Page last updated at 13:19 GMT, Friday, 11 September 2009 14:19 UK

The British Science Festival

The 2009 British Science Festival is taking place in Guildford and our Gossip Girl Sue Nelson will be sending us the latest scientific titbits in her daily reporter's log. You can also catch Sue each evening at the festival as she reviews all the goings on in the X-Change, a regular and very popular feature.


How appropriate that facial hair - or the lack of it - played a large part in our final celebrity-filled X-Change.

Fertility expert, TV presenter, science writer and moustache promoter Robert Winston revealed his inner softie by revealing that his best job was being a father.

Chemist Lorelly Wilson performed on-stage scientific magic and somehow managed to keep the raucous bunch of nuclear physicists under control.

Surrey Space Centre's Craig Underwood discussed the proposed UK-led MoonLite mission. The mission will be genuinely ground-breaking; he detailed the penetrators that will fire into the lunar surface after checking "am I allowed to use that word?"

Phil Nathan, who has been teaching school children about pain receptors, required a volunteer - preferably one with a beard. Moments later one nervous, bearded nuclear physicist was sat on stage in a chair while Nathan brandished a pair of tweezers.

Nathan proceeded to pluck hair from different parts of the physicist's body while asking for a pain rating on a scale of 1 to 10. Plucked head and chest hair both rated 2/10. Then the tweezers found a toe hair.

The physicist winced, emitting a small 'oh!' Result? 4/10.

Finally, the killer experiment: nasal hair. One loud 'aaah!' later - accompanied by the sort of laughter that can only be elicited by someone else's pain - and we had found a body part with a large number of pain receptors. A perfect 10/10.

No wonder our next guest, the bearded travel and popular science writer Bill Bryson, refused to come on stage until the tweezers were out of the way.

Bryson charmed everyone with his understated manner and genuine sense of wonder at science, causing him to query why so many people lose this wonder as they get older.

Our final guest, the clean-shaven physicist and TV presenter Jim Al-Khalili, had a bone to pick with yours truly. He'd been reading the BBC blog and was put out that my equation for the perfect science communicator included the quantity F - for the amount of facial hair.

"Then after Simon Singh came on," he said indignantly, pointing to his beautifully clean-shaven head, "Sue changed that to Q for the size of your quiff!"

But Al-Khalili had something else to offer. He unbuttoned his shirt and - to riotous applause - revealed a luxurious matt of dark curls. And so, in Jim Al-Khalili's honour, here is that equation for the third and final time.

Equation 3


H = the number of hand gestures

J = the brightness of a jacket

A = the number of times someone says "amazing"

C = the amount of chest hair

The science continues at Surrey - not least by hosting the Women's Engineering Society conference - as I met Lucy Rogers, author of It's Only Rocket Science' over breakfast.

But for the British Science Festival, it's goodbye until 2010 in Birmingham. Don't forget your tweezers.


10.00: I have changed my formula for the perfect science communicator. The original equation …

Equation 1

… favoured Robert Winston as:

H = the number of hand gestures

J = the brightness of a jacket

A = the number of times someone says "amazing"

F = the amount of facial hair

The formula now favours last night's X-Change guest Simon Singh:

Equation 2

As you can see, F has been replaced by Q, where Q is the size of your quiff. Singh has an extremely good quiff. Almost Tin Tin-esque, in fact.

Our celebrity quiff was joined by antimatter expert Frank Close, medicine woman Dulcie Mulholland, space scientist John Zarnecki (no, I didn't cry) and the criminal lawyers behind the Honesty Lab study, Emily Finch and Stefan Fafinski.

The online study, widely reported, surveyed people's concepts of honesty. A quick poll of the X-Change audience produced a mere handful that would, if they found a five pound note on the pavement, take it into a police station.

Personally, I was surprised by the handful - which says more about me than them.

The winning Perspectives young scientist, Gemma Webster, took home more than a fiver for her simple but effective poster on dementia.

It was in the form of a Heinz baked bean tin with the label advertising an old lady that was 87 years old.

Ingredients included several traits I shared - such as being awkward and irritable but not, I hasten to add, incontinent - and highlighted how we view people with this disease.

After the event, on our way to town with the X-Change team, I almost nabbed the Honesty Lab's taxi by mistake.

Taxi for Finch and Fafinski? Sure! I'm sure we've all done that at some stage of a drunken evening.

But most bizarrely, and you'll have to take my word for this, I returned back to the cell-like student accommodation and found a five pound note on the ground.

