Page last updated at 07:09 GMT, Friday, 12 September 2008 08:09 UK

The BA Science Festival

Science writer and broadcaster Sue Nelson reported from the annual British Association Science Festival, which was held this year in Liverpool. Sue presented a review of daily festival events in the X-Change, a regular and very popular feature at the festival. She also updated this page with all the gossip...

0900: It's always good to end on a high and last night we delivered. Among an incredibly strong line-up, the surprise star of the show was definitely our politically incorrect gynaecologist Charles Kingsland.

There's a man with a second career ahead as a comedian as he managed to turn infertility into a scientific laugh-fest. And when the opening act is a scientist and professional magician, that's some compliment.

For me, the week has been a joy - both professionally and personally. Next year's BA Science Festival in Guildford, at the University of Surrey, has a lot to live up to.

Meanwhile, some unofficial awards after my time here in Liverpool:

Best speaker: The gynaecologist.

Best speaker on a unicycle: James Soper

Best moustache: Robert Winston

Best dessert: The fried jam sandwich with condensed milk ice cream at a restaurant on Hope Street.

Finally, I've realised that I've had more stimulating conversations with locals in four days than in the last four years in the county where I now live. It has made me ask myself some uncomfortable questions. Such as why the hell am I now living in Hertfordshire?

Liverpool, I shall miss you. This is Sue Nelson, your scientific gossip girl, signing off.


1715: The Q&A session on whether creationism should be a part of the science curriculum produced some memorable lines from the audience, including: "I'm in favour of teaching creation science in schools because it would only takes 5 minutes..." and "I'm a neuroscientist and an agnostic Hindu."

The best rubbernecking occurred, however, when one brave youth announced: "I'm a creationist and also a student of aerodynamics." Brave man.

With an hour to go, we've only just finalised our line-up - but it's a good one: professional magician and psychologist Richard Wiseman on mind magic; experts on fertility, old age and food poisoning; and, last but not least, stand up science comic Mark Stevenson.

After last night's juggling extravaganza expectations will be high.

1200: It may be someone's idea of a joke, but there are birds of prey opposite the press centre. I've become rather attached to the bald eagle, whose head swivels around in Linda Blair fashion whenever you walk past. Oh yes, that gossip. Ian Pearson was here yesterday and, after an event organiser hailed him a taxi, a well known festival regular - let's call him Mr Big - blatantly stole his cab. On being informed by the organiser that the cab was for the Science Minister, Mr Big retorted "Do you have a session in 45 minutes?" and off he went, leaving the Member of Parliament on the pavement.

0815: This feels unbelievably early considering how late I got to bed. Must be dehydration. Last night, I didn't get to eat until around 11pm after a session of the X-Change followed by a technology and sport debate. The latter included the Bob Skeleton world champion and sports engineering professor, Kristan Bromley. He kept to soft drinks during dinner which is why Kristan is a disciplined Olympic standard athlete... and I sit on a spreading backside typing on a keyboard for a living.

The X-Change was riotous. James Soper brought the house down by explaining centre of mass and gravity while juggling three batons on a unicycle at the same time. And staunch defenders of Delia Smith railed against Peter Styring's analysis of her carbon footprint (because Delia advocates the use of frozen mashed potato in one of her cookery books). "Yes, but have you ever tried her fruit cake?" one man shouted. "It's superb!"

Oh yes, I have some good gossip for you too... Later. I need some coffee.

1600: Forgot my queasiness at all things medical and wandered into an exhibition on medical technology. The first thing I came across was a television and, like the 70s child I am, was instantly drawn to a flickering image on the screen.

Big mistake. It was a beating heart with spurting dye revealing a network of tubes. Stunning in hindsight, and I got a wonderfully complete description from a researcher on blockages and stents, but thank goodness I only had soup for lunch.

Meanwhile, tonight's speakers include a neuroscientist, a scientific unicyclist and Professor Peter Styring on Delia Smith's carbon footprint.

Peter is nothing if not versatile: a chemical engineer and also England's mogul skiing coach. After the X-Change, he's taking part in another festival event: a debate I'm chairing on the role of engineering in sport.

