‘The best science is always a blunder that ends up working’: An Interview With Richard Robinson
Glastonbury Festival, V Festival, Edinburgh Festival…Science Festival? It may seem like a good example of an oxymoron but the Brighton Science Festival is an event that has grown from strength to strength and has become one of the biggest annual events our city has to offer. From comedy nights, to workshops, to pub quizzes, there is something for everyone at the Science Festival. So, what actually is it? Bjournal spoke to Richard Robinson, the Director of the Science Festival, to find out more.
Tell me about yourself and how you became involved in the science festival
It was all a terrible mistake. I did a science degree, I wanted an arts degree but I got a science degree and I said ‘busking is the career for me’, that’s what I did for a while and then I started doing science in schools so that was entertaining and fun and it also helped me bring up my children because they needed to get to know science. Doing primary schools is easy enough, and then I stumbled across a KS3 class and found out how much they hated science.
They had left primary school with a love of science and then two years later they hated it and so the science festival is dedicated to them. Saying that, they don’t turn up, so at the age of thirteen everyone just goes home to sit in a dark room until the end of GCSE’s. I think they go into that dark room with the feeling that they used to have fun with science. That can help them through the more boring stuff like exams but they seem to think that you don’t need science which is untrue.
Why do you think kids aren’t interested in science?
It’s not because they don’t have wonderful and inspiring teachers. There is a slight tendency for the better teachers to be up the ranks a little bit which is understandable because as your minds develop you need to be taught more complex and difficult things. There’s no doubting the enthusiasm of teachers, but in schools you’re not allowed to make mistakes, you have to get it right and science is all about making mistakes. The best science is always a blunder that ends up working. If you do the same thing as everyone else you won’t get anywhere, you have to leave the coast if you want to find a foreign land.
Soichiro Honda said ‘success is 99% failure’ you have to make mistake after mistake until you find a mistake that works. You know WD40? Do you know why it’s called WD40? It took 40 goes to get it right so that’s a testament on how long it takes to get it right. Science is full of it. Charles Goodyear spent years trying to develop vulcanised rubber, and the thing with science education is you aren’t allowed to get it wrong. Another interesting thing that all the exams are individual processes. You sit on your own at a small table and you’re not allowed to confer, if you do that you get thrown out.
Whereas, life is quite the opposite, you work in clusters of others and you have to make your argument and you learn the more social action. The exams are quite the antithesis of that. When you start your education you start by doing things on your own, you do your homework on your own at home and all your tests are done by yourself and you’re discouraged to do anything that involves teamwork. Whereas in primary school there’s a lot of teamwork and you help each other out. The workshop that we take to schools involve teams of four, five or six people arguing about how to do a task and then someone comes up with an idea then someone builds on that and what I have discovered is that you don’t go in and give them a lecture, you don’t tell them what to do you go in and give them a few things and tell them ‘this is what you have to do’.
The workshop we are doing now involves deciding a way in which we can drop poo on the teacher’s head. Everyone has a seagull poo and they have a mechanism and they have to work out a release mechanism for it so it will release the poo at the right moment. Usually the teachers don’t actually do it because the kids want to do it, which the teachers aren’t complaining about. The interesting thing for me was that I went in saying there was only one way to do it, and they have proven me wrong again and again and shown me so many imaginative ways of doing it. They have inspired me and they’re inspiring for each other.
What does the science festival involve?
It helps us to understand the past, cope with the present and prepare for the future. All of which are useful, to know the history of science is useful, there’s a show called Herding Hemmingway’s Cats which is looking at how DNA works and involves Ernest Hemmingway’s cats. Hemmingway had a lot of cats but he had some cats who had five claws by mistake, it was a mutation but because they bred around the population the mutation spread within his group. Why they had five claws and whether it was useful or not is explored. With mutations they tend not to be useful until they become useful. Another one we’ve got is called Level Up, this is a way in which we can improve ourselves genetically.
We now have a gene editing system and we can make designer babies. We can do anything we like, we can give them eyes in the back of their heads, fur, all the useful things we’ve wanted. We want volume control on pain, an off button for children, an undo button for life in general really, and now we can edit our genes and make it happen, so we think. In fact, we have an exhibition called The New Immortals and the idea that we can actually live forever. We know this through people in a profound vegetative state, they have very little going they can take stuff in but they can’t do much more, but we can keep them alive for a very long time.
