I had a busy time in the run up to the festival, and then a (I feel well-deserved) break for Easter, but now I’ve finally got round to summing up my experience of the festival. I’ve put this in chronological order. rather than try to divide into what would probably be reasonably arbitrary categories.


A strand for adults, I went along to see my friend Thomas Woolley talk about the “Diffusion of the Dead”, or how to model a zombie apocalypse. His conclusion? Run. I did also manage to get there in time to see James Grime talk about “‘Good Will Hunting and the troubled genius”, which was a wonderfully engaging talk about the maths in the film and the possible inspirations behind the main character. I also hung around for ‘I’m a ghost hunter, get me out of here!’. Saldy I felt I’d head most of the stuff before, as well as feeling the time slot for it was a bit long, although I’m probably doing Hayley Stevens a disservice there, as other people I was there with loved it.

Sciencelele Singalong

Then it was time to wander off to set up the show I was doing with Helen Arney. As the show before us had been cancelled we had plenty of time to set up, and the smoke machine we were worried wouldn’t turn up allowed me to produce some great smoke rings with my home-made vortex cannon (a plastic bin with a hole cut in the bottom, some plastic sheeting and some bungee cord). However, when we got the show going the smoke machine refused to play ball, sadly meaning no smoke rings. It was, however, put to good use blowing a little girl’s hair around from across the lecture theatre. The DNA also took longer than we actually had to precipitate out of solution, possibly due to the alcohold I was using having warmed up. Despite this, and a lack of space for the audience to try spinning around themselves, fun was had by all, as Helen lead the entire audience through songs ranging from the Beatles’ “Twist and Shout” to the Disney classics “The Circle of Life” and “I Wanna Be Like You”. Thanks to Helen for suggesting the show and masterfully running her half of it, and also ad-libbing wonderfully whilst I was talking about inheritance. Everyone seemed to go home happy, which is the main thing, and hopefully some people learnt some stuff too (one kid did come up to me after to say I’d inspired him, which was nice).

Sending signals and making messages

After lunch it was off to see two of my friends talk about communication. The highlight of this was a brilliant demonstration of how the internet works, with packets of information represented by paper aeroplanes flying around the lecture theatre towards their destinations (mostly!)


By this point I was starting to flag a little, but I managed to see a talk in the Materials Science department on how we can make materials that imitate features of animals. Most of it wasn’t new to me, but I did get to hand a weight to an ant, and was surprised that I could feel when its jaws clamped around the handle. Thinking about it after, I shouldn’t have been surprised given the weight it then had to support (while standing upside down on the underside of a branch), but it did at the time as I hadn’t made that connection in my head, and that was great fun.


Before dinner I went back to ThinkCon to see Helen Czerski talk about how the world is effectively full of toys we can play with to learn more about the nature of how things work. This idea resonated pretty well with me, and I enjoyed the talk. I’ve also just watched her bubble documentary “Pop! The Science of Bubbles” this week, which I also recommend. You won’t look at bubbles the same way again!

Festival of the Spoken Nerd

After dinner it was off to see the comedy show put on by the Festival of the Spoken Nerd, who are Stephen Mould, Matt Parker, and my fellow Scienecelele Singalonger from earlier, Helen Arney. Bits that stood out for me were Matt Parker’s humorous graphs, Stephen Mould’s demonstration being foiled by Cambridge’s hard water, and also “Man vs Bee”. Some of Helen’s songs also got stuck in my head, particualrly “You and Me and Walt Disney”, a ditty about cryogenics. Although mostly I remember Helen managing to throw a ping-pong ball so hard into a leaf blower that it shredded it and bits went everywhere, along with clonking noises from the blower!  I also managed to get a laugh and a round of applause by having handed in an “analogue tweet” during the interval, criticising the lack of units on some of Matt’s graphs.

Matt Parker: Stand up Maths

On Sunday I dragged myself out of bed and down to see Matt Parker once more. There’s something brilliant about how several hundered people would turn up on a Sunday morning to hear someone talking about maths. The projections of 4D shapes were wonderfully boggling, but the best part was probably the excel spreadsheet with red, green and blue rows that was revealed to be an image, which I think is a great way to demonstrate the ideas behind screens, even though I am reliably informed that modern ones often use a different arrangement of pixels.

The Naked Scientists Live

Knowing several of the people in this meant that I knew a lot of the content already, but where else will you find a young girl asking how many electrons there are in the average child, and getting an answer? (It’s about 1 with 27 zeroes after it, by the way)

Robin Ince’s Show and Tell

Here I took some of my gyroscopic demonstrations that I’d used for the Sciencelele Singalong, but then had to run off to…

Demo Derby

My girlfriend and I forgot to book to see this, but got in by virtue of me being asked to do a demo. My demo showing the speed of waves along strings at different tension (idea sourced off the internet, sadly I can’t recall where to give credit, sorry!) by showing cardboard flying off the string at different times was much less impressive than others. Particularly Dave Ansell’s vacuum bazooka, which had already impressed the crowds at the Naked Scientists show with its impressively high rate of fire.

Robin Ince – The Importance of Being Interested

After this I finally managed a bit of a rest and a more relaxed meal. But I wasn’t done for the day. Robin Ince managed to keep everyone interested and laughing for a couple of hours despite apparently having barely started on all the material he had prepared. For science comedy, Robin Ince is pretty much the king.

Late Night Lab

The main weekend of the Festival was then over, but I was still going. On Tuesday I was part of the show at the Late Night Lab, an adult’s only event at the brand new Cambridge Science Centre. Steve Cross compered well, Suze Kundu talked about Super Science, and Simon Watts’s story about being asked by his nephew who would win in a fight between a shark and a crocodile was a wonderful way of mixing facts about nature with stand-up. Dave’s vacuum bazooka also once again made an appearance, and the adults present seemed no less impressed than the kids had been at the weekend. I hopefully managed to get across the ideas behind quantum crypotgraphy by suggesting that two members of the audience were trying to have a love affair, while Steve was trying to listen in to them organising their trysts, even if I did feel under pressure next to all of the experienced science communicators there! Also, Steve, Suze and Simon (didn’t realise until now that all of their names started with an S) had to jump into a taxi as soon as the show finished, which was amusing as Steve left the “stage” and pretty much went straight into the taxi!

CHaOS at the Physics Zone

Finally, I got a somewhat more relaxing end to the festival as I was but one face in a sea of members of Cambridge Hands on Science. I demonstrated the power of air pressure, and also polarization of light to a huge number of kids over the four hours, although not as many as usual thanks to the snow coming down outside! It was a shame that some people didn’t make it due to the weather, but at least it meant we weren’t quite as rushed off our feet as usual. Then pizza was laid on for the helpers, and after helping with 5 different events, my festival was finally over!

Until next year…


Categories: BlogScience

1 Comment

MC · April 25, 2013 at 10:52 pm

Another blog post I’ve found about helping with the festival can be seen here: https://sidewayslookatscience.wordpress.com/2013/04/24/28-geeks-later-lessons-learned-from-zombies-at-the-cambridge-science-festival

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