Page last updated at 18:06 GMT, Monday, 21 July 2008 19:06 UK

The Euroscience festival

Science writer and broadcaster Sue Nelson reports from the Euroscience Open Forum in Barcelona. The forum is a relatively new event that aims to showcase European achievements in the sciences. Over the next few days, Sue will track the trends, the issues and the gossip.


1930: The show went on and it was an absolute stormer. Five fantastic speakers and our Nobel Prize winner, Richard Roberts, stirred things up by urging each one of us to be a rebel with a cause.

Later, during Stephen Rose's discussion on the mind, Roberts brought up the mindset of North Koreans. I asked him to explain what he meant. "Like automatons," he responded. "Although I could also say that of Catholics."

A sharp intake of breath from members of the audience... which, considering we're in a Catholic country, was hardly surprising.

Despite constant nausea, no-one detected the earlier migraine trauma. I am now officially a trooper.

The festival finishes tomorrow and the X-Change reappears in Liverpool in September for the British Association science festival. See you there. Buy me a drink. I won't say no...

1700: Just over an hour to go. Head almost clear. Nausea remains, but I've almost finished my scripts, research and introductions. Once again we've a strong line up:

  • an American-based, British-born Nobel Prize winner for gene splicing
  • the English biologist Stephen Rose
  • a German scientist on drought
  • Rhonda Smith on making healthy choices with tapas
  • and a gorgeous Portuguese marine biologist, Jose Xavier, who works with penguins in Antarctica. (Lucky penguins).
  • By the way, the Nobel Prize winner Richard Roberts was also West of England snooker champion when he was 16. How cool is that?

    Meanwhile, a Barcelona pick-pocket might think twice in future about wandering hands. He tried to mug a Swedish science journalist last night, making off with his wallet. The journalist caught him, held on, and after a tussle, refused to release the mugger unless he got his wallet back. Respect.

    1500: The darkness. A nauseating, head banging darkness.

    At 715am I crawled to a team member's hotel room to tell her I feel ill. Three hours later I hear loud voices. My temples are exploding. I still feel sick. Now I understand. It's a migraine.

    I need something for my head. Find the voices. They might have drugs. They must have drugs - they're American. They don't.

    The hotel oblige. I stagger back into my darkened room and sleep. After a total of fourteen hours in a hazy, dream-tangled fog, I emerge - ready for tonight's third and final X-Change.

    It's showtime.


    2000: Second X-Change done and dusted - a scientific smorgasbord of ethics, innovation and policy with a potential life-saver thrown in for good measure.

    Speakers included two Americans (Alan Leshner, AAAS, and Sheila Jasanoff from Harvard), a Swede (Carol Johan Sundberg from the Karolinska Institute) and a German (Wolfgang Goede of PM magazine).

    Wolfgang produced a spellbinding discussion around scientific ethics during Nazi Germany; while Joseph Call, from the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology, made us think about thinking. Like why we pack our passport the night before a trip yet insist on checking it's still there the next morning.

    Last but not least, Mats Palerius, from Zenicor Medical Systems, showed us a simple device that detects one, often undetectable, cause of stroke - an irregular heartbeat. No ECG needed. All you need to do is press your thumbs on a keypad for 10 seconds so it can read your heart's electrical signals. I did. Fortunately, it was tick-tock perfect.

    Not so, however, for one member of the public visiting the festival this afternoon. He is taking the printout of his irregular heartbeat to his doctor first thing tomorrow morning. This may have been the luckiest day of his life.

    1600: Interrupted by a vibrating mobile phone during a session on the health risks of nanotechnology. Crept outside and discovered it was someone from the exhibition stand on ITER, the future European experimental fusion facility.

    "I've been reading your blog," he said. "Come and see us... We've got doughnuts."

    1300: It is official. We are relocating from the sauna (cafeteria) to the downstairs, air conditioned tapas bar for tonight's X-Change. The team hastily print out details to add to the flyers around the conference centre.

    Got chatting to a Cypriot engineer over coffee. He was enjoying his third ESOF but had one minor criticism. "It's the programme," he said. "It's far too heavy to carry around."

    Told you.

    1100: Wow. Barcelona sure knows how to throw a science party. Cava, mussels, cured meats, the most delicious pastries known to man and a live band. And men on stilts. Naturally. It was held last night in Poble Espanyol, a stone´s stagger away from the conference centre.

    Bumped into a number of British and Australian science journalists, all equally enamoured with the catering, comparing it favourably to ESOF 2006 (Munich) and the first ever ESOF in 2004 (Stockholm).

