Wednesday, 24 October 2012

The Turing Project - An Interview With Jon Armstrong

This year is the centenary of wartime code-breaker Alan Turing's birth. To celebrate this, Manchester Science Festival has a whole host of events highlighting the achievements of this great man.

The Turing Project is an immersive theatre experience in which you'll become a member of a top secret group of scientists. Your role will be to safeguard an emergency communication channel, keeping it open for agents to send out distress calls. We stole a few minutes with organiser Jon Armstrong from theatre company Simply Told to find out more.

Can you tell us a bit about the Turing Project –  what can people expect from it?

The Turing Project is an immersive theatrical encounter for 4 people, based on the work of Alan Turing. The audience are thrown into the world of the wartime code-breaker, where they will have to work individually and collaboratively on breaking a cypher and establishing radio communication with a mysterious broadcast. It is then their duty to establish whether the voice they are communicating with is that of a man or a machine.
How did you come up with the idea for The Turing Project?

We have long been fascinated by the work of Alan Turing, and this is our attempt to allow people to experience his work and legacy. We believe that he was treated appallingly by the country that he served so well, both during the war and in his legacy beyond.
What do you think makes a good immersive experience?

A good immersive experience is one that is completely designed round the involvement of the audience. The outcomes of the piece will change with each audience, and we hope that this direct involvement in the performance makes for an engaging experience for both audience and us.

Have you ever had any unusual or unexpected reactions from the people who take part in your events?

We have had some very strong reactions. During the tour of The Alpha Project (which came to MSF in 2010), we had people frozen to their chair, sensing presences that weren't there and generating some incredible coincidences, amongst many others. This was due, in part, to the subject matter – the show dealt with people’s belief in psychic ability, from a purely skeptical standpoint – and it is incredible how real and involving these things can seem when you are thrust into an immersive world through which you have to find your own way.
What’s the best thing about your job?

The best thing about my job is the opportunities it provides to create these experiences. I strongly believe in the power of culture to change people’s perceptions and viewpoints, and I think that immersive theatre is a great way to truly involve people in a wider cultural conversation.

How important do you think arts-science collaborations like yours are?

I believe that arts-science collaborations are very important. Both worlds have an enormous amount to teach the other in terms of the development and communication of ideas, and there had been an unnecessary divide between them for too long. Collaborations such as these reach new audiences, encourage debate and hopefully broaden horizons.
Have you always been interested in science as an inspiration for your work?

Science has long been an inspiration. My background is in magic, which uses very rational techniques to create irrational experiences, and the world view that this encourages shares many similarities with a scientific outlook and approach. Science has fascinating stories to tell, and I believe that theatre can go some way to telling them.

Sat 27 Oct 2012 12 noon - 9pm
Sun 28 Oct 2012 12 noon - 9pm
Mon 29 Oct 2012 12 noon - 9pm

Shows start on the hour and last 30 min. Book online.

The Turing Project is available as part of our Science After Dark programme. For a full list of events inspired by Alan Turing click here. For the full festival programme please see our website. Get the latest news on Facebook and Twitter and subscribe to our e-newsletter.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

DNA: Can it predict your future health? - Kate Dack

At the Manchester Science Festival, we're offering a discussion chaired by Dr Bella Starling called: 'DNA: Can it predict your future health?' There's also a chance to watch GATTACA in MOSI's 1830 warehouse.  Organiser Kate Dack will be there to give a short introduction and offering a taste bud test to see whether attendees have the gene that allows them to taste the bitter chemical in sprouts. We've asked her to write a guest blog to give us the inside scoop.

DNA intrigues and inspires many of us. A day rarely passes when DNA isn't in the headlines, with some new discovery or technology being launched. It’s amazing how rapidly the research is developing, but that does leave some people concerned about its impact on society. One of the main areas that we hear about is the power of DNA to revolutionise medicine – changing the way we understand ill health and creating new personalised treatments based on our genetic profile. But what’s the truth behind the headlines? Is it all hype?

There are a number of opportunities for people to explore the medical applications of genetics at the Manchester Science Festival in 2012. Nowgen is running an event entitled:  ‘DNA:Can it predict your future health? on November 3rd and people will hear from Dr Bill Newman, an experienced consultant and researcher in genetic medicine. He will describe how DNA testing is currently used and how valuable it can be. We will discuss how much a DNA test can reveal about your future health and ask people how much they would want to know. Get ready to grapple with some tough ethical questions – what would you tell your relatives or your employer about your results?

