Choose your adventure

27 September 2018

First published in Pick Magazine

Like a butterfly from a caterpillar, the 25th Oxfordshire Science Festival has metamorphosed to emerge this autumn as IF Oxford (12th-22nd October). This Festival now encompasses not only science but the whole gamut of ideas whether you’re interested in humanity or the heart, artificial intelligence or a symphony of sunbeams saturating the stage.

From the opening afternoon (a street fair on Broad Street on Friday 12th October) you’ll be intrigued by questions of life and tales of the unexpected. Begin, perhaps, with a visit to the ‘Living Library’ in which you choose a ‘title’ from a shelf as you would with a borrowing card, but instead of reading the contents of the book, you can step inside and  talk to the person whose thoughts and ideas are in the book for individual experience.

Then as dusk falls on the historic city, you can watch the characters in Frankenstein leap out from Mary Shelley’s story – a compassionate if spooky tale, a handwritten draft of which is currently on show in the Weston Library (as part of the Sappho to Suffrage: women who dared exhibition). Echoing the opening of Shelley’s novel, on Friday 12 October in the Museum of the History of Science, the central character in new play shares their account of a journey to the Arctic with vivid details of scientists, translators and transhumanists.

It is 200 years since Shelley’s novel was published, and it remains the classic ghost story, a precursor to much science fiction. Victor Frankenstein created a hideous monster from old body parts and brought it to life as a sentient being using electricity in an era when electricity was still newly-discovered and shrouded in mystery. In her late teens, a precocious Shelley read spooky German stories and spent time with her Father’s friends,  leading electrical researchers, hypothesizing about a connection between life and electricity. They knew electrical shocks produced spasms in animals so did electricity have the potential to reanimate corpses? With Frankenstein, Shelley investigates with pathos and understanding, the possibilities and meaning of life.

Two hundred years later, we’re still asking questions about life and IF encourages everyone to have a go, to touch and explore components of life from the tiniest building blocks like the molecular components of cells, through their embryonic development (which you can follow on a Virtual Reality headset), to the vastest imagination – there’s even an astroseisomology art and sound installation which translates the patterns of the stars into a resonance allowing visitors to experience the inaudible ‘song of the stars.’

Over at Oxford Playhouse, there’s a dramatic contemporary dance show inspired by solar research and set to innovative electroacoustic music. The performance, which lasts an hour, is called 8 Minutes because it takes just eight minutes for sunlight to travel 93 million miles to earth and it is this light that gives us life. (Admission charge applies). Against an installation of stunning celestial imagery, the choreography of seven sleek dancers mirrors  the principles of physics and the movement of nebulas – or dust clouds – in space.

Over the weekend 13th & 14th October, the Town Hall will be bulging are more than fifty activities and mini-exhibitions for all ages. Here, for example, you can investigate superconductivity or use Magnetic Resonance Imaging techniques to locate the pips in fruit without cutting them open – and ask why this helps at the cutting edge of medical research!

You’ll also have the chance to do key-hole surgery on a knee, which is a model fortunately even though the paramedics are on hand (to demonstrate their defibrillator skills) or you can choose to look into the skull with virtual reality equipment. And should you become breathless with excitement, step aside into a lecture on the psychological component of breathlessness. Is it really all in the mind?

Eleswhere, Irish psychologist Martin O’Neill discusses big ideas in science in a small space with a large dollop of laughter, performing the two-handed comedy Waiting for Pavlov (not to be confused with pavlova) which was inspired by the format of Waiting for Godot. In the show which is set over a pint or two in the St Aldates Tavern, Sceptic Seamus is led by his intuition while philosophical Gerry takes a rational approach as the pair pick apart the nature of the relationship between science and its application in the real world.

And Professor Sir Nigel Shadbolt, one of the UK’s leading computer scientists and author of ‘The Digital Ape: how to live (in peace) with smart machines’ is on hand to look at how smart-machines revolution is re-shaping our lives and our societies. What if humans are cast aside in a revolution of super-intelligent robots of our own creation? Or are we safely in control of the augmented humanity we have invented in the two hundred years since Frankenstein created his early monster?

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