A five pound note. What are the chances of that happening eh? And no, I will not be going to the nearest police station.


15.30: This has been a day for memories.

In 1997 I became News 24's first science correspondent.

One of my first reports covered the launch of the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn and its moon Titan.

Seven years later I reported its arrival and the spectacular mission results, interviewing space scientist John Zarnecki.

During a session on Planets in the Space Age this afternoon, Zarnecki revealed that he was recently asked by Nasa to work on Time (Titan Mare Explorer) - scheduled for 2015 as the first mission to explore an extraterrestrial sea.

Zarnecki seemed humbled.

"I didn't think I'd go back to Titan in my life time," he said.

It was a poignant moment. But I too had forgotten how much science can still move me.

Zarnecki played a film clip, taken by a Mars Exploration rover and showing dust devils on the Martian surface.

It was so amazing - watching mini tornadoes wisp across the surface of another world - that I welled up with emotion and tears. Totally unexpected.

Zarnecki is now booked for tonight's X-Change.

The other flashback concerns my on campus accommodation.

It has taken me back to my own student days because - appropriately for a science festival - it is reminiscent of a cell with one single bed, a table, wooden chair and a bookcase.

In the true retro spirit, I also cycled a "disco bike" in the hands-on science area and generated enough electricity to power a stereo, bubble blowing machine and a glitter ball.


10.00: I didn't recognise him with his clothes on. No, not Robert Winston: Professor John Lucas from Rothamsted Research.

Lucas was a guest on last night's X-Change - booked by one of the team and a scientist I'd not met before. Or so I thought.

Instead here was the guy I'd chatted to in Harpenden's leisure pool on a weekly basis, for well over a year, while my son - and his daughter - attended swim school.

When a man has seen you in a Speedo it's easy to let your power base slip - or in my case plummet.

But Lucas laughed, as he didn't recognise me with my clothes on either, and went on to explain why pests and plants are in an agricultural arms race.

Also wearing clothes were: (Darth) Alex Murphy, who revealed the dark side of the Universe; Supercontinent author Ted Nield, who provoked a lively debate on CP Snow's Two Cultures; and the wonderfully entertaining Maria McNamara, who managed to wrap an audience member in cling film while explaining how she made fossils from dead birds to help decode the history of life.

As the campus is filled with children, we invited meteorologist and polar scientist Tamsin Gray to speak after she'd helped 75 school kids design an Antarctic base.

Gray gave an inspirational talk about her work including weather balloons, the joy of penguins and the dangers of licking metal in a cold climate.

The young scientists thrilled again with one of them, Chris Jones, living up to his student nickname of Psycho.

At the end of his 2 minute spiel Jones threatened the audience if they didn't come and see the perspective posters.

Bondage and violence. This just gets better and better.


1600: Robert Winston has confirmed for Thursday's X-Change. Like all our guests, the only reward is a pint or two and not, as one potential guest suggested, a £6,000 appearance fee.

The Winston 'tache (BBC)

Nope, the man with the moustache will be chatting for free like everyone else. I can also confirm that Winston, together with physicist Jim Al-Khalili, had been prepared to pose naked for the love of science, too.

Artist Anne Brodie is currently collaborating with microbiologist Dr Simon Park on a project called "Exploring the Invisible". Brodie takes photographs using light from bioluminescent bacteria.

Mathematician Marcus du Sautoy and Lord Krebbs have, I'm reliably informed, already got their kit off. My British Science Association source then managed to persuade both Winston and Al-Khalili to go nude under a bacterial glow.

Unfortunately, when they arrived at the venue, the artist had left - causing Winston to shrug his shoulders and sniff: "Their loss."

1000: Never, in my three years hosting the X-Change, has there been so much sustained laughter. Loud, shocked, gleeful laughter.

Mouths wide open in an "I can't believe he just said that" kind of laughter. In other words, our opening night was very, very rude - as you'll see from the ripe language below.

Guests included Dr Nikki Gammans from the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, Kerry Kirwan on how chocolate and carrots contributed to his eco-friendly Formula 3 car, and nuclear physicist Paddy Regan.

An expert on exotic nuclei - such as the material used to kill Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko - Regan is now perhaps better known by the nickname "Professor Polonium".

Four science students - who explained their poster subjects in two minutes before being rudely interrupted by my whistle - also took part.

All extremely entertaining.

But it was Scottish crime writer Stuart MacBride who brought the house (bar) down - aided, and admirably abetted, by a member of the audience who happened to be a gastroenterologist.

