Thursday, 27 October 2011

The environment is a cup.

Review of The Devil's Garden Q&A event, co-hosted by the Manchester Science Festival and the Manchester Literature Festival.

In a quiet room on the topmost floor of the Manchester Museum, Johan Oldekop, a biologist, begins a discussion of his research in the Amazon. He stands in front of about 30 people, and illuminates the complexities of environmentalism and conservation when placed against indigenous peoples' concerns. “The environment,” he says, “is like a plastic cup. You can squeeze a plastic cup, and it will change its shape, but it can re-form and it will still hold water. But if you squeeze it too hard, it’ll break, and it won’t be able to hold water any more, and importantly, it won’t be a cup.” Why squeeze the cup? Development.

He put it most starkly by telling us about how one village is currently six hours away from the nearest hospital by boat... but if those villagers had a road, they would only be one hour away. They want a road, but conservationists want to maintain the rainforest, and in the heart of the Amazon, Oldekop argues, is where issues of science, progress, humanity and the environment come together. Where do human rights, such as access to medical care, trump environmental concerns, and who should be the beneficiaries?

Oldekop's research focused on the role of rural communities in conservation initiatives and environmental impacts, so his work fits neatly in with today's other speaker, Edward Docx.

The Devil's Garden, by Docx, is about a scientist named Dr Forle, who is based on a river station deep in the South American jungle. Docx begins by telling us that he’s happy to be in Manchester promoting his new novel, because Manchester is his home town.

First, Docx discusses his inspirations that led him to write this book, including Coetzee and Conrad. He describes casting his characters in such a way to maintain conflict. “Conflict is drama,” he says. For example, if there’s a scientist, then there should be a religious person to conflict with the scientist. He tries to imagine his characters as a whole cast, in the round, so that there’s always drama. In The Devil’s Garden, he says, there’s drama because it’s about the conflict between corporations, environmentalists, scientists, missionaries and indigenous people.

But the real issue that his novel is about (and, he says, that every novel is really about) is how we should try to live.

Edward Docx then reads out some short sections of his novel before the floor is opened to the audience for a Q&A. The discussion ranges from eco-tourism to ethics, but most interestingly, one audience member challenges both Oldekop and Docx’s work. By explaining how all the complications and complexity of decisions around environmentalism are so interrelated, they’re essentially saying there’s nothing we can do that would be both fair to everyone and still save the earth. It’s despairing, and shouldn’t we just stop even trying to save this planet? Shouldn’t we just work on finding a new one to colonise, if this is all so complicated that, in the end, we simply can’t figure out what the best route might be?

In response, Oldekop and Docx both recognise the despair in their works, but Docx tempers this sentiment by saying that humans have always been inventive and creative. Art, he thinks, is humanity’s redemption. While his book is dark, he feels it is full of light. If people will re-read the book (which, he says, “is the only way of really reading”!), he thinks they’ll find it suggests there is a future.

And Oldekop agrees, saying that nihilism is dangerous, because if we really begin to believe there’s nothing we can do, then it will stop us doing anything to protect our planet or take care of people.

This post originally appeared on the Manchester Literature Festival Blog.
Words by Nija Dalal. Photograph by Jon Atkin.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Microbiology and Art
Saturday 22 October – 10 November
11am – 5pm
Cost & Booking: Free. No need to book. Drop in anytime.

Last night, I hopped over to MadLab for the launch of the Microbiology and Art exhibition, already mentioned on this blog here. The artworks are lovely and really gave me a new way to think about science, and a new way of engaging with microbiology. The many facets of microbiology, from virii, bacteria, fungi and parasites were considered using artistic media, from photography to jewellery.

Naseerah Ali's Virus Structure

Malaria, by Mbeen Ali, Tona Aderibigbe, Ahmed Chowdhary and Ali Hayat

Emily Robertson's Beauty and the Mini-beasts

The exhibition brought together some really interesting work that explores the creativity that is possible when mixing supposedly unrelated disciplines. It's open until 10 November at MadLab-- be sure to check it out, and tell us what you thought!

Friday, 21 October 2011

Lab coats and goggles at the ready... Manchester Science Festival 2011 begins tomorrow!

The launch weekend for this year's Festival is going to be immense. BBC Bang goes the theory, Science and engineering extravaganza, Think, feel, move and Gaia Cabaret are some of the events on offer.

Don't miss this year's events, many of which are unique to Manchester Science Festival and you won't get the chance to see them elsewhere.

