On Friday thirty members of the UVth braved the cold to travel to London’s Dominion Theatre to listen to a series of presentations by some well-known and eminent British scientists. The theatre was packed with at least 2,000 pupils and positively hummed with interest; the first speaker, Professor Jim Al-Khalili, well known to many for his television work, spoke enthusiastically about a very specialized branch of physics, relativity, providing an explanation for time travel that not only sounded convincing, but was easily understood by the majority of the audience.
The next to take to the stage was Professor Andrea Sella whose intriguing title “How the zebra got its stripes” was a quick and interesting journey from simple chemical reactions (demonstrated by an irreversible colour change in a flask) through balls rolling down slopes (unable to roll back up again), via skiers on a slalom and finishing with a flask of reagents (based on iodine) which, when stirred, changed from blue to yellow and back again, and again, and again. A film of petri dishes with the same oscillating reaction but unstirred, showed the gradual development of patterns which were then related to the behaviour of enzymes and inhibitors in skin cells and the influence of DNA, hence the stripes.
Professor Lord Robert Winston (he of great academic and television fame and instantly recognizable by his splendid moustache) spoke most engagingly about fertility, in vitro fertilization and the aging process, and climbed down in to the audience in order to personally address those brave enough to volunteer questions. After lunch we were treated to a delivery from the ebullient Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock, a space scientist who often pops up on television and she seemed to win over the audience very quickly and effectively with her illustrated curriculum vitae, her assertion that “you should have a dream and you can realize it” and her graphic description of how one relieves one’s self when in space.
Last up, and somewhat disheveled, was Dr Ben Goldacre (he of “Bad Science” fame) who clearly demonstrated the fallacy behind recent studies regarding the brain-enhancing properties of fish oil (very relevant to anyone who is faced with a “design an experiment” type of question). He then entertained his audience with excerpts from the teachers’ notes on “Brain Gym”, clearly enjoying poking fun at the unscientific assertions to be found therein and finishing with a demonstration of blood flow using an ultra-sound probe on the manly chest of our master of ceremonies. Scattered amongst this cornucopia were two sessions of sane and sensible advice delivered by a chief examiner and woe betide any Cranleighan who did not listen to him! An interesting day was enjoyed by all; the only blot on the outing was the longest trip back to Cranleigh in the history of the universe due to a burst water main in the middle of Wandsworth High Street.