Could a woman in high heels outrun a dinosaur, and how would we know? Do the benefits of sulphur outweigh its stinkbomb smell? How might we cure a migraine? What is Graham’s Number? Should the pharmaceutical industry be doing herbal medicine research? How is coca-cola relevant to studying fossilised crocodile eggs? These are just a tiny sample of the intriguing issues I have learned about over the past month by attending the FameLab competitions.
Of the 27 scientists who took part in the three FameLab heats in February, 12 were selected to compete at the Wig& Pen for the chance to represent the Oxford region at the National Final. The challenge is to communicate a piece of science in three minutes or less, with clarity and charisma, using only portable props (no PowerPoint).
Matthew Greenwell set the bar very high with his opening presentation, which used the Ker Plunk marble game to demonstrate why biodiversity matters, and what happens when a “keystone species” becomes extinct. Katerina Johnson gave an exuberant whistle-stop tour of the link between bacteria in the gut microbiome and the brain (I look forward to lengthier exploration of this intriguing subject in her forthcoming TED talk). Aimee Ross, a particle physicist, used metaphors to explain the difference between the use of radiotherapy (bullets), proton therapy (grenades) and electron therapy (drones) to treat cancer. There was a “16+” warning for Marie-Claire Koschowitz’s talk on “Squid Sex and Human Assumptions”, which took Hokusai’s “Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife” as its starting point. Isa Bonachera concluded the first half with her comically imparted thoughts on transgenerational trauma.
In the second half, Danielle Perro used dramatic imagery to bring to life the finely orchestrated mechanism that is menstruation, initiated by “Queen GnRH” (or gonadotropin-releasing-hormone to you and me). Matt Tompkins used “magic” slates and an audience memory test to illustrate his talk on “Genuine Fake Miracles” and comparisons with 18th century psychical research. Nuria Melisa Morales Garcia, a palaeobiologist, gave a fascinating insight into the evolutionary development and functionality of vertical-slit pupils in small “ambush” mammals such as domestic cats.By the time Jack Rowbotham stepped up to deliver the last, “surprise” talk on the difference one single amino acid, out of 300, makes to the oxygen absorption of haemoglobin in the bar-headed versus the greylag goose, the disco had just started up downstairs – and I have to say, Jack deserved a prize just for persevering against that thumping distraction, let alone for his goosey props!
While the judges (Chief “Judgina” Ferry, Professor John Runions and Professor Berne Ferry - no relation to Georgina!) retired to decide the winner, there was further scientific entertainment. Dr Cedric Tan and his colleagues first involved us in a stand-up-sit-down audience-voting debate exercise on the philosophy and ethics of trophy-killing abroad and badger-culling at home. This was followed by a hilarious performance exploring sperm and pheromones. Various audience members then volunteered science-related jokes and Isa filled in with some spontaneous stand-up until the judges returned.
Of course, half the fun for the audience was in trying to predict the winner. We enjoyed arguing amongst ourselves about the comparative merits of the speakers and their presentations. All twelve of the speakers gave excellent performances, but I think my front runner would have been Brooke Johnson. Geology had previously seemed to me the most “dead” of all the sciences – but he brought the subject to life for me with his talk on “Romance, Mystery and Shrimps”. I was fascinated to hear the story of how burrowing shrimp millions of years ago created today’s ironstone, how our whole planet was “geo-engineered” by past life, and why he can say with accuracy that “Sydney Harbour Bridge is a load of crap”.
It was surprising to me that, with all the cutting edge science and the novel models and metaphors used to describe it, the judges awarded the runner-up place to a recounting of Hilbert’s 1924 “Infinity Hotel” paradox, which has been doing the rounds for 95 years. I suppose they were won over by the enthusiasm of the teller (Jumaid Mubeen, Director of Whizz Education) and the confident way he responded to their questions.
The winner the judges chose was Sam Hatfield, an atmospheric physicist who explained in layman’s terms why “Weather Forecasts are Sometimes Wrong” in a way which made the whole business of chaos theory and multiple probabilities seem simple. He was a likeable personality, who spoke in a calm, confident, engaging manner with the aid of a couple of clear, simple diagrams. He will go forward to the National Final which takes place on 3 June, just before the Cheltenham Science Festival, at which the International Final will be held. Good luck, Sam!