Edinburgh International Science Festival 2015: Easter Weekend Events

We sent some of our writers out to get an impression of the many events that were on offer during the Edinburgh International Science Festival's opening weekend...

Review by Tariq Ashkanani | 16 Apr 2015
  • Edinburgh International Science Festival

Read on for our musings about: what exactly what it feels like to go on a Reindeer Safari (yep), the bleak implications of robotic battlefield scenarios (think Terminator), what the link between Malawi coffee and Edinburgh’s Botanical Garden is, and research that suggests that how happy you are as 15 year old is the best predictor for how happy you’ll be at 40 years old.

This year’s Edinburgh International Science Festival is now well into its flow, but if you’ve not yet had a chance to attend any events – fear not! There’s still plenty on as the festival approaches the closing weekend (events run until Sunday 19 April), and many are free to attend. You can download the brochure here, or browse events online here.

Coffee with a Shot of Science – Saturday 4 April

Inside a small glass lecture hall nestled in the Botanical Gardens, Coffee with a Shot of Science is an interesting look at the incredible complexities that go into making each cup of joe. A trio of speakers cover a fairly vast range of topics, from the history and movement of the coffee plant arabica to the surprising amount of influence roasters and baristas have on the final product.

Throughout the hour-long talks, and while the audience enjoys a coffee, a bevy of interesting info is tossed around. The first coffeehouse in Edinburgh opened in Parliament Square back in 1663, and is credited with stimulating the age of enlightenment. The journey of the coffee plant from Ethiopia to Yemen, where it was such a closely guarded secret they refused to trade unroasted beans in fear of them being cultivated (until someone smuggled them out of the country). Ecologist Ian Edwards, the opening speaker and compere, clearly has a passion for a topic that is rather infectious.

Ericka Duffy, who describes herself as a ‘scent artist’, provides a look at how the flavours are transported from coffee bean to cup, and rattles through some of the thirty-eight steps to making a perfect espresso. From the 1000+ chemicals on the surface of the bean, to the differing techniques used round the world to selectively transfer them to the final product, it shows there is far more science to brewing a mug of java than many would have thought. And for those that have ever wondered why coffee in Italy is drunk with sugar, or why New Zealand created the flat white, there were some interesting answers to be found.

Finally, Catherine O’Shea from the local Artisan Roast gives up some of their roasting secrets, in what proves to be a surprisingly complex procedure. Batch roasting the beans from light to dark while continuously testing for the perfect sweet spot certainly doesn’t sound like an easy job (or a bad one, for that matter).

Overall, Coffee With a Shot of Science is an intriguing look into the caffeine world. It is the barrage of unexpected and interesting facts that keep the hour flowing, such as the ongoing debate over whether or not coffee should be kept in the fridge (a negative according to these speakers), the best method for cafetieres (18g coffee to 250ml water), or that due to the limited exposure to water, there is actually less caffeine in an espresso than a filter coffee.

But perhaps most fascinating of all is the tale of Dr Livingstone’s expedition to central Africa, and his attempts to satisfy increasing demand by growing coffee in the region now known as Malawi. Rather than transplant the arabica plant across the continent, it was far easier to just ship it over from Britain – and from right here in Edinburgh’s Botanical Gardens, in fact. So next time someone brews you a cup of coffee from Malawi, you can enjoy its Scottish heritage too.

Reindeer Safari – Saturday 4 April

The brief for Reindeer Safari is an intriguing but intimidating one. We are to 'experience the borderline between nature and human culture' by walking quietly and collectively through Scotland's capital as a herd of reindeer. This award-winning environmental art piece from Finnish live arts collective Other Spaces sounds about as interactive as art and science get. I’m usually shy to join in with these sorts of stranger group situations, especially if there's a chance of having to wear comedy antlers in public. As it transpires, it's these sorts of attitudes to how living creatures act and react in groups that we are given the chance to examine.

In the morning, a small group of us assemble at Edinburgh’s Summerhall venue to be given some facts about reindeer behaviour, note some rules of the day (no talking, the only verbal communication to be a short 'ugh' noise for danger), and receive a small bag of reindeer food (dry muesli). Then, we are led to the foot of Arthur's Seat by our reindeer dogs (Fins in hi-vis jackets) and left to wander/graze as we see fit for the next two hours, sticking close together and making decisions as a herd by body language gestures (thankfully sans-antlers, although we do still attract looks of bemusement from passers-by).