Alongside that event, some musicians will be performing a fascinating musical and visual representation of DNA. You will be able to see this exciting and unique performance on 3rd November at 3:30pm in Manchester Museum. It has been developed by CellSonics, which is a collaboration between Manchester-based musicians Rob Turner and Chris Illingworth, working alongside experimental electronic musician Paul Jones and visual artist Blain Norvun. Their long-term aim is to develop an installation exploring DNA, working up from the subatomic level to the final complex biological structure of the double helix. Whilst following the science and maths accurately and closely, they will be presented in an interactive and accessible way, appealing to anyone of any age or level of scientific understanding.

You also have a chance to see one of most interesting films exploring genetics - GATTACA – which will be shown on 29 October at the pop-up cinema at MOSI. Before the show David A. Kirby will highlight why this film is so powerful and how the science is reflected in this fiction. It’s a film that gets everyone thinking and wondering about how the world will change if everyone embraces DNA testing without question. If you would like to attend the DNA event, you may like to come along to watch GATTACA beforehand to familiarise yourself with the potential wider implications.

DNA: Can it predict your future health? and GATTACA are available as part of our Join the Conversation and Science After Dark programmes. Visit our website for a full list of events. Get the latest news of Facebook and Twitter, and subscribe to our e-newsletter.

Images of Research Competition - Voting Open

As part of the Manchester Science Festival, scientists and engineers at The University of Manchester have been challenged to share their work with you using just a single, inspiring image and short description. The best thing is that you get the chance to decide on the winning entry in this Images of Research photography exhibition, as well as meet the researchers behind the image. Voting is now open so we've asked organiser Dee-Ann Johnson to tell us a little more about it.

What does a 305 million-year-old spider, the inside of a tadpole’s head, and lightning striking the blade of a windmill have in common?

They are all a part of this year’s Images of Research photography competition, which challenged researchers from all disciplines at The University of Manchester to take a compelling photograph showing how their research is affecting the wider world and benefiting society.

In the run up to the Manchester ScienceFestival, 15 amazing images have been short-listed and are on display at a special exhibition at the John Ryland’s Library on Deansgate, Manchester. The images provide a behind the scenes look at the work being carried out by researchers both on campus and around the world.

The exhibition presents just a taste of the diversity and breadth of the research being conducted at the University. But whether the subject matter is black holes, traditional medicine making, Columbian coffee, or the tiles at Victoria train station, we are sure of one thing – there is something of interest for everyone. 

Our researchers are passionate about their work and the benefits their research can bring. But now we turn the competition over to you! Cast your vote and help us decide which image has captured your imagination, raised your curiosity, or got you thinking about the research in a different way.

Votes can be cast at the exhibition at the John Rylands Library or online.

The competition runs from 17 October to November 5. The winner will be announced on 7 November 2012. 

The Images of Research competition is available as part of our Art Meets Science programme. Visit our website for a full list of events. Get the latest news on Twitter and Facebook and subscribe to our e-newsletter.

Monday, 15 October 2012

The Wasted Works - An Interview with Artist Gina Czarnecki

      The Wasted Works is a controversial exhibition created by artist Gina Czarnecki. This striking collection of work, created from 'discarded body parts,' is available as part of Manchester Science Festival. As the Works opened at MOSI last week, we thought we'd grab a few minutes with the artist herself and see what she thinks about the issues involved.
     1) Should people be allowed to donate parts of their body to an artist? 
      Yes - as long as full consent is given by the donors and the artist endeavours to retain the integrity of the work in being mindful of the context that it will be exhibited. For example, if people donated fat to CanopĂ© - I would consider it bad practice to then put the chairs in an exhibition about obesity…

2)  Is it right for galleries to exhibit artwork made of real human bones, teeth or fat?
At the moment, a licence is required from the Human Tissue Authority (HTA) for the display of tissue from deceased donors. For tissue from living donors, the same bio-hazard protocols are in place, but a permit is not required (however this is new territory and the expansion of DIY biology and experimentation in this area may highlight the need for a similar license for tissue from living donors in the future). Keeping living tissue in a gallery context, such as SymbioticA have done, requires lab equipment (which is not cheap to hire, own, run or maintain). Crucially though, if it is art then galleries should, in my opinion, be able to show this. If it is 'right' or not comes down to personal values, the integrity of the work and taste.

3) Who owns our body parts when they are removed from us? 
If you lose your hand in a farming accident - on the farm - then you can do with the arm what you like. As soon as this is in a medical establishment, we do not 'own' parts of our body once removed. Once removed, the tissue becomes a possible bio-hazard and is treated accordingly.Technically, no one really owns this but it is the responsibility of the medical profession and we are not allowed to take bits home …but I wonder how Roald Dahl got his hip bone…there are certain bits we can take - stones. In some cases, the umbilical cord and placenta…I guess not too many people ask.

