Last weekend (25th – 27th July 2014), I attended Winchester Science Festival, which was a special birthday treat that I had sort of been hinting I’d like to attend for the preceding couple of days or so (well, since about April). And so my wish was granted! Here’s an overview of the weekend; I might write on individual topics in more detail another time. Some of the topics have links to excerpts of the talks, so read on… The event was held in Winchester Discovery Centre, which is an awesome combination of library, exhibition space, and lecture hall. It’s way different from the quiet and bland public library I grew up with. And it’s a shining example of why public libraries are so important.

When I met the WSF organisers at QEDcon 2014,  I was promised frogs, sex and robots.  And I was not disappointed.  First, the robots:

The Mantis hexapod was demonstrated outside the Discovery Centre – it’s an all-terrain vehicle with six legs that can be powered by a human sitting in the control pod, or remotely.  We were given a demonstration of how the robot moves and deals with uneven surfaces, and a brief description of the science and mathematics behind the Mantis’s movement.  It reminded me of this clip from American Dad, but for a demonstration of the real Mantis, click here.

There were three whole days of science-y wonderfulness, but I sadly missed the Friday.  I had work to do and I wasn’t able to travel down until 8pm Friday night (not much sleep before Saturday!).  I later heard that this day was more aimed at younger people, and I would have expected there to be a few school parties.  Some of the Saturday talks had children in attendance, and the rocket guy especially (more about him later!) would be great for presenting to schools.

Here’s what happened on Friday (assuming they didn’t change their schedule at the last minute).  The links below lead to the WSF home page, but also check out The Winchester Guide for additional info.

The Fire Show
Mutants. What Are They Like?
Punk Science: Supermassive Space
Flames, Brains & Nuclear Reactors
Exploring The Universe
Science Of The Circus
Nature-Inspired Robots For Science & Medicine
Frogs & Friends + What Do I Know?

So, on to Saturday. I woke up after about 5 hours sleep (see my earlier musings on sleep for why this was especially troublesome for me), and left the hotel in a mad panic due to taking 45 minutes in the bathroom (hey it was my birthday and I therefore demand to exercise full Diva Rights). We were just in time for….

The Science Of Photography, with Andrew Pye & Dr Radu Sporea.  This was a talk with loads of demonstrations and some audience participation (yay!).  This was a discussion of how you can use science to take great photographs – but very accessible, explaining potentially complicated concepts in a succinct way.  It was a great introduction to some of the methods that professional photographers use, but with the science to back it up.  Highlights included using a jar of coloured ping pong balls to illustrate image quality, and how to use zoom correctly when taking a portrait to avoid unflattering effects (I would love to get some images of this on here but 1. I can’t find any videos of this talk online, and 2. I don’t think the audience guinea pig would be all that grateful for that moment being stored for posterity on the internet).

Check out these amazing cuttlefish dudes. Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0
Check out these amazing cuttlefish dudes. Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

Carnival Of The Animal Senses, with Dr Helen Czerski.  Helen is delivering this talk at the next Girl Geek Tea Party in Manchester, so I won’t give too much away.  Northern Friends: You too can catch a glimpse of the awesomeness that was at WSF this year!  It’s taking place at TechHub on 10th August.   I learnt about some of the cool ways that animals perceive the world differently to us, and how they can detect things that humans can’t.  The world looks so different for other beings, and we can see  a fraction of it in comparison. Also that cuttlefish are my new favourite animals.  I hope she talks about cuttlefish again.  Dr Czerski is a really engaging speaker, who delivers her topic with passion.  She’s also going to be presenting a related series on BBC2 soon.

The Rocket Guy was not the name of the talk or the person presenting it, but due to a last minute change to the schedule, I don’t have either to hand.  Anyway, this talk gave a history of rockets from their use as military weapons, through to Wernher von Braun, to their development post-WWII.  But most excitingly of all, this potted history of  rockets was accompanied by demonstrations that focussed on setting fire to things and blowing them up.  Hurrah!  Many of the topics covered in this talk were expanded on in other talks over the weekend, which gave a nice flow to the content of the festival.

We Are All Star Dust, with Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell. This presentation was suitable for all ages, discussing how all matter in the universe was derived from stars and distributed to form other stars, planets, and eventually us. This was then followed by an interview with Dame Jocelyn, conducted by Neil Denny (of the little Atoms podcast – full interview available here). I could relate to so many of the things that were spoken about, especially regarding perceptions of women in science; as Dame Jocelyn acknowledged in her interview, many things have changed but more work needs to be done.