It is certainly a fascinating experience, a true democracy of movement and a collective delegation of responsibility among a bunch of people who’ve met only an hour before. I'm not sure that I achieve any sort of reindeer-like state, but we instinctively head to beauty spots and higher ground for grazing, and collectively decide to turn back when paths became too treacherous; throughout we gain a real insight into how herding animals behave, and how far-removed human beings are (not as far as I'd thought).

Without the chatter of verbal interaction, I am struck by the sheer din of human activity; even in remote parts of Holyrood Park we are buzzed by helicopters and flanked by bounding dogs. We seem to tire as one and feel the urge to graze simultaneously, and with hearing as our most important sense, the rustling of restless feet signals the desire to move on. The leader of the herd changes regularly and naturally to create a sense of genuine egalitarianism that, perhaps, wouldn't have existed were personality allowed to enter the equation.

After a couple of hours of roaming, our collective instinct is one of tiredness, and we return to de-brief, discussing our experiences and examining our route as plotted out on a map by GPS. This is a unique experience that fulfills its billing of an intersection between art, nature and science, and I will take much away from my time with the herd.

How the Light Gets In – Saturday 4 April (runs until 22 May)

Running throughout the Science Festival at Summerhall, How the Light Gets In provides a fairly interesting collection of artworks that use light in some fashion to depict consciousness and the human brain. Spread out over a number of floors, each exhibit tackles its subject matter in differing ways.

William Latham has used computer software more normally intended for modelling proteins to create sprawling, twisting, virtual sculptures that are projected onto the walls and controllable from a central terminal. With the audience able to alter the speed, size or even appearance itself, it’s a striking visual feat with some neat interaction – easily the highlight of the exhibition.

The remainder of the floors are more hit-or-miss, with some rather confusing computer programs set up for public use with little instruction (or perhaps that’s the point) covering topics such as evolution and terminal disease. The idea behind them is interesting – the former allowing you to select different ‘parents’ of objects and let them evolve at a rapid pace, the latter proclaiming to depict a man’s experience of his spouse’s treatment for Huntington’s disease – but there’s a nagging feeling that they’re too complicated for their own good.

A couple of documentaries round out the rest of the highlights, especially one with scientists’ talking heads discussing life, the universe and everything in-between, and for those that just want something aesthetically pleasing, neon tubes and funky lighting abound. There are also a fair number of non-light based displays, such as a room dedicated to the spread of bacteria and viruses such as MRSA and SARS – but that doesn’t mean they aren’t interesting.  

As an exhibition, How the Light Gets In is a perfectly enjoyable way to spend forty-five minutes wandering through the floors. You can get a taster for the artists' work here.

SciMart – Sunday 5 April

Easter Sunday, and Edinburgh is graced with a beautiful day of sunshine. My visiting German pals and I meander our way through the city toward Summerhall, where the SciMart event is taking place. Dispersing among fellow food enthusiasts, we are soon sampling the wares of the local artisans. The 'Primordial Soup’ created by Edinburgh-based Union of Genius proves an immediate hit. A vegan-friendly blend of healthy stuff, apparently ‘the perfect balance of nine essential amino acids required for our continued survival’. Well, the spiced, zesty, lentil-filled, butter bean-laden soup certainly hits the spot. We continue on sampling some of the tasty whisky sauces on offer, chat cheese-making kits, and soon have our wallets out after sampling some delish organic cookies.

Elsewhere in the building, we are welcomed by the combined smells of roasted coffee, and chef demos in full flow. The enthusiasm and passion of the various artisans and contributors we meet along the way is striking – they're eager to discuss at length the processes involved in their food and drink wares. There are goods on sale at many of the stalls, but at no point does it feel that presentations are overly pushy. Genuine passion, and a desire to share experience is in abundance.  

Once suitably full from grazing on the variety of food samples on offer, we continue on to explore some of the Summerhall’s sci-themed exhibition rooms. Good times, tastes, and vibes are all had at this year’s SciMart!