There he'll be offering a public sporting challenge to Olympic athlete Rebecca Romero, who won a cycling gold in Beijing and a silver medal for rowing in Athens four years ago. You heard it here first.

1300: Ten scientists and science communicators are judging the Perspectives scientific posters. Bumped into one judge, science writer Jon Turney, who is currently working on The Rough Guide to the Future.

He was in front of a poster by University of Birmingham researcher Lori Snyder. It displayed the white outline of a body, crime scene style, saying it showed the "MRSA genetic code of three million letters". It also asked if you could see from the code how it killed a 64-year-old woman. Nope, couldn't see a thing.

'Neither can scientists,' it said, 'but we are working on it.'

Simple but highly effective... except Jon pointed out that the poster didn't actually show the genetic code.

Once invited to examine it closer, we made a discovery. The entire background consisted of lines of letters G, A, T and C. Three million in fact, although we took Lori's word for it. The letters stand for guanine, adenine, thymine, cytosine - DNA's four nucleotides. Very clever. The winners will be announced tonight.


2300: A good evening. The X-Change went well with Professor Pete Vukusic bringing colour and iridescent butterflies to the proceedings, and Clifford Stott getting a rise out of the audience on why people become violent in groups.

The superbly engrossing session on slavery I attended this afternoon produced our final speaker. Dr Ray Costello is a Liverpool-born historian whose ancestors came to Liverpool from Bermuda in the 1850s. He provided a perfect and passionate counterpoint to suggestions yesterday that knowledge of our genetic history might lead to racism. It was crucial, he argued, to know your heritage.

After our debrief with the team, I met a friend at a local restaurant to catch up on gossip. Who should enter but The Moustache himself. Robert Winston. Dining solo - or trying to. Poor man, he was interrupted about every five minutes by admirers or well wishers, including my predecessor on X-Change, Quentin Cooper.

It reminded me of last year's BA in York. Winston, I'm sorry to disillusion you, doesn't count journalists among his greatest fans. He's been known to be rude and incredibly impatient. But after interviewing him in front of an audience, I witnessed firsthand why the public love him. He was constantly approached by people - some with amazingly personal and painful revelations of infertility or miscarriages. He dealt with every one of them with patience, grace and compassion. Quite an eye-opener.

1400: The X-Change team is everywhere - listening in on sessions about binge drinking, the new shape of science in the Islamic world and womb wars. Robert Winston, the man with the most recognisable moustache in Britain, is naturally involved. Meanwhile I'm heading to the Merseyside Maritime Museum to hear what genetics tells us about the legacy of the slave trade.

But if there's one session that sums up both a science (sociology) and the host city of this year's festival it must be this one: "Club upheaval and supporter sentiment - a case study of fan attitudes to Everton Football Club's proposed ground move".

Apparently some fans have embraced the move's commercialism while others "approach the move in a more emotional way". I'm guessing that's a gem of an understatement.

1100: Exhausted. The first X-Change is always the hardest but the guests were strong - with quite a few having an alternative career ahead in stand-up comedy. Jim Al-Khalili set the tone and several researchers had the crowd laughing with them, not at them.

The researchers are part of the Perspectives hustings. Last night, and tonight, five researchers each have two minutes to explain their poster topics on display at the festival. I have a stopwatch and a whistle. I really like the whistle.

Speakers included Steve Fuller, who suggested that the current spate of "trace your ancestry" programmes promotes racism, Giles Yeo, who had boundless energy talking about obesity, and Tim Grant, who explained how forensic linguistics can identify villains in text crimes - which, in my opinion is anyone who does this :)

An old school friend of mine, (now Dr) Tina Read, was in the audience. She has set up an educational genetics website, Gene Journey, and informed me of another ex-Wirral Grammar Girl who is head of an Inverness science department. Yet another, Liz Redmond, I know is a breast cancer surgeon in Chester; and it got me thinking about how amazing it was that one-third of our sixth form did science A levels. It never felt unusual at the time. Our physics teacher, Mrs Schwarz, should be proud.


1600: Our guests are booked and include physicist Jim Al-Khalili and chemist Lorrely Wilson on fizz, foam and flubber.