And then for something new… Human Genetic & Cultural Evolution was presented by Prof Mark Thomas. The theories presented here are at the cutting edge of research, so it was pretty exciting to be around to hear about work that isn’t commonly known about.  The talk considered how culture affects human development, and how human development affects the emergence of culture.  there are connections to population size, and the size of individual groups of humans.  Apparently about 150 people is the right size for both producing cultural artefacts and the optimum number of Facebook friends.

Into Thin Air – Aviation’s Upper Limits, with Dr Andras Sobester.  The cool thing about this talk was the mythbusting element, as well as the presenter’s humorous style of delivering a very dry subject. Lots and lots of statistics, and how they relate to incidents that have been in the news. And no, the air conditioning on a plane will not make you any more likely to catch a cold.

The Best Of BrightclubBright Club is a comedy troupe made up of scientists & researchers, and runs in about ten cities in the UK (including Manchester!).  We were treated to an evening with three stand-ups plus the brilliant Jo Stephenson performing science and non-science based comedy songs accompanied by the ukulele – which made it just that little bit more fun!

And that was the end of Saturday – the best birthday I’ve ever had.  Thanks to the WSF organisers, and my lovely boyfriend for making this possible.


Dying BeeSadly, Science Gentleman had to leave early today to get back to work in the Grim North.  After far too long saying our goodbyes in the hotel car park, I went for a pleasant stroll into Winchester via the B3404.  The scenery was pretty decent, but not as dramatic as that in say the Peak District (sorry, Home Counties).  I did get a great photo of a dying bee (right).  Nature is both beautiful and cruel.

Anyway, back to the science:

2014-07-27 11.04.48Extreme Environment Physiology, delivered by Prof Mike Tipton. This was a great talk to start the day with, looking at the extremes the human body can handle, and how we can use technology to break past these barriers. The talk covered extreme scenarios from mountaineering, to deep-sea diving, to the conditions firefighters endure on duty. Interesting fact of the talk: If you take your goldfish (in its tank) for a drive, it will get carsick! Please, please don’t try this at home, not even in the name of science.

Plumbers Of The Brain: The Blood-Brain Barrier, with Prof Dareck Gorecki. This talk was pretty heavy-going, but really, really interesting. It explained how the B-BB works, what can get through, what can’t, and by what mechanisms. There were interesting discussions on how we deliver medicines to the brain, and how toxoplasmosis affects the brain. Interesting fact of the talk: mice infected with toxoplasmosis are attracted to cats.  Makes you look at Tom & Jerry in a different light.

Emerging Technologies – A talk by Dr Peter Wagett from IBM on the development of computing and the increasing use of data.  Very interesting, with an exceptionally long Q&A session – which was really enlightening too.  Interesting fact of the talk (which, apparently, is common knowledge): HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey is thusly named because H-A-L is one letter ‘less’ than I-B-M.

It’s Only Rocket Science – with Dr Lucy Rogers.  In this talk we built a virtual rocket and looked at the science behind getting it in the air.  This talk was especially good for children, and had a good level of audience participation.  Interesting fact of the talk: satellites in geostationary orbit occupy an altitude of 35,800 km.

Brilliant Brain Box: How The Skull Shaped Evolution with Paolo Viscardi. I was really looking forward to this talk, but got waylaid by a really interesting chat with a fellow attendee. Sorry Paolo! I have however heard that the talk was excellent, so I’m hoping someone posts it online soon…

2014-07-27 17.54.50And the final talk of the weekend was Secrets Of Sex, with Sally Le Page. This was a look at sex and evolution, and reproduction in the animal kingdom. Already an exciting topic, this was made more interesting by the humour used, a little bit of music and even a fairytale. Sally is an excellent presenter and I hope to go to more of her talks or events.

There was a final night of entertainment on the Sunday, by Being747. I really wanted to stay, but Sunday was a school night and I needed to get back to Manchester.

Some other things that happened:

There was a 3D Printing Workshop going on in the exhibition area, but I just didn’t get the chance to take a look – I was so busy attending talks that I never found a spare moment.

The University of Southampton Roadshow was located at the front of the Discovery Centre, where you just couldn’t miss them. We were fortunate enough to have glorious sunshine for the whole weekend, which makes it a gamble that was more likely to work in Winchester than Manchester.

2014-08-02 23.10.58So I met some old friends and new ones, and vowed to get more involved with WSF next year.  So armed with my ‘VOLUNTEER’ t-shirt (yes, they adopted me as one of their own despite not even living in the same county as the team), a ton of stickers (right) and a laptop,  I shall be blogging, tweeting, promoting and whatever else I can. Can’t wait for WSF 2015!


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