~ Posted by Samantha Weinberg, June 14th 2012
If Glastonbury is to music what Hay-on-Wye is to literature, then what is Cheltenham? The answer this week—for 50,000 visitors—is science. The Cheltenham Science Festival was set up 11 years ago by a couple of professors, Kathy Sykes and Frank Burnet, as a way of getting the essence of science out of the labs and into a wider consciousness. Since then, it has grown in size and stature, spawning similar festivals in London, Manchester, Edinburgh and New York. I gave a talk at the second festival (on forensic DNA), when it just occupied a couple of rooms in the town hall. Now the lawns are festooned with tents and marquees for six days of lectures, debates, films and experiments.
It's best to start late—scientists don't seem to do mornings, for reasons that became clear at 1am in the bar of the Hotel du Vin. The first sobering question of the day was whether we can keep warm and still save the world. Television's low-carbon advocate Robert Llewellyn and the engineer Roger Kemp suggested the answer is yes—if we consume less, wear more jumpers and take a punt on new technologies like the one that uses the Saharan sun to melt sand and make glass.
Also sobering was the sight of several skulls on stage. The paleo-climatologist Mark Maslin from UCL took us back 1.8 million years ago to a time when tectonic changes in Africa and increased surface water led to the human skull developing in two ways—bigger brains and smaller jaws, and smaller brains and larger jaws. The bigger brains won out.
A quick break spent wandering through the main hall, where hoards of school children were playing "Materials Monopoly" and imaging fruit with an MRI scanner, and then back into a marquee, where Jonathon Porritt and Karen Newman argued forcefully for population control—through voluntary contraception—to be brought into mainstream political and economic policy. The audience voted overwhelmingly "No" to the question: "Can we leave the world's population to take care of itself?"
There were more revelations as the day went on: the comedian Matt Parker explained how there are 10,000 molecules of his urine in every pint of sea water. The designer Vivienne Westwood, who cut a colourful figure in her patterned tights and 10-inch platforms, spoke about why she campaigns on climate change. It was a surprise to learn she hasn't had time to source ethical materials herself. Porritt, interviewing her, looked bemused: Richard Branson had made a commitment to biofuel on the same stage. Oh well, she said, aeroplanes were simple, making clothes was much more complicated. A frank answer, if not a strictly scientific one.
Samantha Weinberg is assistant editor of Intelligent Life. Her recent contributions to the Editors' Blog include The professor and his robot and Sailing to the Diamond Jubilee