Cambridge Science Festival - Getting Personal 2017

Published on 2 Apr 2017


Written by Jess Bartlet

Cambridge celebrates an incredible range of wonderful festivals throughout the year, however the annual Cambridge Science Festival (CSF) is far and away my favourite. CSF gives everyone the opportunity to explore science, technology, engineering, and maths with a programme of  talks and hands-on activities. Amazingly, most of the events offered are free, as well as being accessible for a vast range of ages - everyone from toddlers to great-grandparents can find something that will excite and educate them (even if you do have to pre-book). This year’s theme “Getting Personal” brought science back to everyday context, and explained the relevance to our lives. From health to climate, CSF explored the science of everyday life with an innovative range of programmes - activities for families to enjoy together were especially good to see. This year’s theme was arguably one of the most relevant for the public to engage with and immerse themselves in.

Sex, lies and brain scans: can brain scans be used to reveal what really goes on in our minds? - Ages 15+

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) indirectly measures neuronal activity by measuring blood flow to the brain, and while precise “mind reading” is not possible at the moment, fMRI can currently be used for hazy brain reconstruction of images. The images are taken by analysing neuronal activity when a subject is shown other people’s faces. Currently, the images attained are not accurate enough to be completely identifiable from the original sources, but the results are still startling.

Image reconstruction

Reconstructed facial images shown to men and women from fMRI (credit: Yale University)

This technology could potentially have great use in future as it highlights implicit bias e.g. of racism at the amygdala in the brain, and could even potentially be used as a lie detector, proving to be more accurate than a polygraph. The fMRI exhibits different responses from spontaneous isolated lies, memorised scenarios and truth. There is the problem of false memories however.

There is also scope of fMRI neuromarketing and advertising as it has also been shown to be best predictor of sales vs explicit interview and behaviour at point of sale.

Frank Kingdon-Ward: tales of an explorer & plant hunter - All ages

Frank Kingdon-Ward was a plant hunter that originally studied at Cambridge University, but preferred expeditions - he made nearly 25 expeditions in 50 years! Plant hunters are people who earn a living by bringing back plants from around the world. He lived and collected species as one of the tail end of the great Victorian plant hunters, and was equally known for his tenacity in writing about his adventures. The majority of his plants were uncovered from China, Tibet, Himalayas, Burma, Laos, and North-East India including the first viable seeds of the famous Himalayan blue poppy.

Himalayan Poppy

Meconopsis betonicifolia baileyi, the Himalayan blue poppy (credit: University of Cambridge, Cambridge Science Festival)

Kingdon-Ward’s early work was more indicative of an anthropologist, before he became known primarily as a botanist. He was limited by his knowledge of taxonomy in botany at first; and believe it or not, would send back seed samples named only “tree”! After discovering an interesting plant in the wild, he would have to return again when it was seeding, and so it was vital that he made accurate maps so that he could return to the exact spot to collect a seed sample. Frank Kingdon-Ward continued to undertake expeditions and make discoveries of new plant species right up until he died aged 72, and is now buried in a churchyard in Grantchester, Cambridge.

Build a neural knitwork - Ages 8+

An excellent science and art event run by Makespace and Neural Knitworks, complete with complimentary tea and cake! The uncomplicated no-knit patterns informed by microscopic images meant that it was both easy and enjoyable to craft neurons, watch them develop before your eyes, and place them in a dynamic woolly brain installation. Meanwhile a neuroscientist explained how billions of neurons in your body connect to each other in neural networks and receive signals from every sense to control movement, create memories, and even play a role in post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

non knit neuron

Image of non-knit neuron (credit: Jess Bartlet)

knitted neuron

Image of knitted neural network (credit: Jess Bartlet)

Polar science: back to nature - Ages 3+ (joined by Cambridge Science Centre and British Antarctic Survey (BAS)

This was a rather exciting day of events run by the Scott Polar museum, and one that we at Cambridge Science Centre were delighted to take part in. Families had  the opportunity to construct a model of one of the seven penguin species native to the antarctic and subantarctic islands (Adélie, Gentoo, Chinstrap, Emperor, Macaroni, Rockhopper and King) species to take home. My very own Macaroni penguin can be seen below!

Scott Polar Penguin

Eudyptes chrysolophus, the macaroni penguin (credit: Jess Bartlet)

Outside of the front of the Scott Polar Museum, BAS scientists set up a mock ‘in field’ environment demonstrating how humans can survive in the Antarctic. Cambridge Science Centre ran a ‘make and take’ activity for families, focusing on arctic animals such as walruses and polar bears - and their skeletons! Children also learnt about how animals camouflage themselves in the harsh wintery environment in the arctic, with examples of the arctic hare, arctic fox and the lesser known ptarmigan - a game bird that lives in the rocky arctic shrubbery.

Backbones edited

Odobenus rosmarus, the walrus (credit: Jess Bartlet)

Cambridge Science Festival offered something for everyone this year with “Getting Personal”, and I have only highlighted a tiny fraction of the events here! We are incredibly fortunate to have world class science going on around us in Cambridge, and it is wonderful to see the University and local researchers communicating their research so passionately to the general public. I look forward to next year’s programme, and encourage the public to engage further with science.

Enjoy interactive science at home

Take a piece of Cambridge Science Centre home with you, and enjoy a galaxy of interactive learning and fun. Join the COSMOS crew, as they use science to save our world from Midgley and his fleet of pirate scrap dealers.

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