MacBride is giving two talks at the festival with forensic scientists called "Murder, Mystery and Microscopes". But last night, when I asked how he worked with scientists to write fiction, he replied mischievously: "I just make shit up."

MacBride then recalled - with appropriate hand gestures - how an inmate of Her Majesty's Prison Service objected to one of his novels where a character smuggles crack cocaine "up his man passage".

The prisoner was indignant. He'd done a survey on B wing and everyone agreed: there was no way anyone could smuggle the amount of cocaine stated in the book.

MacBride consulted a scientist. He had got the amount wrong - by a factor of 10. Cue gastroenterologist, who prompted a detailed discussion on the correct rectal capacity, its properties and the tests they had to do as students on themselves.

It must be fun being a crime writer. But even more fun to be a gastroenterologist.


The advantage of a science festival equivalent of a backstage pass is that you can pop in and out of sessions.

In "Gardening for wildlife" I learnt about the Bugs project (Biodiversity of Urban Gardens in Sheffield) and that "growing Busy Lizzies and petunias should be a crime".

After missing the start, I can only assume that the crime was related to a later statement that - when it comes to plants attracting wildlife (and like many other things in life) - bigger is undoubtedly better.

In the lecture theatre next door, "What computers tell us about the mind" reminded the audience that no-one has yet claimed the $100,000 Loebner Prize for artificial intelligence.

The prize is for the first computer that passes the Turing Test. If this happens, its responses will be indistinguishable from a human's and the computer will be said to be thinking.

The test is named after the founder of modern computing, British mathematician Alan Turing, brought up in Guildford. Turing's statue can be seen striding across a concrete concourse at the University of Surrey.

Usually at some stage of the year - no doubt after exams - the statue occasionally sports a traffic cone. Or, so I'm reliably informed, two strategically placed coconuts and a grass skirt.

At some point during the festival, Turing may also be wearing a pink X-Change T-shirt… but this will have nothing to do with me. Honest.


The X-Change team is star-struck. After getting lost during our campus familiarisation tour, we found ourselves midway between Robert Winston's moustache and the equally hirsute Dick and James Strawbridge, from BBC Two's It's Not Easy Being Green.

One of the volunteers squealed with delight: "I can't believe I'm seeing so much celebrity facial hair!"

Unfortunately "Going Green with the Strawbridges" clashed with my chosen session - why do journalists love stupid equations?

Writer Simon Singh delivered an entertaining and passionate plea for the media to respect mathematics instead of reporting stories that make mathematicians look trivial or bonkers.

Singh's evidence was convincing. He began by offering an equation which proved, from first principles, that the Teletubbies were evil.

This was followed by a list of formulae which attracted widespread press interest, including equations for the perfect bra, joke, rugby kick, biscuit and penalty.

More often than not, these equations were commissioned by PR companies purely to promote a certain product.

And so, in honour of the British Science Festival, I have devised an equation for the perfect science communicator, SC.

It is:

SC =((H + J ) x 3F)/A

H = the number of hand gestures

J = the brightness of a jacket

A = the number of times someone says "amazing"

F = the amount of facial hair


After Liverpool in 2008, Guildford is the host city for this year's British Science Festival - the artist formerly known as the British Association for the Advancement of Science Festival - or BA for short.

Being known as BA caused understandably confusion, so the festival's organisers have also rebranded themselves as the British Science Association. Not least because no-one enjoys receiving calls demanding: "I'm in Terminal 5. Where's my bag?"

Different city. Different name. But the aim is the same: bringing science to the masses and a chance to admire Robert Winston's moustache in person.

In honour of the festival, I've relaunched my Planet Earth podcast and researched some of Guildford's celebrity burials. Such as mathematician and Alice in Wonderland author, Lewis Carroll; Brave New World author Aldous Huxley and - er - Harry Secombe.

Aldous's grandfather, the polymath Thomas Huxley, once spoke at the science festival in 1860. He was also labelled "Darwin's bulldog" for defending Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection.

As part of the X-Change team, I too will apply bulldog-style determination, searching for the "best of the fest" (for our evening event) and the best gossip (for this page).

X-Change volunteers include graduates in neuroscience, astrophysics and mathematics. In return, they get to experience science communication in action and wear a bright pink T-shirt.

Their first lesson in the media is complete: draw attention to yourself and prepare to be humiliated.

Sue Nelson hosts the X-Change at the Chancellors Bar, University of Surrey, at the British Science Festival Mon-Thu 7-10 September, 1800-1930 BST.

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