Where pints, papers and protocols collide…

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I’m writing this on the train back from St. Pancras to Nottingham, having spent this morning at the launch of the 2016 Pint Of Science festival. Pint Of Science is a fascinating initiative which, as you might glean from the moniker, aims to bring science into the pub; scientists stand up in their local (or not-so-local) and wax lyrical about their, and others’, research for forty minutes or so.

I’ve spoken at a couple of “pub science” events, including Skeptics In The Pub and SciBar, and have thoroughly enjoyed them. (I’ve got a couple of Skeptics… talks coming up in the coming months). I’m always impressed by the quality of discussion that follows the talk (or, better, kicks off during the talk!) — I’ve often had much more challenging questions from non-scientists in pubs than I’ve had following presentations I’ve given at international scientific conferences in my research field.

As a relative newcomer to the public engagement game, Pint Of Science is expanding at a seemingly exponential rate. From just three “nodes” – Oxford, Cambridge, and London – in 2013, the initiative now involves twenty cities in the UK (including Nottingham – we joined this year) and spans five continents.

I spent a little time this morning chatting with Michael Motskin and Praveen Paul, who established Pint Of Science just three years ago, and was impressed to hear that they are now inundated with requests to join the PoS network. The upcoming festival, which this year runs from 23- 25 May, involves each of the “nodes” in the PoS network running pub science talks in parallel (across the world) – a major organisational undertaking which is only made possible through the fantastic efforts of the talented team of volunteers who drive the various events.

This morning’s kick-off event involved four of this year’s PoS speakers (including yours truly) giving a short “taster” of their talk. I covered the single atom/single molecule manipulation stuff that has been the focus of our research here at Nottingham for a number of years but it’s the other talks I want to focus on here. I learnt a huge deal this morning via a number of fascinating and engaging presentations — the PoS audience next month has a real treat in store.

Clare Elwell discussed her group’s hugely impressive work on brain imaging with near-infrared light. Although I’m familiar with functional MRI (and other techniques) being used to map the brain – I’d have to have been living in one of Nottingham’s famous caves not to be aware of this, given that our School boasts a group of highly influential MRI researchers, and Nottingham’s own Peter Mansfield won the Nobel prize in Physiology/ Medicine for the invention of MRI – I hadn’t previously encountered the use of IR to probe brain activity. I was riveted by Elwell’s talk. Not only has her group developed a low-cost and highly portable imaging unit but they have used it to carry out the first brain imaging of infants in Africa (as part of a project to ascertain the effects of malnutrition on brain development, now funded by the Gates Foundation).

The next presentation was from the duo of Mark Thomas and Alejandro Gavez-Pol, and was a complete change of theme – a description of just how art and culture drive human behaviour and evolution. (Their talk is part of PoS’ new Creative Reactions initiative). I was particularly fascinated by Thomas’ discussion of a model he and his colleagues had developed which illustrated that a certain critical population density was necessary to drive cultural development. (Any physicist who hears the term “critical point” immediately starts thinking about phase transitions and the like. We squalid state physicists with an interest in the thermodynamics and kinetics of crystal growth also start wondering about percolation pathways and connectivity…) Gavez’s energetic presentation on art representing science complemented Thomson’s talk wonderfully, and provided lots of food for thought on the matter of creativity in art and science.

The launch event came to a close – well, at least the ‘formal’ proceedings did – with an informative talk from Gabriele Lignani on a gene-editing technology called CRISPR. I’ve got to come clean here and admit my ignorance – I was not at all familiar with the CRISPR technique, despite it featuring heavily in a range of journals and magazines over the last year (as Gabriele highlighted). It’s arguably not the most memorable of acronyms, however. (Having said that, it’s a heck of a lot more memorable than the unexpurgated long-form name of the technique: Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats). I was once again blown away by the ingenuity of biotechnologists in harnessing and adapting natural processes (in this case, a bacterial activity) in genetic engineering.

After the talks there was a great deal of conversation, fuelled by nibbles, drinks, and a bespoke PoS cake…

I very much enjoyed the PoS launch and I look forward immensely to participating in the festival in Nottingham next month. My only regret is that with all those science talks going on simultaneously across the world, I’ll not be able to take it all in.

(Special thanks goes to Hetty Tapper, who not only invited me to speak at the launch event  but kept me informed over the last couple of weeks about progress with PoS 2016 (and sent me the photo below of the PoS team with today’s speakers)).

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Author: Philip Moriarty

Physicist. Rush fan. Father of three. (Not Rush fans. Yet.) Rants not restricted to the key of E minor...

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