Just in time for the cold weather, we bring you Polar, an amazing concert experience with the Manchester Camerata and beautiful footage from the Polar regions. This Sunday 23 October is the only chance to see Polar in Manchester.

Performances of Polar are at 3pm and 7pm. It's suitable for the whole family so whether you're new to classical music or not, make sure you don't miss this brilliant event. You can book tickets in advance online. Alternatively call 0161 907 5555 or drop into the box office at the Royal Northern College of Music to book tickets.

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Manchester Science Festival
22-30 October 2011
At venues across Greater Manchester

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Wednesday, 19 October 2011

An Elephant Packed Into a Cell?

Alan Turing and Morphogenesis
Sunday 23 October
£5 (£3 concessions). Booking advised

Morphogenesis, or the process by which bodies are formed from single cells, is one of the major mysteries of biology. Starting from a single cell, many organisms undergo morphogenesis to become 3D bodies. And that initial single cell does not have an accurate map of what the body will eventually look like—so how does a body form? How is the body of an elephant coded in a single tiny cell?

Alan Turing, in his lesser-known late work, showed theoretically how two types of chemicals might diffuse and react with each other to generate spatial patterns. The equations derived in the 1950s are still relevant today, as biologists are still trying to figure out what exactly is going on during the process of morphogenesis.

To mark the publication of Litmus, Comma's latest science-into-fiction project, Manchester author Jane Rogers and MMU scientist Dr Martyn Amos will discuss the final theorem of one of Britain's greatest scientists, Alan Turing.

Nija Dalal sat down with Martyn Amos to discuss Turing's biological ideas, and the interconnection between science and literature...

Who was Alan Turing?
Well, he’s probably most famous for cracking the Enigma Code. That work directly shortened the war by 2-3 years, so imagine the number of lives he saved! He’s also well-known for his untimely death, as a result of persecution for being homosexual, and he developed the Turing Test for determining if a computer has artificial intelligence. Basically, if a human talks to it and believes the computer is human, then the computer has artificial intelligence.

Turing’s biggest influence is in computability. He essentially founded the field of Computer Science, by placing it in a rigourous framework. Before him, computers were ad hoc machines, put together from components usually for a specific purpose.

He realized we could make a computer that is abstract. A machine that is designed for any type of computation. He revolutionized computation by realizing that computation is not connected to any one thing.

What is Morphogenesis?
This is his least well-known work, probably. It’s what he was working on just before he died.

Alan Turing had a long-standing interest in biology, nature, and natural history, so he grew interested in morphogenesis, which is the process by which a small package (initially just one cell) unwraps itself to form a body. What is in the encoding of a cell that instructs the formation of a 3D body?

Turing believed it was the interaction of chemicals, and he was the first person to apply mathematics to biology.

I think it’s important to recognize that he was truly a cross-disciplinary thinker. He applied engineering principles to answer a biological question!

So, what is Turing’s Theorem of Morphogenesis?
Basically, the theorem uses set of equations that predict the chemical interaction that create the stable patterns we see in nature, like a leopard’s spots. The flux and interactions of the chemicals give rise to stable patterns.

What’s amazing is that when Turing’s equations are rendered visually using computer simulations, we can see the patterns Turing’s equations predict, and they’re familiar. They’re out there, in nature, in the stripes and whorls of animal patterns! They’re called Turing patterns now. But he didn’t have the computational ability to see the patterns predicted by his own equations back then! Turing never saw the Turing patterns! His work was entirely theoretical.

Turing’s Morphogenesis theorem is still very controversial, though. Just because natural patterns look a lot like Turing patterns doesn’t mean they are being caused by Turing’s hypothesized chemical diffusion-reaction interactions. A lot of scientists don’t believe Turing had it right.

You’ll be discussing the relationship between science and literature… can you tell us a little more about that?
Comma Press is publishing an anthology called Litmus, which is about taking scientific ideas and putting them in short stories. Jane Rogers wrote a short story for Litmus, which has a thread of morphogenesis running through it. It’s a really beautiful story, and it shows how science and literature can come together in a way that isn’t necessarily science-fiction… more like science in fiction!

What do you want people to take away from this discussion?
I think I’d like them to know more about Turing and his work, to challenge the idea of him being just a maths nerd. I think it would be great if people came away with a richer understanding of his contribution and a richer sense of him as a human being… and maybe even be a little angry at how he was treated.

A sense of injustice is well-placed when you realize how amazing a thinker he was, and how poorly he was compensated for his immense contributions to knowledge and science.