4) Does the use of human tissue in art serve any purpose, or is this just sensationalism?
This depends on the art. In Wasted, this was to draw attention to the grey areas of consent, ownership, donor participation,  etcetera - the Chapman Brothers source bones in their artworks from China. Gunther Von Hagen's first 'bodies' were given to medical research and not for display as art. The Wasted Works were not ultimately about the bones but the process of ethical approval, treatment of bio-hazardous materials and patient consent. I made these works because of living in Liverpool - and the shadow of the Alder Hey Organ Scandal as it has become known and the people who were personally affected by not being asked. My father was a concentration camp survivor and at 7, my visit to the Majdanek camp was shocking and has informed much of my art practice and position since. The basic agreement with medical research is not to cause harm, in any way but for the benefit of improving quality of life in some way...I think if the artwork can do this then it is not just sensationalism. We are also talking of a time when teenagers are having botox (and silicone breast implants have recently exposed bad practice of the use of builders' grade silicone). This just shows us how little people investigate what poison is going into them or the fact that this is the intentional disabling of the body when it is in the name of 'beauty' but those same people will be disgusted by sitting in a chair made of fat - human or otherwise…

5) Should this type of art require formal approval?

Currently, there is no formal body set up that can approve or not this sort of work - the HTA deals with tissue from dead donors and medical research. Universities have their own panels that can approve or not this sort of work. Through The Wasted Works, I have started the process for a national Art and Ethics Advisory Panel and with a significantly high level of people and institutions giving advice in relation to ethics, then this may develop a direct resource for people in the future to know public sentiment, sensitivities and legalities of individual projects. We are not a committee to approve or not the ideas/projects but are advisory only - and with the intention of developing the debate in a public participatory way.

6) Which piece is your favourite and why?
My favourite is The Wasted Works - they co-exist. The palace is the tip of the iceberg, all the pieces do different things and together do more than the sum of the parts and allow one another space - I wouldn't feel comfortable showing diagram for a summerhouse without the lightness of the palace…but the bits I enjoy most at the moment, are the drawings and stories coming in from the donors of the milk teeth. I like this because there is a response on a personal level, and its not the silence of an art audience or the feeling that your work is in a void, but that every one sent is helping to make The Palace grow.

The Wasted Works is available as part of our Art Meets Science programme. Visit our website for a full list of events. 
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Friday, 12 October 2012

Exploring the Polar Regions and Locating Lionel

Andrew Glester is the Producer/Director of Polar:Explore and Locate Lionel at this year's Manchester Science FestivalFor this week's blog, we've asked  him what he loves about science, who is Lionel and what we will love abut his events.

Tell us about Lionel?     
Lionel is my campervan but, inspired by the words and works of Carl Sagan, he is also the Spaceship of Our Imagination. He’ll be landing in Manchester just before and, then again, during the festival.

As he’s a Space and Time machine, we don’t actually know where or when he’ll appear but keep an eye on the twitter hashtag #LocateLionel and Facebook for news on sightings. If you happen to locate him, you’ll be able to step inside and watch a selection of films…and, stocks permitting, a bit of fresh popcorn.

How did the idea come about?
You’d have to ask Lionel. All I know is that I was camping by Coniston Water, reading Carl Sagan’s book Cosmos and now I’m turning up at festivals in the Spaceship of Our Imagination. I’m not really sure how that happened.
What will people love about Lionel and Polar:Explore?
Locate Lionel is a lot of fun but there are also some really beautiful and thought-provoking films which he’ll be showing and I know that people will be able to relax in that unique environment and take in a film or two that they won’t have seen before.

Polar:Explore is a bit different. We brought Polar, the full scale orchestral concert to the festival last year and Polar:Explore enables us to take it further. There will be a string quartet and a harpist performing some of the best chamber music ever written, combined with a special version of the film from Polar but the real difference is that we have teamed up with the British Science Association and are able to introduce real scientists to the audience to explore the science of these magical frozen lands.

We have an astronomer on hand to talk about the ethereal Northern Lights and a zoologist who knows a thing or two about the animals from the poles but there will be hands-on activities for children of all ages too.

Polar:Explore is taking place at Manchester Museum which is just brilliant because we have all their resources and people to call upon to really help us explore the themes of Polar with the audience.

Why do you love Science?
When you look out into the night sky, you see stars which no longer exist. When some of those stars exploded, they sent all sorts of exotic particles out into space. Particles the stars themselves had cooked up over billions of years before going supernova. Those particles are what everything is made of: this planet, those trees, that computer, the atmosphere, you, me, my daughter, this pencil…everything. We don’t know that because we sat quietly and thought about it or because we had some revelation in a dream. Science is the reason we know these things. It’s the reason we know pretty much anything.

