Now in its third year the NI Science Festival have surpassed themselves yet again with a fantastic programme of over 150 events across the province running from 16th to 26th February. The festival is a brilliant demonstration of how science crosses many boundaries, not just disciplines like maths, engineering and astronomy but food, arts and our society too. This is my third year of volunteering at the festival but with lots to explore and enjoy in unique spaces I made sure to book myself into a few events too.
Volunteering at the festival can involve any amount of duties, meeting and greeting, taking tickets or helping out with workshops and experiments. My first volunteer event was What’s Your Beef? at Taylor & Clay in the Bullitt Hotel. Guests sat opposite the Asador grill whilst dining on the world’s first flax-fed Wagyu beef and organic vegetables from David Love Cameron’s Walled Garden at Helen’s Bay. The six courses were served up on unique ceramics specifically made for the event while the chefs discussed each plate and the future of our food.
Between volunteer shifts I took the opportunity to hear of the Thomson family of Belfast and the impact they had on mathematics and physics in Victorian Belfast in the Old Museum Building. Built for the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society in 1831 the Old Museum Building was the first museum in Belfast. As a building I pass most days I was keen to get a look inside whilst embracing my inner maths geek.
The talk centred around Lord Kelvin aka Sir William Thomson who is celebrated with a statue in Botanic Gardens. First however we heard of James Thomson Senior, William’s father, whose ambition and determination ensured the best start in life for his children. Dr Mark McCartney took us through the life of James Snr from his humble beginnings as the youngest son of a farmer in Ballynahinch through his teaching at Belfast Academic Institute (RBAI) to his family life. A fascinating man, I especially liked how he wooed his sweetheart, Margaret Gardner, with the stars, to whom he married. Together they had 6 children including William and James who would go on to develop the theory of Thermodynamics. Professor Andrew Whitaker and Professor Crosbie Smith took us through the life and works of James Thomson Junior and Lord Kelvin and in particular their work together.
My second volunteer shift had me assisting with Aliens in Popular Science Fiction, a look at how science in the media can get it right but also so wrong. Held in the Bell Lecture Theatre at Queen’s University, Professor Francis Keenan had his audience of all ages captivated with various clips of sci-fi movies and tv shows and hilarious portrayals of alien life. Quite poignantly though he discussed how you only have to look at our own civilisation in how we treat to determine how one would react to an alien visit – with great trepidation!
The final event for me, and my absolute highlight, was the inaugural Jack Kerr memorial lecture with Bettany Hughes in the Ulster Museum. Bettany Hughes is a historian, author and broadcaster, she has written and presented numerous documentaries for the BBC, Channel Four, National Geographic… the list goes on! Having attended her previous lecture on Helen of Troy in the Museum I didn’t want to miss this free event on her latest book, Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities. Squeezing 800,000 years of history into a one hour lecture is no easy task but Bettany Hughes managed to encapsulate Byzantium, Constantinople and Istanbul in what was and still is a city of sanctuary. What I found most interesting is the strong female characters of the city that Bettany brought to the forefront such as the Byzantine empress Theodora, a “guttersnipe” whose beauty and intelligence caught the eye of Emperor Justinian. Due to her heavy involvement and influence in political affairs many people believed it was she and not Justinian who was the true ruler of Byzantium. It was a wonderful evening with a great historian whom I greatly admire.
Another brilliant week from the NI Science Festival team. Keep an eye on their website for other offerings throughout the year.