Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Science at WorldCon

I suppose I shouldn't have been so surprised that there was a lot of real science on display at WorldCon. There was even a meeting advertised during the Con for alumni of MIT - there were enough of them there to fill a room.
In the Dealers' Hall there were several science stands - the Royal Holloway Department of Earth Sciences was monitoring methane and carbon dioxide during the Con and presenting their research into changing global methane emissions. The University of Dundee was also showcasing their research in Life Sciences.
There was plenty about space, like the Herschel Telescope and Planck satellite, and the ALMA and e-MERLIN radio telescope arrays from Chile and Jodrell Bank.
On the first day of the Con, across the room I saw a man flapping his arms around in front of a screen - this was Pigeon Sim, where you could fly like a pigeon over London. That one came from University College, London.
While we were dressed in our white coats as UNIT scientists, we got talking to the students at the Proxomics Project, which was absolutely fascinating. The Young Man was interested in the way they are looking at cells individually, to look at the differences and ways of treating cancers and dealing with problems of aging. He came away with an invitation to visit the lab at Imperial College!
I was more interested in the display that showed, with magnets and ball-bearings, how a mass spectrometer works. It was something I remembered vaguely from my A levels, but I'd never heard of it being used with proteins, as this group were doing.
There was a display about the Mars Desert Research Station, in Utah, where people are practicing how to live on Mars, and there was a Deep Sea Crawler, down at 900m in the Canadian Pacific, which was sending live video data back.
And, speaking of remote viewing, there was a man in Idaho who was "present" at the Con via a moving TV screen, so he could actually move around and talk to people in real time. He even asked a question at the Astronomer Royal's talk.
There were many science talks. We really enjoyed The Science of Discworld, particularly as I had just read the second book in the four book series, the one about elves invading Roundworld, and the wizards trying to make sure that Shakespeare is born and writes A Midsummer Night's Dream. The Discworld bits of the books are written by Terry Pratchett, and the alternate chapters describing the science are written by Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart. Ian Stewart, a maths professor at Warwick, was giving the talk, and he was very entertaining, and explained things very clearly. I remembered Jack Cohen, who is a biologist, from Star Trek Cons years ago - he gave some very amusing talks, with slides, about alien sex, including the real biology of tribbles. They are also, now, honorary wizards of the Unseen University, the ceremony taking place on the same day as Terry Pratchett became an Honorary Doctor of Warwick University.
The most impressive talk, though, was the Astronomer Royal's lecture The Post Human Future. Like Ian Stewart, Lord Martin Rees explained his ideas clearly - but we still needed to concentrate to keep up! He talked about the discovery of exo-planets by the Kepler telescope, which was so fascinating I looked it up when I came home (there's a lot of information on the NASA website), and evolution and astronomy, and science interacting with politics, and we came staggering out with our brains full and needing beer!

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