Festive science

The timing of my recent trip to Edinburgh was arranged to coincide with the Edinburgh Science Festival – an event I first encountered by accident in 2014 when I was visiting Auld Reekie to indulge my Passion for the Dunedin Consort and Bach.

The range of events and topics did not disappoint and I thought I’d share a few of the “useful” things I learned.

I have already mentioned the Antibiotics Apocalypse talk which as well as sowing fear of the future also explained rather nicely why relying on market forces for new antibiotics might not lead to success.  If a company comes up with a drug to treat high blood pressure (for example), the patients will take it every day for the rest of their lives.  If you discover an antibiotic, patients will take it for seven days and then stop – but it is worse than this, in order to minimise the development of resistance, a new antibiotic will be used as little as possible and only when all existing options have been exhausted.  Whilst this make a lot of sense for the future health of the nation (and world), it is not a great commercial outcome for a corporation!

At a talk about food, I learned how to prepare a wide variety of offal (though played the mostly vegetarian card to avoid eating it) and the important rules to live by when dining on road kill.  I was even offered the chance to sample some satay squirrel – having previously seen a live squirrel necropsy (the animal version of an autopsy).  This was probably the best talk of the week – against some strong competition.

At a talk on artificial intelligence, I learned the amazing fact that Szechuan pepper stimulates nerves in the skin which normally respond to vibration – so if you rub your lips (for example) with the active ingredient it produces a tingling feeling indistinguishable from vibration (apparently at a frequency of roughly 50Hz – but a great deal safer than licking the mains).  I also discovered that if you apply an external source of vibration to your arm (at the right point) you can stimulate the muscle spindles which the body uses for proprioception.  This means that you could make people believe (when blindfolded) that their arm was somewhere else and, with a little cunning, make them believe their index finger was twice as long as in reality.  This is crying out to be used in a “magic” trick by Derren Brown (or someone of that ilk).

At a talk on femmes fatales, I learned all I need to know about poisoning using arsenic and the issues that might arise (a lot of mess) and the defence to use in court (just refer to Styria where arsenic was used to improve complexion and muscle tone).  I also got to taste flavoured gin and left with a plaster cast of the end of my index finger – I’m not entirely sure how either of these related to murderous madams, but they made for a fun night out.

Finally, at a talk on potential global geological disasters – including meteor strikes, super-volcanoes, mega-tsunamis and huge earthquakes – man’s dwarfing by nature was laid bare.  One potential disaster would be for part of a mountainside in the Canary Islands to fall into the Atlantic ocean – this could produce a mega-tsunami which would take out most of the eastern seaboard of North and Central America (among other things).  In common with all the potential disasters, many have suggested the use of nuclear weapons as a possible solution to geologists: I’m sorry to report that this will make matters worse (and more radioactive!) in all cases (despite what you may have seen in the movies).  In the case of Las Palmas, some have suggested removing the mountainside in question using diggers and trucks.  Even assuming an infeasibly rapid rate of removal, this would take a minimum of 10 (and perhaps as much as 35) million years!  We may like to imagine that we can destroy the planet (or are already giving it jolly good go), but in many ways even doing our best (or worst) we are desperately ineffectual: the planet is likely to be here long after we’ve gone.  The best (or worst) we can hope for is to have a short-term (in the geological context) impact on the climate and mix of living species – perhaps enough of an effect finish ourselves off, but all pretty minor in the 4.5 billion year history of this lump of rock.


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