Thursday, 22 August 2013

Exploring the universe at Green Man Festival

On Monday I returned from the Green Man Festival in Brecon National Park in Wales, where I spent three days talking to festival goers about the 'Big Questions' in the Universe. I don't think I've ever been more exhausted after three days, but I'm really happy with how it went and enthused by the experience. I was there with a great team of science communicators as part of a national project called 'Explore your Universe'

In case you haven't heard of it, 'Explore your Universe' was developed by the UK Association for Science and Discovery Centres (ASDC) in partnership with STFC to put together a set of core equipment and distribute it to 10 ASDC member centres. They have also trained science centre staff and STFC researchers to encourage further links and engagement. 

I've been connected with the project since its early days advising on accelerator and particle physics communication, so I happily agreed to do some more hands-on engagement at a music festival this summer.
What's that? It's a comet we just made!
It's fair to say I'm used to presenting public lectures in a safe, organised and most importantly dry lecture theatre or school. The challenge of taking science communication to a music festival in unpredictable British weather was not lost on me. Anyone who has ever worked with a Van de Graaff generator will tell you they are temperamental at the best of times, let alone in 90% humidity in a field!

Thankfully the organisation was expertly handled by project manager Michaela Livingstone and all I needed to do was show up, pitch my tent and get interacting with the public.

I'm not sure I've ever spoken to such a varied audience about such a broad range of science. Each day we were focusing our activities on a new "Big Question" from "is there life out there?" to "what makes us, the galaxies and everything?". The stand was really popular and we had everyone from little kids with their parents, teenagers who were just about to start university through to retired physics teachers come to visit and explore.

Showing some kids the 'memory metal'
I went from talking about static electricity while kneeling on the grass with some wide eyed kids to postulating about the existence of life elsewhere in the universe with teenagers whose faces were covered in glitter. At one point I found myself giving a crash course in quantum field theory to a man who would easily qualify as the most-interested-non-scientist ever. One thing was for sure; the stand was always busy and people were incredibly interested!

As the resident accelerator expert I also did a lot of talking about particle accelerators from the Large Hadron Collider through to some of the smaller more application-based accelerators for cancer treatment and security applications. That was in between helping to make dry ice comets and on one particularly rainy and humid day wiping the condensation from the front of a cloud chamber as people stared in wonder at invisible particles suddenly made visible.

Humidity is not great for operating cloud chambers... (Photo credit: Phill Day)
I found that being at a music festival was also a great development experience for me as a communicator. I was in awe as I watched the professionals from the ASDC science centres expertly draw in and engage all ages and I was even more impressed by their hugely wide-reaching scientific knowledge. These guys could answer everything from the biology of a tardigrade to the chemical composition of comets and meteorites. I was seriously impressed.

The team (mostly!): Michaela, Phill, Sophie, me & Josh with some kit
They were also loads of fun to work with. I haven't had such a great geeky weekend in a long time! By the way, this is what happened back at camp when we found we had some leftover glowsticks. Awesome? Yep. 

(Photo credit: Phill Day)
Anyway, back to the point: if you are an STFC scientist or STFC funded researcher I encourage you to get involved in the Explore your Universe project, get in touch with your local ASDC centre and use the excellent set of equipment to engage the public with your area of science. And while you're at it, don't forget to seek the help and advice of the amazing science centre staff. Their enthusiasm is infectious and having spent a weekend in their company will keep me motivated to improve my science communication skills for a good time to come.

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