Genetic Me – Monday 6 April

The popularity of internet-based genetic testing kits has been on the rise in recent years, and set against this backdrop of this genetic curiosity, Dr Lone Frank’s film Genetic Me examines new perspectives on the eternal question of 'how did I become me?'

At the core of the film, the debate surrounding ‘nature vs nurture’ is approached via a personal look into Dr Frank’s family history/environment, and an analysis of her own genetic make-up. The film follows her journey to interview various leading professors in the fields of behavioural science, genetics, psychology, neuroscience, psychiatry, and human behaviour.

Early on in the film, Professor Daniel Nettle reveals research that suggests the biggest predictor of how happy we’ll be at 40 years of age can be determined by how happy we were as a 15 year old. Dr Frank candidly looks back at her experience of growing up, and we learn about a history of family depression, a father who battled with alcoholism, and a painful separation of her parents. It becomes evident that Dr Frank’s experience as a 15 year old, was not a particularly happy time in her life. This ‘predicator of happiness’ that Professor Nettle mentions, prompts us to consider that if someone has had an unhappy experience of life as a 15 year old - are they then doomed to be unhappy as 40 year old?

Dr Frank goes on to address a number of pertinent questions, “From looking into one’s own history and genetic makeup, how can we then determine and change for ourselves?”, “Is change actually possible?”, “Can we change our personality?” Or, “Is personality determined by our genes?”, “How much of who we are today is the result of own own unique genetic code?” In tackling such questions, Dr Frank’s interviews with the various academic minds provide some fascinating insights and explanations. Throughout her conversations, there’s an increasing sense of enlightenment, and, perhaps catharsis through her further contemplations. By the end, the film suggests that change is possible (to an extent), and as Dr Frank states, “By understanding our genes, it says something about our brains - and the brain we can shape.”

Genetic Me is a thought-provoking, and uniquely personal film that brings to light the importance of our genetics in better understanding who we are. The potential pitfalls of overly complex scientific and psychological chat are skilfully navigated, and the film remains both accessible and understandable throughout.

The internet offers us a access to a large range of genetic testing kits, but just how accurate such tests are, and how they can be interpreted (in a similar context to Genetic Me) remains to be seen.

Genetic Me is available to buy on DVD, or stream here.

Robotic Right and Wrong - Monday 6th April

Don’t let the title fool you, this wasn’t a debate on whether or not autonomous robotic weapons should be used in war; according to Professor Noel Sharkey, there’s only one answer. Wrong.

Of course, being the chair of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control, an NGO currently lobbying the UN to prohibit the development and use of autonomous robot weapons, it’s not surprising to discover where his views sit. Whilst his hour-long talk on the rise of AI on the battlefield was certainly rather interesting, it was also rather one-sided. A second speaker coming at it from the opposite angle would have been much appreciated.

As it was, Professor Sharkey took the audience on a whirlwind tour of autonomous weapons, describing them as the third stage in an armament evolution that started with firearms and is currently at drones. There was plenty of test footage of these machines, such as the X47B – a prototype autonomous US aircraft that they hope to deploy over the pacific – and various submarine hunters and armoured cars.

The main focus of the talk, however, was very much the moral implications of the technology. Who should be held accountable for civilian casualties on the battlefield? Can a robot ever differentiate between civilian and combatant? Sharkey is clearly worried about a future of near-continuous conflict, with machines fighting man’s wars on a scale and speed so far unseen outside the Terminator franchise. But is that really the only outcome?

It’s hard to argue that the work Sharkey’s NGO is currently involved in is wrong. Promoting discussion between UN members on the rise of battlefield robotics can only be a good thing, however it was hard to shake the notion that there had to be some positives to the use of these machines. Is the point of targeted strikes not to reduce civilian casualties? Is keeping troops out of harm’s way a bad thing? Sharkey nailed his colours to the flag late on with notions of the “end of war”, and in such a world the presence of this technology would certainly be unwanted – but that’s not the world we live in.

Moving forward, it seems that nations are starting to wake up to this technology and to what it offers. Sharkey certainly painted a bleak picture, from the US being able to use drone strikes for sixty days without congressional approval to robot swarms being hacked by terrorists and used against us – and those are certainly valid concerns. The future of war will be as far removed from the carpet-bombing or nuclear missile dropping of World War Two as you can get, but whether or not that leads to our annihilation remains to be seen.