Curious to learn more about the science behind morphogenesis and see some of those Turing patterns? Here’s a great article with lots of interesting images!

This event is hosted in conjunction with the Manchester Literature Festival.

The Manchester Science Festival 2011 presents
Alan Turing and Morphogenesis
36-40 Edge St, Manchester, Greater Manchester M4 1, UK
Sunday 23 October
2pm – 3pm
£5 (£3 concessions). Booking advised.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Out of this world!

A Spacetacular Manchester Adventure!

Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI)
Friday 28 October
Bar and activities from 6pm; event starts 7.30pm
£8 (£6 concessions).
Booking advised.

Helen Keen’s been defining the razor’s edge between science and comedy since her first full-length show in 2008, called It Is Rocket Science!

This year, the Manchester Science Festival is hosting a night at the museum, featuring a campervan journey into the imagination of Carl Sagan, a specially created planetarium show, and a performance of Spacetacular! – quite possibly the first stand-up comedy/science/fancy dress/variety/quiz show entirely themed around outer space -- co-presented by Helen, quizzing spacemaster Matt Brown and local space scientists from Jodrell Bank!

It’s going to be a special interactive and participatory night, as the audience can bring along their own space memorabilia for show and tell, and everyone’s encouraged to wear space-themed costumes! There will even be free tinfoil & futuristic galvanized steel wire pan scourers to augment/create your look!

Manchester Science Festival blogger Nija Dalal caught up with Helen, to discuss this free-form show that’s designed to inspire through laughter!

How did you come up with the idea for this show?
It’s something I’ve been thinking about for awhile. I’m really interested in space and space science, so I go to talks and events, panels and so on. And they’re great events, where you can really learn a lot about space and science, I love them. But they’re often dominated by white, middle-aged men, which can give people a really narrow impression of the people who study space.

When I did my It Is Rocket Science! show, I found the audiences to be really varied, and that’s not necessarily reflected by the people who usually give lectures and talks. A few years ago, I met a researcher named Dr. Sophia Khan. She’s young, she’s glamourous, she’s from Liverpool, and she has worked for NASA. She’s just not the stereotypical space scientist. Whenever I do science-themed shows, I find the people who come along are also a really broad range of people. I think that’s fantastic.

Can you describe the show for me a bit?
It’s a variety night themed around outer space. It’ll have a mix of people, comedians, musicians, and especially for our Manchester show, we’ll be shining a light on local, Manchester-based researchers, and showing off the fantastic work that’s happening locally!

What got you excited about space?
I’m so old that I remember Halley’s comet flying over in 1986. Well, I was very young then, I was only 9, but still I remember it well, because it was so exciting. I’m an only child, and I had kind of a small world. There was just a huge contrast between my world and the infinity of the night sky. The space shuttle launches, I remember were really big things when I was a kid, I guess I just got excited about it all back then.

You encourage people to dress up for this event… what kinds of costumes have people worn in the past?
I think it would be fantastic to be looking out at a sea of silveryness… or anything. Even if people just have a tinfoil crown or a tinfoil wristband…
People don’t have to dress up, but I would love it.

And they can dress up as anything related to outer space, they can be a crew member from Mercury 7, or a character from Star Wars or Star Trek… anything. Space is really flexible that way!

What kinds of objects have people brought before?
There have been a lot of items, but off the top of my head… there was:

A bit of a satellite that fell off… don’t remember how he got it, but I know it wasn’t nefarious!
Mission patches from space missions.
Badges from NASA camps that they went to when they were kids.
And I’ve even seen some space-themed tattoos! (luckily, none of them have been in weird places!)

When you’re putting your science-y shows together, do you think about inspiring people, or just about making them laugh? I guess first and foremost, I want to make an entertaining show! I love weird obscure facts, and I definitely want to share my enthusiasm with the audience.

What can people look forward to?
I think what people will enjoy most is the mix of different things that will be happening. One moment, they’ll hear someone talking quite seriously about their research at Jodrell Bank, and the next moment we’ll be having a competition for Most Creative Use of Tinfoil in a Costume!

You never know what’s going to happen next, just that it’ll all be fun and interesting, because all our guests (even the researchers from Jodrell Bank!) talk about their work in a really entertaining way, and they also do more than just talk!

And they’ll be bringing in really cool physical objects to show the audience as well!

Everyone is sure to have a fun, enjoyable night, and come away enthusiastic about science and outer space!

