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Cheltenham Festival ’07

Cheltenham Science Festival takes place every year in the beautiful town of Cheltenham in Gloucestershire, UK.

Science festivals. The sorts of events that are frequented by those who have been described as “the cheese and wine people”. You know, the sort of people who are out hunting for organic, humanely farmed borlotti beans and taking their kids to theatre workshops, while the rest of us are watching ‘I’m a Celebrity, Check Out My Rubbish Cooking Skills/Incredibly Toned Bottom’.

That’s why more normal people should join the party. The Null Team (when I say normal, that’s a loose term, encompassing a wide spectrum of normal-dom) arrived bright and early last Thursday morning to see what we could see. Here are some of our highlights:

Making Babies
One of the first things we came across was the Medical Research Council (MRC) assisting the public in making test tube babies. Of course, we couldn’t resist having a go ourselves, and spawned the first Null sprog – a beautiful black haired baby boy. We should explain at this point that this was a demonstration, featuring string sperm and plastic eggs, and that no test tubes or babies were harmed in the process.

Pfizer’s Talking Robot
Perhaps the finest moment of the festival, in our eyes, belonged to Oscar, the cheeky robotic chappy accompanying the bods from festival sponsors, Pfizer. In a rapid-fire exchange of science jokes he quipped, “What happened to the man who took Viagra eye drops?” The robot from Pfizer, who pioneered the stuff, was about to tell us. “It made him look hard.”

Live and Let Die
Bless Aubrey de Grey. If anyone wanted a mad genius-type character to parade around as reasoning for society’s damning stereotype of the scientist, they wouldn’t have to look any further than this Cambridge gerontologist. He tried so hard to persuade a room full of carbon hating cheese -and-winers that living indefinitely wasn’t the same thing as living for ever and wouldn’t mean more greenhouse emissions.
Unfortunately it ended in some rather scathing comments about the boffin’s beard from one Null editor…. Least said, soonest mended.

Punching Cornflour
Something to try at home: get a big bucket, empty into it several boxes of cornflour (perhaps ask mum first), then add enough water to make a big gloopy mess. Now, here’s the interesting bit. Make a tight ball with your fist and punch the surface of the gloop as hard as you can. It will remain rock solid. No, this isn’t just some convoluted way to get you all mucky, it really works. Why? Apparently because when punched, the particles lock together. You’ll notice if you put your finger slowly into the slime it will act like a liquid. (For more on this try Questacon).

Learning to Loaf
According to psychologists Guy Claxton and Harry Witchel of the University of Bristol, we should all try to take things a little more slowly. Slow is, among other things, more healthy and more creative. Unbeknownst to Null, 31 Italian cities are actually signed up to the “Slow Movement”, which explores the pleasurable practices of slow eating and slow sex. Enlightening.

Celebrity Gossip
Your friend and mine, Sir Richard Branson graced the scene, albeit for a few moments, before being whisked away (in an eco-friendly vehicle one would hope). Also to be seen was David Cameron, of ill-placed wind turbine fame (oh and leader of the Conservatives) and Roger Highfield of The Telegraph – what a very nice man he is.

Andy worked for four years studying ducks (no stop laughing, he really did). He went into his PhD thinking he was going to save the world (albeit from ducks) and now spends him time lovingly preening Null Hypothesis, the Journal of Unlikely Science!