Hunting for art and science along with the 300 researchers at Imperial College London’s yearly science festival.
From comedy science songs to dancing robots, from knitting blood vessels to physics buskers, from cosmic cookery to suitcase spectroscopy—where might you find such a collection of curiosities? At least one place is over the other side of the pond at Imperial College London’s recent Imperial Festival.
By Liane Fredericks
Taking the “hands-on” element of the festival to heart, healthcare researchers, known as the Snot Doctors, had obviously got stuck-in. Not only had they created a giant anatomically correct nose out of papier-mâché, but also a colorful cross-section of a nose. Atop this cellular wall was a shag-pile carpet of nose-hair where plastic toy soldiers fought on behalf of the world’s bacteria. Underneath was the quiet and steady front-line of our sinuses, the goblet cells. This Bogey Station was set up so you could experience just what these mucus secreting cells could produce. With three bowls full of inedible looking goo, anyone from a sharp-suited guest to an excitable school kid could plunge their hands into the different consistencies of snot.
Not far off was Navigate the Heart where you could get intimate with a range of real hearts. It proved that a preserved zebra’s heart can be just as intriguing, and definitely a cheaper and more educational tool, as seeing a whole wild beast floating in formaldehyde in an art gallery.
Openly nestled between these two stands, and calling out for interaction, was How to Catch Flu. Part of a Mosaic Public Engagement Project, this stand contained the visible results of a collaboration between Imperial College London, the Wellcome Trust, the Medical Research Trust, and the NIHR Imperial Biomedical Research Centre. Unlike many of the stands in the Research Zone it contained no science posters. Instead there was a wall for adding your own visual interpretation of a flu virus, and the space had been arranged to allow more than three people to gather around a tablet at any one time. On top of the table you could play a game of “flu pandemic” dominos, illuminating expert explainations on how pandemics happen and how to prevent them.
All the visual material was beautifully illustrated by Steven Appleby, including the cartoons in the nursery rhyme riddled video created by Pete Bishop. As Pete mentioned, the test of anything is how involved the people get in it. On this basis the dominos were so successful that the possibilities within the game took on a life of their own as more people interacted with it and challenged the rules. Some might not agree that this is science communication at its best but it certainly sounded full of life.
Natasha Martineau, Head of Research Communications at Imperial College London, appreciated the success of this collaboration between artists and scientists, having herself experienced a shift in perspective while involved in the project—how often might a lab scientist think of themselves as a lepitopterist (a butterfly collector) chasing flu viruses around with bug-catching nets?
From what I saw of the festival, creative engagement seemed to support the sense of wonder and human story that people long for. It gave artists like Steven and Pete an opportunity to attend their first science festival. Hopefully it will continue to give scientists at Imperial more opportunities to explore the balance between scientific accuracy and public engagement. And help them find those sweet spots between leap-frogging the language of science, and employing a fuller range of human expression.