The Manchester Science Festival 2011 presents
Out of this world: A Spacetacular Manchester Adventure!
MOSI (Museum of Science and Industry), Liverpool Road, Castlefield, Manchester, M3 4FP
Fri 28 Oct 2011
Bar and activities from 6pm; event starts 7.30pm
£8 (£6 concessions). Booking advised

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Primitive Streak at Manchester Science Festival

Today saw the installation of Primitive Streak for the upcoming Manchester Science Festival.

It was only four months ago I met with the people behind Manchester Weekender and said I had seen some fantastic installations by an artist called Helen Storey at Newcastle Science Festival – I wanted to get Helen to show some pieces in Manchester during the Festival and the Weekender. The Weekender team (Alex!) loved the idea. After a very quick response “Yes!” from Helen Storey and Caroline from the Helen Storey Foundation, the next few days were a blur as we frantically picked up the phone and sent emails to venues around Manchester... we wanted to bring a science inspired fashion collection to Manchester. With the help of city co, we were rushing round the city checking out shops, industrial style spaces, empty retail units and theatres. Debenhams and the Royal Exchange Theatre were instantly excited by the idea and were keen to support us. It was decided to bring seven pieces from the Primitive Streak collection and install them across both venues.

Manchester is such a fantastic place to run a science festival – organisations, scientists, the public are so supportive and open to new ideas, and really come together to make projects like this happen.

Helen carefully selected pieces from the collection to display, which tell the story of the first 1000 hours of human life. Beginning with the Sperm Coat, at conception, each piece is so detailed reflecting different stages of foetus development. They are beautiful creations, accompanied by panels explaining the science behind each one.

After a few months of hard work from the team at the Helen Storey Foundation, Debenhams and Royal Exchange Theatre, the capsule collection was installed today. There are four dresses and a hat at Debenhams Manchester main window, and two dresses in the Royal Exchange Theatre. There is also an exhibition of photos and sketches from the project accompanying the dresses in the Royal Exchange.

The collection looks absolutely fantastic in both venues, and the dresses take on a different personality in each. You have the fast-paced, high street of Debenhams and the calm, grand space of the Royal Exchange. It really brings science to life in a unique and innovative way. Primitive Streak collection was first created to 15 years ago, but looks relevant, cutting-edge and hot off the catwalk. It’s timeless. As well as viewing the installation you can join Helen at an In conversation event at the Royal Exchange Theatre on Sunday 30 October. It's free, but you're advised to book in advance.

This installation is a must-see at the Festival. You can see it from today until Sunday 30 October. Make sure you stop by Debenhams and Royal Exchange Theatre to see the pieces, have a read of the project background and explore the science. I hope you will be as inspired as I was by this amazing collection.

Natalie, Manchester Science Festival Director

See some photos from the install below.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Stand-up mathematician, Matt Parker wins 2011 Josh Award

Manchester Science Festival and MOSI (Museum of Science and Industry) are please to announce that Stand-up mathematician, Matt Parker has won this year’s Joshua Phillips Award for Innovation in Science Engagement (Josh Award). Well known for his comedic maths routines and maths shows, Matt’s media work and innovative practices in promoting maths wowed the judging panel.

The Josh Award recognises up-and-coming talent in the science communication field, and innovative approaches to engage the public with science. The Award includes a cash prize of £1000, a trophy and the role of Science Communicator in residence for the Manchester Science Festival 2012.

Matt will be presented with the Award on Sunday 23 October at the Your Days Are Numbered: the maths of death event he is performing at during Manchester Science Festival (22 - 30 October 2011).

For tickets to Your Days Are Numbered: the maths of death, Sunday 23 October at MOSI and to see Matt presented with the Award, please visit the Manchester Science Festival website.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Majestic Fragility: Our Earth's Polar Regions


Royal Northern College of Music
Sunday 23 October
First performance 3pm, Second performance 7pm
Cost & Booking: £10 (restricted view), £20, £25, £30. Booking required. You can also purchase tickets in person at the RNCM

Combining the majesty of the earth’s polar regions with a stunning live orchestral score, Polar is sure to be a unique and thrilling film and musical experience.
The Royal Northern College of Music’s largest screen will host white blizzards and humpback whales, while the Manchester Camera perform a specially arranged score conducted by John Harle.
Polar is an immersive event that will leave the whole family astounded.
Manchester Science Festival blogger Nija Dalal caught up with producer Andrew Glester in the lead up to the Festival premiere.
First off, tell me about Polar. What’s the event going to be like for festival go-ers?Polar is a combination of high-definition footage from the best natural history filmmakers in the world, the same people that make BBC natural history programs. All the archival footage we used is about the Poles, the arctic and the Antarctic. And we worked w/ The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and John Harle to compose the live score. At the Manchester Science Festival, the Manchester Camerata will be accompanying the film with a score by John Harle, made of music written just for Polar, along with other classical compositions.

