I am writing this on the train, travelling back from one of my favourite science events ever. My friend and I spent the day at London’s ExCeL at New Scientist Live and it was amazing.
My partner bought me the tickets months ago after seeing an ad for it in one of my New Scientist magazines. The event runs for four days; he chose Saturday because he saw that my favourite science author, Nick Lane, was to be giving a talk then.
I didn’t get the VIP ticket upgrade beforehand and I’m so glad about that. There was so much to do around the talks that you would never have had time to try everything. The stalls were bustling all day and were really interactive. I put my arm over a box buzzing with live mosquitoes to see how attractive I am (not very, it turns out) and held huge stick insects. We tested out our detective skills on a murder mystery stand and had our fingerprints taken to see how common the patterns were.
I came away with a seriously cool bracelet that changes colour when exposed to ultraviolet light and learnt that a vitamin D supplement a day during winter will help to keep colds at bay. Apparently the diet of the future, in terms of calories and protein content, will be a mixture of crickets, nuts and lab grown meat (step aside, Deliciously Ella). And so much more.
The difficulty came when deciding which talks to go to. There was five ‘zones’; Earth, Cosmos, Humans, Technology and Engineering. Each zone hosted five talks throughout the day, all 40 minutes long. We started the day in the Earth zone with Alan Jamieson and some bizarre but also really quite beautiful creatures found in the very depths of the oceans. He showed some incredible videos of eels, snailfish and more, all dancing around a piece of bait on a stick. The coolest part was seeing an eel swimming up to the food then reversing back the way it had come. Apparently they wont turn around or head off in a different direction.
For the second talk we stayed in Earth to hear bioarchaeologist Brenna Hassett explain how the transition between hunter-gatherer and city dweller can be read in our skeletons. She showed images of a disintegrated phossy jaw, caused by workers spending 8-10 hours a day working with white phosphorus that became the tips of matches, and the tooth of an ancient human who had suffered a period of malnutrition or disease. Brenna explained how the Neolithic was a phenomenal success if you consider ‘success’ to be an increase in population size, but that our ancestors paid for this in a reduction in their health and quality of life. She spoke so well and I told her afterwards (as she was signing my book, couldn’t help myself) that she really should be doing a TED talk.
The third talk, from the Cosmos stage, took us in an entirely different direction. Physicist Jeffery Hangst works at CERN creating a particle of antimatter called antihydrogen. He described the technology that they use to produce, trap and measure the antimatter that they hope will answer some really fundamental questions in physics. If by creating mass we make an equal amount of matter and antimatter, where is all the antimatter that is meant to have formed at the Big Bang? And if gravity causes matter to fall, what does it do to antimatter? Jeffery seemed optimistic both that these questions could be answered soon and that there would be a Nobel Prize up for grabs for doing so. He also sent a message to Dan Brown that antimatter would be an entirely useless weapon, given the amount of the stuff that they could actually make. Never mind the issues transporting it to the Vatican…
For a bit of light relief, we caught half of Julia Shaw’s introduction to how memories are surprisingly unreliable and the way in which this impacts court cases. We didn’t get to listen to her conclusions because apiculturist Francis Ratnieks was beginning his talk on the next stage and the opportunity to listen to how amazing the honey bee is was too good to miss. Francis gave a whistle-stop tour through the benefits and lifestyle of the honey bee, as well as describing the diseases that threaten it. He finished with a reassuring statistic that with 1 trillion living in hives across the world, the honey bee is unlikely to go extinct any time soon.
The last talk of the day was Nick Lane’s The origin of life on Earth. Seriously, how cool is it to say that that’s what you study?! We were there super early to get a good seat and, much to my friend’s embarrassment, I managed to catch him before he started to get a photo. I definitely got star struck! I first started my blog after he suggested it at a lecture about 18 months ago when I quizzed him about how to get into writing, so it was nice that he took an interest in what I’m doing with it now. Nick’s talk explained how he thinks that life began in alkaline vents deep below the ocean’s surface. He says they create the ideal conditions, an energy gradient most importantly, to produce the first life forms. I was pleased to have read his new book The Vital Question (reviewed in Book Reviews) a few times because it helped to understand what he was talking about. He headed off for a book signing at the end, saying he was happy for people just to come over for a chat without feeling obliged to buy his book. What a legend.
We left after the final talk to get to the tube before the end of day rush. I have no idea how anyone has the energy to come for all four days! I will 110% be recommending it to all sciencey and non-sciencey friends and can’t wait for next year!
Rebecca | An Anxious Scientist