Pint of Science

And finally, the promised and – I assume – highly anticipated post about my experiences with Pint of Science.  However, before the post proper, can we all take a few moments out from our busy lives to read a few words from our sponsor.

I was sitting at my desk staring vacantly out of the window the other day when I saw a table go past on the road outside.  Exactly seven-an-a-half minutes later I saw it again (or a table that could have passed for its twin).  Then, after a further demi-quarter hour had passed, the table traversed my field of view once more.  This continued at the same regular interval until I grew bored and went to do something more productive (this last bit might be stretching the truth just a little).  It wasn’t until some time later that I realise what it was that I had seen.  Clearly, I had sighted the Periodic Table.

I could apologise for that last paragraph, but we both know that I wouldn’t mean it.

The Pint of Science “festival” took place over three nights at the beginning of the week.  It occurred in several university cities, but I shall confine this post to the Southampton experience.  I only learned of its existence a few days before it started and was already promised to another on Monday evening, so I chose the only events not already fully booked on Tuesday and Wednesday (which spared me the agony of decision-making).  Events took place across four pubs in the city – of which more later.

On Tuesday, I learned about some of the technology behind fibre optics and the internet.  These talks had some great demos and I now feel I understand the principles behind non-linear light, following an analogy to an over-amplified electric guitar, and how to prevent my aircraft being shot-down by heat-seeking missile (so, practical too).  There was also a quiz, out of which I won a number of goodies – including the t-shirt I am now wearing.  It was a really fun evening and more than repaid its £3 cost.

Wednesday’s talk was (full of grace and) about regenerative medicine and covered stem cells and 3D printing.  The audience profile was a little older than the previous night – not sure if this was a coincidence or a motivated audience in search of some regeneration.  The talks here were (if anything) even better than the previous night.  I shall never view hip replacement in quite the same way again, having seen the force with which the new hip attachment is hammered into the existing bone to ensure a tight fit (less effort would have been needed to sculpt granite and using much the same tools).  The speaker on 3D printing brought along some amazing models in plaster-of-paris, including one of his own kidney and its associated stone.  This was produced from his CT scans at the cost of £123 and cut 30 minutes off his operation and saved the NHS thousands of pounds.  The potential to make surgeons’ jobs easier for a whole range of operations, improve patient outcomes and save money seems enormous – being able to actually hold and manipulate the problem area in 3D is so much better than a photo or screen view when planning.  However, I do worry that scanning capacity may become a limiting factor in making this a reality more broadly.

As well as this medical use, apparently we can already 3D print in plastic, metal, sugar, chocolate and pasta (which I feel offers a fascinating insight into the 3D printing community, or their corporate sponsors).  Referring back to a post from last year’s Edinburgh Science Festival, the speaker clearly saw the 3D printer as a sewing machine rather than a lathe.  Companies would no longer have to keep stacks of spare parts, e.g. to replace the battery cover on your remote control, consumers could download a file and print the replacement at home.  No longer will I find myself without the right pasta shape for a recipe, I can just print my own! (Though, for now, this might be a little slow if one is really hungry).  I can see the day when you can print your own alphabetti spaghetti, with your own choice for letter frequencies (for a more adult meal, perhaps, or to provision a visiting Polish child).

This night also had a quiz, in which I learned that those of us with blue eyes (clearly the superior eye colour) have higher alcohol tolerance than those of you with less fashionable ocular tints (a fact which I had, frankly, always suspected).  Beer is also, apparently, good for your bones – so drink up!  Another excellent night of fun for £3 – they even threw in some pretty generous (if basic – they probably wouldn’t have passed muster at an ambassador’s reception) snacks.

The only weakness in the Pint of Science offering was with respect to the pints.  Neither pub I visited had a bitter or ale on tap, and one couldn’t even provide one in a bottle.  As a result I was forced to drink Newcastle Brown Ale and teach the bar staff that it should always be served with a half-pint glass.  However, I don’t think we can really blame the Festival for this: they were limited by the need for a pub with a function room to seat 40-50 people and with space for some experiments.

Not only did Pint of Science provide two really enjoyable and educational nights out, but I reckon I came away with more value in freebies and consumed snacks than the cost of entry.  I’m not sure how this is financially viable – but long may it continue!  Actually, the freebies were provided by a corporate sponsor (called Mendeley – I presume after Dmitiri Mendeleev hence the idea for the second paragraph striking me) who seem to be some sort of social medium for the research community.  Whilst I like to think that much of my life is spent in research, I’m not sure I am quite their target market – but, if they ask, I could always transition GofaDM (or some selected highlights) across to their platform.

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