Science for the people

March 17, 2000

The city of Cambridge is filled with some extraordinary buildings, some beautiful, others less so. Many of the people who live, work and shop among those buildings have no connection with what goes on inside.

But for one week of the year they do. During National Science Week academics invite the community into the laboratory. That is no small achievement. Most of the university's science departments will open this year, putting on more than 90 free events at a cost of about Pounds 50,000.

Louise Simpson, head of press and publications, explained how Cambridge's contribution has grown during the past five years. "Every year we have tried to improve the programme, and we are always nervous that we won't see as many people as in previous years," she said. "But every year we get a bigger crowd, with even more sponsorship from local businesses and now, science week is the mainstay of the university's event calendar."

Sarah Shaw, coordinating this year's events, started work on the programme last August. "We tried to think of a theme that all the departments could contribute to. We decided on flight because it gave immense scope, from cutting-edge technology in the engineering department to the insects in zoology, and it meant

we could offer something to appeal to people of all ages.

"I also started thinking about a central attraction early on. A celebrity was needed to open the events and after much thought we invited Howie Watkins, the BBC Really Wild Show presenter. He won't be familiar to adult audiences, but for the kids he's going to be just right."

Ms Shaw added: "I also wanted to do something spectacular for the opening event. I wanted to find out if it was possible to get a trapeze act into the grounds of the university."

The act, a Bradford-based group called Skinning the Cat, was booked in November but it was not until February that they could come to look at the site.

"I was worried that the area wasn't big enough, but fortunately it looks as if all we need to worry about is rain," said Ms Shaw. "The opening ceremony is going to include a children's costume parade and a display by the Raptor Foundation, as well as the trapeze artists, and that is going to need a lot of coordination."

By October, most departments had outlined event plans. For most, the programme is devised around the "open door" principle - inviting visitors to come in and take a look around the department, and then get involved in exhibitions, experiments and talks.

The next stage was to think hard about an image and title that would feature on the posters and the 50,000 copies of the programme. "Eventually our designer drew the title 'Things with Wings' on a draft poster and after weeks of grappling with more complex possibilities we recognised that it worked," said Ms Shaw.

Even so, there was still the week's image to decide on. After considering a dinosaur transmogrifying into a jet plane, we decided on the simplicity of children in insect costumes with huge smiles - a simplicity that was achieved only after two marathon photo shoots and by stretching the immense goodwill of one primary headteacher.

Schoolchildren, in fact, will be playing a big part in this year's programme. While nurseries around the city have been making their costumes for the parade, school pupils have been working on flight-related projects for the family events on Saturday.

The final element of the programme is the Science at Seven lectures, which reflect the whole range of Cambridge science, this year ranging from coral reefs to the cosmos. Chris Langley, who put the series together, has been working since last summer, whittling down a list of 60 possible candidates

to the six lecturers finally asked to take part.

Dr Langley works as a media adviser and could subtly gain information about which scientists would deliver the most entertaining and thought-provoking talks. "It's always nerve-racking just before an event, worrying that things won't come together or that the lecture theatre won't be full," said Dr Langley.

"It's also immensely difficult to communicate passion about a subject in a way that is stimulating to the listener. Communicating enthusiasm is a craft that has to be learned, and people do make assumptions about how easy that is.

"But each of these lecturers knows their subject - perhaps better than anyone else - so I'm sure their enthusiasm will take the audience with them every step of the way."

Still, getting it right for one lecturer became a matter for the university's health and safety advisers. The demonstration chemistry lecture, "It's a Gas", should have had a Rice Krispie inferno as one of its show pieces. But the ceiling height in the lecture theatre dictated that this should be reduced to a biscuit blaze.

For Dr Langley, the reasons for getting involved with an event such as National

Science Week are self-evident.

"Science is too important to be left to scientists. You can't live in this millennium without being influenced by it continually. It's so vital to be informed about all those different elements. I can't understand why anybody should need to be persuaded of the importance of that."

Beck Lockwood is press officer for Cambridge University. With more than 90 events and 23,000 visitors, National Science Week in Cambridge is a huge headache to organise. Beck Lockwood looks at why the week matters so much to the city

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