Science. It’s a Bit Like Sex

As Edinburgh International Science Festival rings in 25 years this month, we examine the event's heightened significance

Feature by Les Ogilvie | 08 Mar 2013
  • Science

You live in the future. Sat-nav and shopping on your phone. Instant, multimedia, communication with the world. Mind-controlled prosthetic limbs. Gene-targeted, personalised, medicine. A nuclear powered robot on Mars with a Twitter account. The electric ukulele. It’s a technological age and, whether we like it or not, we’re all irrecoverably immersed in matters of science.

Unfortunately, science has bad PR. The image of science as dull and difficult, a labour perpetrated upon the world by unbeauteous old men who speak in riddles, persists. The 21st century, with poetic irony, brought with it a significant reduction in the number of pupils choosing science subjects in Scottish schools. Technology firms have expressed concerns that Scotland’s rich history of engineering and innovation is fading from memory as we are simply no longer producing enough scientifically literate citizens. It’s not solely industry that need worry – scientific literacy empowers us all to make informed choices in an increasingly technological world. What do we really know about genetically modified foods? About nuclear power? About global warming? About stem cell therapy? About the medicines and procedures prescribed to us?

The good news is that these issues needn’t be inaccessible. The best-kept secret is that science, despite this prosaic public image, is fun, dramatic, exciting, awesome and wonderful. In the literal sense of these words. Some of the most incredible sights and experiences we can imagine are right under our noses, and scientists want to share them with us.

"Exploring science is empowering, it’s important, it’s consequential; but above all it’s huge amounts of fun"

It is with this spirit of inclusivity that the 2013 Edinburgh International Science Festival roars, sparkles, crackles and explodes into life on 23 March. For two weeks, the city will open itself to a smorgasbord of talks, activities, and experiences; inviting the public to step up to the front-line of global innovation and get their hands dirty with the most pressing and exciting issues of the day.

Over this fortnight of scientific celebration, there will be hundreds of events taking place across nearly forty venues. Experiences are designed for all ages – from slime-making classes for five year olds, to adults only late-night events such as the festival opening party at the City Art Centre where guests will be able to indulge in Culture #1 – the Science Festival’s own beer – while having first-shot at some of the hands-on activities. 

The festival’s biggest draws will certainly include One Way Ticket to Mars (5 Apr, 8pm) at the National Museum of Scotland. A must-see evening with Bas Lansdorp, co-founder of Mars One, who has set his organisation the ambitious target of establishing a human colony on Mars by 2023. Lansdorp is clear that his interplanetary pilgrims will leave Earth knowing they will never return. In his presentation he will discuss the logistical, technological and psychological challenges that will face the pioneers in establishing the first human settlement on another world.

Activities and workshops will be plentiful. Let your kids loose in a forensics lab at CSI (23, 25-30 Mar, various times) in the City Arts Centre. Sample futuristic food alternatives at The Adaptation Diet (30 Mar, 5.30pm) on Teviot Row, where Professor Mark Post will be challenging guests with synthetic meat and insect protein. Mark Thompson from BBC’s Stargazing LIVE will host a skywatching event, Stargaze with Mark (27 Mar, 7pm) at the Royal Botanic Garden. At the One Day Digital (30 Mar) workshop, you can be talked through designing your own smartphone app, computer game or gadget. And in Intelligent Robots (2-5 Apr, 2pm) you can experience cutting edge artificial intelligence and pit your wits against thinking machines.

Lightheartedness abounds, with comedian Robin Ince hosting a Show and Tell (24 Mar, 8pm) event at the National Museum of Scotland and Richard Wiseman hosting the Great Big Science Quiz (23 Mar, 8pm), a comedy panel show featuring scientists and comedians placing as much stock in wit as in wisdom, at Teviot Row. Marcus Chown, tireless populariser of science and one-time student of the extraordinary Richard Feynman, will offer an easy introduction into the perennially misunderstood world of quantum physics. And we will see the return on scientific stand-up comedy to Teviot Row with Festival of the Spoken Nerd (5 Apr, 8pm).

For those who fancy something a little more combative, there will be plenty of controversy and intellectual belligerence. In My Dangerous Idea (26 Mar, 8pm) at the Teviot Row Debating Hall, scientists whose work is considered morally or socially dangerous will make their case. In Like a Virgin (19 Mar, 6pm) biologist Aarathi Prasad considers a reproductive future for humanity which does not involve sex. Human Hybrids (7 Apr, 6pm) explores how tissue-replacement technology may blur the biological line between human and animal. And in the provocatively titled 2038: The End of Religion? (30 Mar, 6pm) the University of Glasgow’s Professor Paul Braterman will join a panel discussing the future of religion in an increasingly technological world.

The sheer size of the festival makes it impossible to do justice to the diversity of events on offer. Films, art installations (inspired by science or using cutting-edge materials and audiovisual techniques), street science; the list goes on.  Oozing (in some places, literally) with fun, rammed with opportunities for unique experiences, and designed to challenge and expand your understanding of the Universe around you – this is an event which demands the attention of anyone who is interested in anything. 

Exploring science is empowering, it’s important, it’s consequential; but above all it’s huge amounts of fun. The spirit of the festival can be summarised with the timeless old wisecrack, often attributed to Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman: “Science. It’s a bit like sex. Yeah, sure, it has some practical applications, but that’s not why we do it.”

Edinburgh International Science Festival takes place at various venues throughout the city between 27 Mar and 7 Apr. The full programme is available for download at Les Ogilvie is a regular contributor to Scottish Science webzine