Exploding stars spewing out matter which comes to life and gains a consciousness which allows it to understand that it is, itself, made out of those dying faint dots of light in the night sky.
I don’t see how you fail to be interested in that.

Why will people love Lionel and Polar: Explore?
At Sound of Science, we try to bring the beauty of reality to life. It doesn't really need our help but, personally, I like to take time out occasionally to look at the world and the universe around us and appreciate just how beautiful life can be and I think that’s what Lionel and Polar: Explore can do for the audience.

I don’t make anything for a specific age or type of audience. I just make things that I know I would love to experience and I imagine the 4 year old me would love hanging out in a campervan watching films as much as the slightly more grown up version does and I know that adults will enjoy Polar:Explore as much as the children in the audience will. I don’t believe we ever stop wanting to have fun or to marvel at something beautiful or thought-provoking. The programme says it’s for families but you don’t need to bring yours with you. Come on your own or with a friend and talk to the scientists and the musicians.

Alice, the lead violinist in the quartet has been to the Arctic on a field trip with her dad who is a marine biologist.  Greta, who will be playing the harp, doubles as a neuroscientist and actually made her own harp. These are people worth talking to! I suppose I should probably mention that both events are completely free of charge too…

Lionel is on Facebook  and Twitter and you can follow him via #LocateLionel

Locate Lionel and Polar: Explore are available as part of our Art Meets Science and Family Fun programmes. Visit our website for a full list of events. 
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Monday, 1 October 2012

WARNING: Domino testing in progress!

Matt Parker gets practicing for the main event
What happens when you let a group of mathematicians loose with 3000 dominoes and a large, flat public space? That’s right - they will attempt to create a giant domino computer....

Recently we were lucky enough to get a bit of a sneak preview of the Domino Computer Challenge, one of our exciting upcoming Festival events and the brainchild of Josh Award winner and Science Communicator in Residence Matt Parker.

It’s quite difficult in words to convey exactly what a domino computer is (it’s far easier when you see one in action so check out Matt’s demo video of a domino logic gate) but the Challenge will essentially involve Matt and his dedicated team building a giant physical representation of a simple ‘adding’ computation, similar to that which takes place when you use a calculator to add two numbers together.

As Matt explains on a recent edition of Pulse-Project's Maths/Maths podcast:
“At the very basic, a computer is adding binary code (made up of 1s and 0s) together. It uses what’s called a logic circuit where you input 1s and 0s, does some calculation on them and then gives you an output in 1s and 0s. So a very simple thing you might want to do is add two numbers together. For example 4 + 5 = 9, or in binary terms 100 + 101 = 1001. You can do this with electronic components, or circuits, like normal computers do, but we’re trying to build circuits out of dominoes.”
So by placing thousands of dominoes (and using a huge amount of skill!) in a complex circuit pattern and then setting off domino chains where a falling domino represents a binary code change from 0 to 1, the Domino Computer will, in theory, be able to add together two 3-digit binary numbers and get a 4-digit answer.

The computer will be built in front of MOSI's
replica of The Baby - the world's first
stored-program computer

A project as ambitious as this takes a lot of planning and testing. From the risk of rogue falling dominoes to an error in the circuit design, there is a lot that could potentially go wrong. So along with his team of volunteers and armed with more dominoes than we’ve ever seen in one place before, Matt recently visited MOSI to test out the floor (which thankfully proved to be flat and smooth enough to host the challenge) and try out some initial circuit designs. Despite the urge to knock over the domino chains (who wouldn’t be tempted?) we managed to resist and looked on in slight awe as the team created a few small test circuits and posed with our photographer for a few snaps.

So what’s made Matt want to take on one of his most fiddliest and nerve-biting challenges to date? It’s all about explaining the mysteries of computing:
“When people look at a computer, no one really understands how it works. For most people it’s a mystery box where ‘magic’ happens, so we want to show them a laid out example of a very, very basic computer. We’re showing how if you carefully plan and organise physical objects, in this case dominoes, they can ‘think’ and do calculations. This is the basis of all computing and we just want to show people at a fundamental level how that happens.”
Well said Matt, and we can’t wait to see it in action!

Event info:

The Domino Computer Challenge will take place on Sat 27th and Sun 28th Oct in MOSI’s Manchester Revolution Gallery, and as well as watching the construction team in action, building the computer domino by domino, there will be the chance to have a go yourself with some smaller domino hands-on activities. And if you miss the computer being "switched on" don't worry - the team will be creating a time lapse video to capture the whole thing!

by Nicola Frost, Science Festival Project Officer, MOSI