing the parts that Wiseman, Richard and Judy expected them to play. In telling them (and us) exactly how to change their lives rather than letting them (and us) make our own minds up on the basis of his persuasive research, Wiseman manages to undermine his deeper argument about the importance of self-responsibility: his self-help book is a guardian-angel replacement if ever there was one.

Simon Singh also has a book to flog. You could even say it was a self-help book of sorts, but without the buttock-clenching lifestyle advice. In Big Bang: An everyday guide to how it all began, also on Wednesday 6 April, Singh provided a punchy, and often hilarious, whistle-stop tour of the scientific theories for the origin of the universe. This boils down to the entwined histories of the big bang (what it says on the packet) and steady state (there is no origin of the universe – it’s always been there and always will be) models, allowing Singh to explore along the way the mechanism of scientific discovery, which in this case led to the big bang idea coming out on top.

Nothing. Bang. Something. The universe is a big, beautiful and mostly empty place. And there’s no reason to think that it’s there for anything at all. All the more important then that we know what things like science festivals are for.

Stuart Blackman is a freelance science journalist. See his webpage here.

(1) See the Edinburgh International Science Festival website

(2) Ray Kurzweil

(3) Richard Wiseman

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Topics Science & Tech


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