Science Festival Interview with Professor Mary Bownes
Professor Mary Bownes, Professor Emerita of Developmental Biology, helps coordinate the University's contribution to the Edinburgh International Science Festival. As the 2017 festivities draw to a close, she shares her impressions.
Please can you share some of your favourite events from this year's Festival?
Summerhall was crowded with ideas. Of the many things I liked was Hidden Order, which to me was like living kaleidoscopes. The Arctic images, relating to Arctic research, were also amazing. I particularly liked Beneath and Beyond Seismic Sounds and this was a real piece of technology - relaying tectonic shifts, so that visitors could hear them and see where they were occurring.
The National Museum of Scotland contribution went from strength to strength this year. There was a huge amount of entertainment with activities in the Foyer, Hawthornden Court and the University family activities and workshops in the education centre. The exhibition changed three times during the course of the festival and every time I went in there were many happy families interacting with different aspects of science from the University.
This year the Science Festival had more theatre than before, and I was delighted that the Bedlam Theatre had a student production of a renowned New York play concerning Isaac Newton, which was brought to the festival for the first time.
I think my favourite talk was the Spire Healthcare and MAKO launch at the National Museum of Scotland, which looked at robotics, for example how a robotic arm was helping surgeons with replacement hip and knee therapy. There was much discussion about robots and how they might become involved as time goes on. The audience was interested in whether these robotic arms could replace the surgeons completely. It seems this is unlikely for the moment, however, the technology available now is quite stunning.
This year's Edinburgh Medal was extremely topical as it was awarded to Professor Peter Piot, Director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. He was an excellent example of a good recipient for this medal address - he has worked on AIDS and Ebola - not just on the science and the discovery of the viruses behind the diseases, but also in the countries concerned, to work with organisations such that the epidemics are dealt with effectively. His talk was not only scientifically amazing in terms of his achievements over many years, but he was able to convey the story in an extremely engaging way.
Finally, I enjoyed seeing the police boxes scattered around the city, called Moments in Time. My two favourite ones were about the Enlightenment and being inside a Scottish coal mine. This was an inspired idea and it was amazing how much could be packed into such little spaces. I'm already looking forward to next year's Science Festival.
What have you been impressed by or surprised by at this year's Festival?
I have been surprised by the huge variety in the 2017 programme. I particularly like seeing a large range of adult events alongside the events for families. I am also very pleased to see more venues taking part. Places like Our Dynamic Earth and the Botanic Garden have been involved for a while - more recently Edinburgh Zoo has become involved, with some very innovative programmes. The Festival enables these venues to add some scientific background and information about their work for the benefit of their audiences.
Also, I have been surprised by the large amount of technologically innovative projects that we are hearing about at the Festival, and the fact that this year there is much more discussion about the impact of these on society and whether or not it is what people want.
Why do you think it is important for the University to play a part in the Festival?
There are many reasons why it is so important for the University of Edinburgh to take part in these activities. Firstly it allows us to share our knowledge and research with the wider community and do this in an innovative way. This makes what we do more accessible and enables people to make their own decisions about how things will impact their lives.
What do you hope staff and students get out of contributing to the Festival?
Taking part gives our students, particularly postgraduate students, opportunities to practice their public engagement skills and to develop their interaction with people. Many of those who take part, both staff and students, are re-energised by the amazing reactions they get and the real interest there is in what they're doing and why. There are also many ways in which students and staff can do this, from talks, workshops, art and science interactions, events, displays, panel discussions, exhibitions ... the list is enormous! And each one gives our great staff and students the opportunity to learn new skills.
What do you get out of overseeing the University's participation in the Festival?
For many years I have engaged with the science festival - in fact since I began my career in Edinburgh. It is great to see how far we have come in terms of the variety and quality of the engagement. My favourite still is seeing so many young people having fun, families talking to each other about science and engaged adults asking stimulating and demanding questions of presenters.
Has this year's Festival given you any ideas or inspiration?
Every year I'm very impressed and inspired by all the things I attend at the Science Festival. No matter how much of your time is spent thinking about science, there is always something there to surprise you - something you didn't know, or perhaps something you should think about in a different way. As ever, the most difficult thing is deciding which events to attend from the huge selection available.