The thing is, for every BBC documentary that gets made, there’s hours and hours of footage that doesn’t make it into the BBC programs. They’re interested in the showing the exciting 5 seconds of an attack, but we’re interested in the reality of life, which includes a lot of quiet moments.

Because it’s a live show, we have more leeway to do experimental things that you can’t see on television. For example, there’s a sequence in Polar which is about seven or eight minutes long, and it’s just footage of the Aurora Borealis, with a piece of really odd classical music.

We’ve taken footage that they shot for other documentaries but didn’t use, so even though the footage already existed, it’s never been seen before! We’ve made something new out of it.

The screen fills whole back of the Royal Northern College of Music’s stage. Polar is about being transported to world which most of us will never go to in the company of this incredible live music. The most amazing thing about it is that it’s a live event. You can’t see Polar w/out going to see it live.

How did you get interested in the Poles and decide to make this film?
I think Jacques Cousteau was right when he said “It’s easier to protect what you love.” We wanted to make things that inspire a love for our planet.  Or the people of our planet, or the wildlife, the nature. And not just our planet, the universe, everything.

As far as choosing to focus on the Poles, well, the magic of the Poles is that so few of us will ever get to go and experience that world. There’s a sense of going somewhere that you could never see, really, or you are very unlikely to see. And with Polar, it’s like being taken on a journey to that world, because of the huge scale of the screen.

The Manchester Science Festival is Polar’s second performance. It premiered at Liverpool in January. What was the reaction like?
Some people have said it was an honour to be at the concert, which was wonderful.
I think the amazing thing for us was seeing how many really young children, 3-5 year olds, were enjoying it. It’s not surprising, though, because the film is very visual, very interesting.

There’s a moment when the polar bear comes on screen for the first time, and you can hear the joy in the audience. Another time, some penguins are falling over and playing, and you can hear the audience just laughing along. Or you see the underwater world of a pod of beluga whales interacting, set to John Harle’s music.

There are moments that aren’t quite so joyful as well. But it’s all part of an emotional experience that’s unparalleled. You sit somebody down with a live orchestra, playing music they would never listen to in their house, you show them footage they’d never see on their televisions… you get something kind of unbelievable. You get these amazing long weird sequences, things that are different, like nothing anyone’s seen before. And those sequences are often people’s favourite parts of the show. Because it’s so different.  

The feeling you get from watching Polar is just like nothing else.

Apart from inspiring people to love the planet, you are also interested in the ecological impacts of your productions, right?
Yes, there’s something quite nice ecologically about this film, too. Travelling to these places would have a huge carbon footprint, whereas this footage was already filmed. We just made something new out of things that already existed.

And when we send the show around, we send a hard drive and a conductor. The footprint of the show is very small. I don’t want to shout too much about that, because the lowest footprint is of course no show at all.

I’m interested in low-carbon shows, though. I like the idea of maybe doing a cycle-powered show. 

Why did you think of having live classical music played to it? What is the connection between nature film and music for you?
In a way, Polar combines some great interests of mine. I’m a science geek, and I love classical music. I wanted, with Polar, to make something that people come and experience and have a wonderful time.

But the truth is that because the footage is so grand, stark, huge and inspiring, orchestral music just feels right.

What did you learn about the Poles as a result of this work?How do you think this film helps people engage with science?
Here’s how I look at it: I already know what the northern lights are, I’ve read about them.
In a way, I knew what they were, but in another… I didn’t.

I think that even if people know about the northern lights, if they haven’t seen them personally, there’s something visceral to be learned about them by seeing them this way…

The idea of Polar is to inspire people to want to know about the Poles.

I think it’s impossible to sit and look at the northern lights and not want to know what is really going on there…It’s impossible to look at polar bears and not be fascinated about their lives.

It’s near the start of the Manchester Science Festival and it might also be the start of a lot of people’s exploration of sciences.

The Manchester Science Festival presents Polar: An HD journey to the magical frozen oceans at the ends of our earth
Royal Northern College of Music, 124 Oxford Road, Manchester, M13 9RD
Sunday 23 October
performance 3pm, Second performance 7pm
Cost & Booking: £10 (restricted view), £20, £25, £30. Booking required. You can also purchase tickets at the RNCM.