    ESOF 2010 is already booked for Torino so delegates from various countries are here bidding for 2012.

    The Irish have an exhibition stand promoting Dublin 2012, complete with posters, handouts and shiny shamrock brooches.

    In doing so they have inadvertantly upset the Austrians - who feel the Irish are jumping the gun - although I suspect it is really because the Austrians didn't think of it themselves. Oops.


    1930: Phew. The first X-Change is over. Rather like throwing your own party, there's always that terrifying period beforehand when you're convinced that no-one will turn up. And the café is huge, which means a lot of spaces to fill. But fill they did.

    Former chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, Sir Richard Mottram, gave us the lowdown on science and terrorism. John McEnroe look-a-like, Simon Wessely, director of the Kings Centre for Military Health Research, revealed that the most psychologically damaging condition for British soldiers was not post-traumatic stress syndrome but resulted from alcohol.

    Ludmilla Jordanova highlighted artists who had made portraits using scientists' sperm and blood. Roberta Trotta described the missing universe and mathematician Marcus Du Sautoy gave a thrilling preview of his session tomorrow on symmetry. His T-shirt attracted even more attention. It was bright green and declared "I are scientist".

    "But what does it mean?" one woman asked, before Marcus finally admitted that it wasn't just bad grammar. He'd bought it at a concert last week with his son. The pop group is called We are Scientists. "I simply had to have it," he confessed. And who can blame him?

    Meanwhile, we're trying to relocate to a ground floor tapas bar for tomorrow's X-Change because there's no air conditioning - and one guest thanked us for the sauna...

    1600: "Welcome to the dark side of the universe."

    Licia Verde sure knows how to get an audience's attention. Together with fellow Italian astronomer, Roberto Trotta, they presented a storming account of the missing universe, why Einstein and Newton were wrong, cosmology in crisis, and dark energy (complete with image of Darth Vader).

    Time for me to research questions and write some introductions for our guest speakers and savour my first festival lunch. As you can tell, this is a big deal. Normally at these things, you miss all meal breaks. But today I had a leisurely paella (because I'm in Spain) and a glass of sangria (because I'm a journalist).

    1130: The day begins at 0730 with a breakfast X-Change team briefing to remind ourselves who is going to which event. We've had to be selective because the ESOF programme is the size and weight of a catalogue.

    Unfortunately, this means it can't be used as a fan - an essential accessory due to the heat. I'm using the smaller, lighter press schedule instead, but it produces paper crackles and occasionally flies out of my hand. I gaze enviously at those who flicker the real thing, Spanish-style, with casual panache.

    We attend different sessions ready to pounce on any scientist who tickles our collective fancies and book them for tonight. I plump for The Universe and Reality with Cambridge University's Professor Gerry Gilmore and Tejinder Virdee, a professor of physics at Imperial College London who also works at Cern.

    They discuss the shape of the Universe and whether it has an infinite past or future, quantum foam and smashing particles together at the (soon to be online) Large Hadron Collider. SUSY gets several mentions, too. That's a super-symmetrical particle, in case you're wondering.

    We also heard how, in physics-speak, cold dark matter equates to slow moving (cold), transparent (dark) and generating and responding to gravity (matter).

    For some reason I picture Eddie the Eagle - the Brit who always came last in the Olympic ski jump - who impressed everyone with his guileless enthusiasm.

    Foam also makes a brief appearance during the later art and science session but in a more literal sense. "To talk about art and science without talking about religion," announces Alice Jenkins from the University of Glasgow, "is like licking the froth off a cappuccino without drinking the coffee."

    So now you know.


    There are many reasons to go to Barcelona and I've now found a new one. It's the Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF) 2008 where I'll be presenting three events called The X-Change.

    These are similar to the informal best-of-the-fest evenings during the annual British Association science festival. It's an ideal job, to be honest, because I interview scientists who are great at communicating. In a bar.

    Fortunately, it's an English-speaking session. I once updated a travel guide to southern Spain and only discovered on my return that I'd mixed up the verb "to have" with "to speak". I spent the entire month asking people if they spoke tapas... Or red wine... Or white wine....

    Over the next four days, ESOF has a number of scientific themes such as the human mind, engineering the body and 'what should we eat and how should we look?'

    This is particularly apt considering the event is held in Spain. Lectures may start at 0830 but it's the only science festival I have ever come across that has scheduled in a two-and-a-half-hour lunch-break. Yes, you read right. Two and a half hours. Fantastic.

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