After attending the session covering human skeletons, and hearing how scientists solved a 2,000-year-old murder mystery, I almost wish I'd become a forensic archaeologist. We even got to feel each other's skulls, looking for ridges above the eyebrows as not everyone has them.

As I was fondling my neighbour's head, I thought I'd found one. "Sorry," he said. "It's a cyst."

1315: Oh dear. My new best friend, David King, seems to have upset a few people. A particle physicist was fuming in the press centre after reading on the BBC News website that King suggests more money should be spent on important issues such as climate change... and less money on subjects such as... err... particle physics.

To add insult to injury, the physicist was preparing for his session on TV science when someone popped their head round the door, saw him and asked: "Is this obesity?"

Meanwhile, in the hands-on centre, great fun is to be had making paper planes (an exercise in aerodynamic design) and learning about Professor Fluffy. But the robots representing the launch of the First Lego League were stalling. "It's OK," said one of the scientists in front of a laptop. "I'll switch it off and switch it back on again."

1030: The X-Change team is currently scouring the University of Liverpool's campus, attending lectures and searching for scientists with the gift of the gab. I'm down for "Lifetime impact on the human skeleton: traces from the past". As long as no-one examines my liver.

Our venue tonight is the Guild of Students bar so the promise of free drinks is often a great incentive. All scientists have to do is agree to a short interview, take questions from the floor and enjoy themselves. Like last night's audience at the "gr8 GM db8 2008". Don't worry. It took me a minute to understand that, too.

As expected, the audience asked thoughtful and intelligent questions right from the start - no warming up necessary. It also included the former government chief scientific adviser and festival president, Sir David King.

King once worked at the University of Liverpool and was delighted at how the city has changed. He's quite a character and later, over a drink, recalled his introduction to Liverpool humour.

He'd spotted a mouse in a restaurant and had informed the waitress. "That was just the floor show," she deadpanned, and then flicked open the menu so he could choose his food.

1700: I love Liverpool. People talk. On the train, it was a sixty-something local and fellow science fiction addict.

In a taxi, the driver discussed the city's rejuvenation as the European Capital of Culture and how he was hoping to pop into the science festival (his daughter was a science undergraduate). Both men asked: "Is this your first time to Liverpool?"

I'll come clean now. I am the product of two Scousers and originally from Merseyside - albeit from the Wirral - the so-called posh part. The mild accent (it was the Wirral after all...) has long softened although I still say grass (as in ass) and not grass (as in arse). But it's great to be on home turf.

As host of the festival's X-Change, Liverpool makes for a good potential audience. In London, if you try to accost people doing radio vox pops, everyone avoids you like the plague. Here, and I know from experience as I once worked for Radio Merseyside, you have to prise people away from the microphone.

Everyone has something to say; and that's exactly how I like it.

Today I met the team of X-Change volunteers. An impressive bunch. One won the 2006 Daily Telegraph Young Science Writer of the Year Award while another, Dr Angharad Kerr, is from the department of neuroscience at University College London. I feel terribly under-qualified all of a sudden... time to chair a debate on GM - that'll make me feel clever.


2100: The festival began with a bang both in Merseyside and - surprisingly for the organisers no doubt - Hertfordshire.

Adam Hart Davies officially opened the festival in Liverpool with a Science Explosion event at the city's World Museum. Meanwhile, yours truly paid unofficial tribute to the opening with a Space Party in Herts including three rocket launches.

OK, it was a model rocket - and instead of science-hungry Scousers, substitute a bunch of eight-year-olds and our son Matthew. But they definitely saw some hot rocket action. Capable of reaching 500ft (150m), it soared into a grey sky, smoking the grass on our local field and no doubt terrifying parents who only found out about our escapades afterwards. But it was great.

On Sunday, for me at least, the real science action begins. Assuming my morning train to Liverpool Lime Street isn't one of the hundreds that seem to be cancelled this weekend. It's a lethal combination - engineering works and bad weather. If I wasn't heading to a Science Festival I'd cross my fingers.

Sue Nelson and the X-change can be found each evening of the festival at the Liverpool Guild of Students' Saro-Wiwa Bar

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