Reporter 406, 22 September 1997

Science under the microscope as BAAS festival hits town

All eyes were on the University of Leeds earlier this month, when the British Association for the Advancement of Science held its annual Festival of Science on the campus. The highlight of the scientific year, which was graced with two ministerial visits and the attention of scores of journalists, featured 60 University of Leeds academics among its impressive list of 450 speakers.

This was the fifth time that the British Association’s Festival of Science had been held in Leeds, the previous occasions being 1858, 1890, 1927 and 1967.

The festival (September 7-12) was the subject of a huge amount of media interest, achieving extensive coverage on television and radio, in the national newspapers, the regional press, and in scientific and technical journals.

For example, there was widespread reporting on a paper by Dr Rob Butler, of the University’s Earth Sciences Department, warning that a massive building development in Beirut lies on a major active fault. He said there was a 100 per cent chance of a major earthquake under the city, the only question being when it would occur.

This paper was the result of collaborative research between the University of Leeds and the American University of Beirut. Recent archaeological digs showed that the city had previously been levelled by earthquakes on the same fault line that brought the walls of Jericho tumbling down.

‘Light breaks’ could soon replace tea breaks as employers struggle to keep yawning shift workers awake at night, according to another widely discussed paper. Bright lights can stimulate wakefulness, reported Dr Lawrence Smith, of the University’s Psychology Department.

Another paper which captured the imagination discussed how plastic from supermarket shopping bags could be formed into a ‘polymer soufflé’ and used to make cricket boxes capable of protecting batsmen’s private parts from cricket balls travelling at 120mph. The work is being carried out by Professors Ian Ward and Tom McLeish at the IRC.

• Many of the papers presented to the festival can be found on the University’s web site.

University of Fun for a day

Thousands of children discovered that there is more to science than the media stereotype of eggheads, boffins and white coats, when the University staged a Sunday Funday to launch the Festival. Through practical demonstrations and imaginative hands-on activities around the campus, visiting families learned that science is intimately connected with everything from ice cream to television.

Highlights of the event included panning for gold, digging for dinosaurs, building balloon buggies, recording an earthquake, operating a robotic head, reading the TV news, and breaking a piece of wood in just one punch.

The idea behind the Funday (on September 7) was to inspire young people to become curious about science. This theme was taken up later in the week by Margaret Beckett, President of the Board of Trade, who complained of a “widespread failure of imagination and understanding about the relevance, the value, and the sheer excitement of scientific endeavour in all its many forms”.

Its many forms, as wide-eyed youngsters were pleased to discover, included how to make instant ice cream. Dr Geoff Archer, of the University’s Food Sciences Department, demonstrated how liquid nitrogen at –196°C can instantly freeze an ice cream mixture – ensuring the event really would be a Sundae Funday.

Science for the people

Science should concern itself as much with the quality of life as with the quest for profits, the President of the Board of Trade told the British Association festival in Leeds.

In her first major speech on science since taking office, Margaret Beckett criticised industry for paying too little attention to research and development. She used the occasion to announce the annual President’s Partnership Prizes, worth a total of £100,000, for the academic department, centre or unit which makes the most significant interdisciplinary contribution to sustaining a healthy economy. Science minister John Battle also visited the University during the science festival. Mr Battle opened the £9 million Louis Compton Miall building, which is one of the largest centres for biological sciences in the country. The new building houses the School of Biology, created from the merger of three departments to spearhead interdisciplinary research on the study of humans, animals and plants.

Clearly impressed with the new building, Mr Battle declared: “I have seen the laboratory of the future. It has space and light, it is relaxing yet intense, real work is going on and people enjoy doing it. This building will help put Leeds on the map.”

The minister said that the future of science was multidisciplinary, and that links to industry were of growing importance in today’s world.

“Wealth creation and quality of life are two concepts which must go together,” he said. “Biology and the biological sciences will make a great contribution to our understanding of life on this planet.”

The Louis Compton Miall building is named after the first Professor of Biology at the Yorkshire College, and subsequently the University of Leeds when it was incorporated in 1904. Joanna Miall, the great granddaughter of Louis Compton Miall, is currently a second year Biology student at the University. Joanna and her family were guests at the official opening ceremony.

Four honoured

Honorary Doctor of Science degrees were awarded during the festival to four men who have each made an exemplary contribution to scientific advancement.

Director and chief executive of Glaxo-Wellcome plc Sir Richard Sykes, internationally renowned chemist Professor Peter Gray of the University of Leeds, Deputy President of the National Farmers Union Professor Ben Gill and President of the British Association Sir Derek Roberts were all awarded honorary degrees.

News in brief

Solution to road chaos

Introducing charges for car use in urban areas will become essential if traffic chaos and increased pollution are to be avoided, the Festival was told by Professor Tony May of the University’s Institute for Transport Studies. In an address on sustainable transport, Professor May said research at Leeds showed that traffic problems could be eased at no cost to the taxpayer if local authorities were allowed to charge for road use and spend the money on improving public transport.

Better green than red

Green technology is being developed to tackle the ‘red menace’ of toxic waters caused by former tin and coal mines. Professor Rob Raiswell, of the University’s Department of Earth Sciences, told the Festival of an environmentally-friendly solution being tested in South Wales. First, the red metal-rich mine drainage water is channelled into artificial wetlands filled with mushroom compost and planted with reeds. Then various microbes treat the drainage as food, reverse the original oxidation, and remove some of the water’s harmful properties in the process.

Animals can choose

Animals have the ability to choose foods which meet their dietary requirements, according to new research at the University’s Department of Animal Physiology and Nutrition. Professor Michael Forbes told the festival that animals could be trained to make nutritionally ‘wise’ choices, a finding with major implications for the animal feed and farming industries.

Feed the world

Genetically-engineered plants which are resistant to pests and diseases could prove vital in feeding the world’s rapidly expanding population, said Professor Howard Atkinson, of the University’s Centre for Plant Biochemistry and Biotechnology. Such ‘transgenic’ plants could reduce environmental damage and cut costs by doing away with the need for chemical pesticides, he added.

Golden research

Electron microscopes can be used to help identify new gold deposits, the Festival was told by Dr Andrew Barnicoat, of the University’s Department of Earth Sciences. The research, at the world’s largest gold mine in South Africa, was the result of a four-year collaboration between the University and the Anglo-American Corporation. It resulted in new ideas on the origin of gold deposits.

The future is digital

We are on the verge of having video, e-mail, speech, navigation aids and a whole lot more all coming to us over the mobile phone, believes Dr Desmond McLernon, of the University’s School of Electronic and Electrical Engineering. Speaking at the Sunday Funday, Dr McLernon charted the leap in communications technology from the Pony Express to the Internet in just 150 years.

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