It is possible to live forever. The other thing that is important about the science festival is debate, and to get you to think about the answers. The Philosophy in Pubs does that, they meet every month in the Palmeria pub and discuss this and that, and they have a special science themed night. We have a science themed poetry slam and all these groups operate throughout the year we just fill it with science during February. There’s also Nerd Nite, which is dedicated to more complex science issues, I like to think I’m the Godfather of that club and PubhD is also going on as well. People who are doing PhD’s at Sussex University who get together to talk about their PhD’s down the pub.
What’s new for the Science Festival this year?
We have a theme this year which is Journeys. People seem to have picked up on it quite a lot, one of the journeys we’ve been making quite a lot is sending satellites and rockets into the solar system, to Pluto and to P87, the comet, we’re going back to the moon, to the space centre, so there are journeys going into space quite a lot and we’re learning a lot about them. Someone had a very good idea when they were trying to launch a rocket to go around the solar system and go past all the planets because that will take more fuel than we can store. Someone came up with the idea to head towards the planet but miss. If you head towards a planet you get sucked into their gravitational pull but if you miss, you get flung out the other end, like a catapult. This kid was about eighteen, but the voyager satellite was powered by sling shots, how clever is that?!
Though I think travelling to Mars is a waste of time, I love how they get there. That’s what the Philosophy in Pubs is about this month, life is a journey, not a destination. So the destination is Mars, but getting to Mars is much more fun. We go through the journey from the egg to the baby, via Haekel, a very imaginative artist and scientist. He would look at embryos and their evolution, they would start off a blob, went through being a fish, then became a reptile, then became a dog and a chicken and a horse before it became a human. Though it doesn’t do all of that, it does kind of go through a phase where it’s got gills and it’s not breathing, and it’s got remnants of being an ape. Your coccyx at the bottom of your back is a remnant of your tail. So there are bit of you, genetically we are 90% chimpanzee.
Steve Parker is here to talk about that journey. He will also be at the Big Science Saturday and at the Sunday Assembly which is the scientist’s version of church, it meets every Sunday on the fourth Sunday and he’s going to talk about what our futures are going to be. The older members of the generations are going to be talking about what they wanted to do and what they are actually doing. We’re also taking a journey through the solar system along the seafront. It will be from Grand Avenue in Hove to the Marina and if that is the distance from the Sun to Pluto, the planets are located are arranged and it’s been worked out where the planets should be and how big they should be. The Sun is very big and Pluto is about the size of the tennis ball. If the Sun is the size of a house at Grand Avenue, then Pluto is by the Marina.
Has the response been positive?
The festival has followed Moore’s law. Moore’s law is a comment that George Moore made. George Moore created intel, the small chips that go into computers and he was interested in how many chips he needed to make. He noticed that the computer power had doubled every eighteen months. He noticed this in 1972, and the computer power in the world has doubled every eighteen months since then, so you can imagine it’s pretty big by now and so much that people are desperately trying to find ways to make the chips smaller, it’s an interesting law but it must stop soon. The festival has followed the same law, every eighteen months it seems to have got bigger, it’s pretty enormous now. So much so that I’m losing my Christmas trying to arrange it. Some of it will have to journey to late June.
How long does it take to organise the festival?
How long is a piece of year? It’s non-stop though occasionally I have to do things like sleep, eat, repair bits of the house, but apart from that it’s continuous. If I was sensible, it would start in October so six months.
Have you found people are eager to take part?
I’ve found the people who are eager. When it started, I would go up to people and tell them that I was doing a science festival and they would say ‘no you’re not’, they knew that the reality was that you can’t have a science festival because you can’t have science and festival in the same sentence. But you can. I’m only part of the Zeitgeist, there are many more people making science more amenable. One of the things we do is the Festival of the Spoken Nerd and this started about five years at the Cheltenham Science Festival and I sat in the audience and we laughed for an hour and a half and it was only when we got out that we went ‘hang on, that was maths!’ it was really good, fun maths.
That’s something I’ve never heard before, good fun maths! People who don’t understand something tend not to like it, what would you say to the people that don’t like science because they were never any good at it?
If you aren’t good at science, you are probably dead. Science is the fabric of life, everything that you know is built by science, and everything that is broken needs your knowledge of science to fix it again. When you cook you’re doing chemistry, when you’re washing up you’re doing physics, when you go to bed you’re doing psychology, when you buy things you’re doing maths. Science comes from the Latin word scire which means ‘to know’. If you put stuff in front of people and it is fun, they will have fun and they won’t think it’s science because they’re having fun. We do science by stealth.
all images belong to the Brighton Science Festival