Food For Thought
Stand-up comedy? Photography? Five-course meals? None of these are what you'd expect to find in the Edinburgh International Science Festival, but all of them are part of a programme that goes out of its way to surprise.
"If you were to stop 100 people in the street and ask them if they were interested in science, a large proportion would probably say no," says Amanda Tyndall, deputy festival director. "But if you ask them if they're interested in medicine, technology, the environment or weather, they'd probably say yes."
That's the governing principle in a packed two-week Easter programme that brings together not only major names in science, such as Edinburgh Medal winner James Hansen (see interview), but also celebrities better known for comedy, such as Robin Ince, and experts in fields as diverse as literature and sport. "You only need to pick up the paper to see many of the most pressing issues have some basis in science," says Tyndall. "Our definition of science is a very broad one."
The line-up for the 2012 event is based on five themes. Prominent among them is the science of athletics. This being the year of the London Olympics, the festival is taking its own distinctive view of movement, motion, sport and dance. "There's a surprising amount of science underlying most sports, everything from nutrition to looking at peak performance and the technology involved in training and tracking people," she says.
As well as InMotion, a major exhibition in the National Museum of Scotland supported by the Scottish Government's expo fund, there is a series of events looking at human movement. In one session, leading psychologists ask whether sporting success depends on thinking like a winner. In another there's a look at how nanotechnology in fabrics can help athletes. Another still considers the body's genetic, physiological, biochemical and psychological limits.
"There are a couple of events by Dr Peter Lovatt, a psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire, who does a lot of work on what extent your hormones and levels of testosterone affect the way that you dance and how attractive that makes you to the opposite sex," says Tyndall. "One of his events will have a dancer as part of it."
That's one example of the entertaining overlap with many of the other festivals in Edinburgh. As with sport, we often think of art and science as unrelated, but the connections are plentiful. The "art and science" line-up includes dance, poetry, spoken word, film, photography and art. You can consider the "mad" heroines of literature in terms of modern psychiatry and listen to an evening of stand-up comedy performed by moonlighting academics.
As a counterbalance to so many apocalyptic headlines, the "earth and environment" strand takes a positive approach to the challenges of climate change, championing the innovations as well as sounding the warning bells. "Any science festival has a responsibility to pick up on some of the biggest issues – and climate and the environment are undoubtedly that," says Tyndall. "But not every element of it needs to be weighty and terrifying. We're collaborating with Greener Scotland and the focus is on tips for going green – manageable information that people can take on as part of their everyday life – as well as having hard-hitting discussions about our climate future."
In a city said to have more restaurants per head of population than anywhere in the UK, there is no shortage of gastronomes ready to savour the "food for thought" strand. By exploring the science behind what we eat and drink, the programme opens up discussions about sustainability, the power of the senses and the chemical composition of the perfect recipe. There are events about the history of dieting, the challenge of food security and how to forage for wild food.
"We've got one event on sensory dining that will bring together a scent technician, a linguist, a chemist and a neuroscientist to look at how tweaking our various senses affects our experience of food," she says. "It will take the form of a sit-down meal hosted by our expert guests. Each of the five courses will look at one of our senses."
The centrepiece of the "technology and innovation" strand is the Edinburgh Enlightenment Exchange (aka E²), a day-long showcase in the National Museum of Scotland in which scientists swap ideas with artists, musicians, authors and other innovative thinkers. Overlapping with the "science and arts" theme, it will be a day of heady creative ideas. "It's a TED-style showcase of some of the best, brightest creatives who will do a short, sharp presentation about how they have taken a creative approach to their practice."
It's not all about sitting back and listening, though. The programme also gives adults the chance to do some hands-on science in the form of LateLab, a nightly programme of free events and informal discussion in the university's Inspace centre. "It'll be a semi-social, semi-participatory space where people can go in and get their hands on certain technological experiments, depending on the evening."
All this makes clear that a substantial part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival is pitched at adults – around 75 events, in fact. No event that coincided with the Easter holidays would want to overlook the children's market, but this festival caters equally well to the grown-ups. "We're very keen that our adult programming is of a similar high standard to the work we do for young people and families," says Tyndall.
There is, indeed, also a packed programme for anyone over the age of three and if you're coming to Edinburgh with children, you should head straight to the City Art Centre where there are six floors of science-based activities to join in every day of the festival apart from Sundays.
You should order a day pass in advance to avoid queues, then watch the kids disappear into a world of sensory exploration, wild experiments and tricky challenges. Some sessions you can book in advance, others you can just turn up and join in. Children can learn how to make square bubbles, develop photographs and build robots. They'll be having so much fun, they won't notice how much they're learning at the same time.
There's more junior entertainment at the Scottish Storytelling Centre – nerve centre of October's Scottish International Storytelling Festival – where you'll find authors with a liking for inventions, discoveries and the wonders of science. Still more family-friendly events are at the Royal Botanic Garden, the National Museum of Scotland, the University of Edinburgh and many other venues in and around town.
Whatever your age, whatever your interests, you'll be spoilt for choice, promises Tyndall: "If anybody's even vaguely curious about the world we live in, then they'll find something that will fascinate, enlighten and entertain them."
Edinburgh International Science Festival, 30 March–15 April, www.sciencefestival.co.uk