One of the most demoralising symbols of the bonfire currently engulfing Earth is the shameless disdain for science shown by the philistines pouring petrol on the flames. The face-plantingly patronising declaration that people no longer seek the wisdom of experts, as declared by the moral miser who has driven so many teachers to seek other careers under the constraints of the current curriculum, summarises the state of play concisely in some quarters.
Still, there’s got to be a chance these apocalyptically unenlightened times won’t last forever, and, anyway, you can’t spend your whole time drowning yourself in gin and shouting “you couldn’t make it up!” on social media in between watching Caroline Lucas interviews and listening to the sweet, soothing certainties of Neil deGrasse Tyson until the renaissance.
Just as well the marvellous Brighton Science Festival is here, bringing with it, after a decade, not the burden of a world collapsing under the weight of idiotic ignorance, but the eternally-welcome mix of joy and wonder wreathed in learning and lightheartedness.
With a wealth of workshops and hands-on stuff for kids during the half-term week, the festival also features some pretty big names from the pop-science universe (which, though small, is expanding at an impressive rate). BBC’s Marty Jopson stars alongside Richard Wiseman, a psychologist and maths prankster who was on Brian Cox’s Infinite Monkey Cage last week; while Festival of the Spoken Nerd (pictured above) return to Brighton after a run of QI appearances with their blend of science, songs and smart comedy.
“It has been just about doubling in size every year for over a decade,” says Festival Director Richard Robinson, surely one of Brighton’s enduring heroes. Robinson started the sci-party because “everybody needs a science festival”, but its resonant themes – working out where we’ve come from, are and might go – seem particularly timely right now. “It’s like that all the time,” he says, surveying the state of the world. “This year is not particularly special, strangely.”
Naturally, Robinson cites an influential thinker, Thomas Robert Malthus, who made waves on the cusp of the 19th century with his theories on population growth, to explain the festival’s development: “The audience grows geometrically; the financial support grows incrementally. When it went from four events to eight it didn’t make much difference, but we noticed the jump from 64 events to 128. We’ve had to do twice as much on well short of twice as much money.”
Malthus was out to create controls which would avoid catastrophe. Robinson, more than 200 years later, is trying to satisfy the demand which comes with success. “The thinking – spotting people, acts and ideas – goes on constantly, but nailing the talent – getting them to commit – is the work of a long few months.”
A time-travelling surgeon brandishing a medicine cabinet, puppetry and science shows in pubs, cosmic comedy, cinema and a visit from a parapsychologist all figure this year, and the opening weekend is the big one for kids: Bright Sparks gives the little blighters a laugh on Saturday and Sunday. Crucially, the mission is to facilitate “the kind of learning that doesn’t feel like work.”
“I go round and see the presenters giving so much energy and care to put across their delight in what they do,” says Robinson. “And then I see the kids and their parents asking – interrogating, really – the scientists, and they explain and demonstrate, and quite soon there’s a squeal or a laugh or an awestruck silence.”
At a time when so little gravity seems to be given to integral understanding and inquisitiveness, perhaps it’s best for those presenters to live in a bubble. “Scientists don’t really inhabit the same world as mortals, so it’s amazing to see their effect.” If Robinson could, he’d send them over the sea. “The pier is pure science, technology, engineering, art and maths, from the psychology of the haunted house through the technology of the claw grabs to the physics of the Mad Mouse and the overall decoration – there’s science everywhere. The festival should be set there.
“The world is a ball of ignorance, fantasy and hysteria, overlaid by a thin skin of knowledge. The job of educators everywhere is to keep darning the holes that appear in the skin when the hysteria breaks through. Awful things will happen if we can’t keep darning. And we know we can’t afford to stop.”
Visit brightonscience.com for full listings and more details.