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British Science Festival: Knowledge For All

By Farrukh I. Younus

Telecoms Entrepreneur - United Kingdom

The British Science Festival is an annual event bringing together some of the best of what Britain has to offer, this year the festival was hosted by the University of Surrey and took place during the time from 5 to 10 September. Addressing numerous fields of study, the event is driven by the British Science Association, a registered charity whose objective is to introduce individuals from all walks of life to science.


Being the UK's largest science festival, approximately 80,000 individuals attended the many workshops, lectures, talks, debates, exhibitions and field trips.

Beginning with an association with the International Year of Astronomy, the University of Surrey held a star gazing event entitled "The Great Look Up" which brought astronomers and members of the public together to view the stars. Through binoculars and in some cases very large telescopes I managed to see craters on the moon, not to mention watch one of the moons of Jupiter slowly escape behind it!


As the festival scaled up, the market town of Guildford flooded with localized events. From a hands-on Zoo lab where children were introduced to the stages of growth of various small animals, to a hands-on experience with an electron microscope where every hour 5 individuals could have their hair placed into the microscope to see whether it was clean and healthy. In my case, I'm glad I had washed my hair that morning, but more so, took comfort in knowing that it is 60 microns wide, suggesting that I have thick healthy hair!

Due to space limitations, a number of events were held at nearby universities, such as a workshop on "Painting with Nanotechnology". My favorite for that day was an event held at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory which included amongst other things, a panel style competition where various PhD students introduced their research. This included a demonstration in which gummy bears at the end of kebab sticks were used to illustrate wave motion, to more fun applications such as the use of dry ice to create volcanoes and ice cream!

Sunday brought about a rather unique field trip, the opportunity to explore England's prehistoric southeast. While visiting archaeological and fossil sites at Boxgrove, which was home to the earliest European settlers, many were surprised to learn of human activity dating back over half a million years.

Muslims in Science

Science being an inclusive medium independent of faith, a number of talks were held on the contribution of Muslim scientists. One talk entitled "Copernicus and the Astronomy of Medieval Islam" illustrated that his heliocentric model of our solar system would not have been made possible without much earlier work conducted by Muslim scholars such as Ibn al-Shathir - something which was illustrated in his own writings and diagrams.

Another entitled "Celebrating Muslim Heritage in Our World" included a string of evidences and facts, referencing the works of scholars such as Ibn al-Haitham who, besides his many achievements, is also acknowledged for explaining the phenomenon of rainbows.


What I found interesting was the acknowledgement that for whatever reason there existed a culture in Muslim countries not to acknowledge the efforts and contribution of womankind. For example, every illustration of the famous House of Wisdom in Baghdad, although attended by women as well, shows only men. It seems that history chooses to brush over their contributions, such as the works of Ijliya al-Astrulabi who contributed to the field of astronomy or even Fatima al-Fihri who constructed the first university in 859 AD in Fez, Morocco.


One interesting trinket of information was to learn that in a culture where everyone would rise when a king would enter a court, King Roger of Sicily would actually rise when the Muslim scholar al-Idrisi walked into the room, a sign showing there were moments in the past where knowledge was held in the highest regard.


Starting with the Babylonions, Egyptians, Chinese and Indians, to the Greeks, Romans, and various Muslim civilizations, and finally to the Renaissance, Industrial Revolution, and modern day civilization, it was refreshing to see the Festival accurately acknowledge the timeline of knowledge.


One of the most interesting features of the event was how it brought together some of our future scientists. One piece of research which stood out was entitled "Mirrors in the Mind" which demonstrated how a person seeing someone else experience an activity, such as a surfing on a wave, while not directly experiencing the same sensations the surfer may be feeling such as the wind and the texture of water, still uses the parts of the mind that experience these same sensations. Among the implications of this research is the understanding of concepts such as empathy.


No Shortage of Entertainment


While much of this event sounds serious, there was no shortage of entertainment coupled to science. The interactive Honesty Lab allowed participants to first understand the concept of theft, then illustrated how we as humans vary our interpretation of justice and accountability on the different levels of knowledge surrounding the act of theft.


For example, our interpretation of theft varies for someone who steals medicine from a pharmacy for money versus someone who steals medicine from a pharmacy to treat a sibling whose NHS trust has not given him that medicine, while the neighboring NHS trust would have if he lived in their catchment area. This particular event was an extremely enjoyable interactive demonstration of the letter and spirit of the law.


Other practical, but disturbing, concepts included the collection of carbon dioxide from power stations, compressing it, and then pumping it into the porous rocks underneath the depleted gas fields off the coast of the UK. Practical in that the UK could generate up to 10 billion a year from this business, but disturbing in that rather than developing non-polluting technologies we are looking at ways to manage technologies that continue to pollute.


Being a man, however, I found one of the most interesting talks was the one on the science of attraction. From visual stimuli such as how the symmetry of individual's faces contribute to attraction, to the chemistry of sweat and how individual's natural scents pungent or otherwise contribute to forms of attraction.


One of the scientists took the liberty of introducing a chemical created in her lab that mimics this natural attraction. Sadly, while this may be the same substance which draws attraction, the effect of the substance varies depending on who inhales it. While one member of the audience smelled toes another smelled flowers, in my case, I couldn't smell a thing; what this signifies I leave you the reader to guess!


There are simply far too many activities to mention. Next year, the festival will be held at the University of Birmingham. If it is anything like this year's events, I would strongly encourage you to attend, as, without a doubt, young or old, there will be something for everyone.



Farrukh I. Younus holds a master's degree in international business management and works in the emerging telecommunication industry across Europe and Asia. Dedicated to understanding and delivering solutions based on new technology, Younus has spoken on the subject to the European Parliament in Brussels, and regularly attends industry-leading conferences worldwide. His cross-cultural knowledgebase is strengthened with extensive international travel that includes visiting China on more than 25 occasions. He resides in Surrey, UK. You can contact him by sending an e-mail to HealthAndScienceATiolteamDOTcom.

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