If It Stinks,
As the Edinburgh Science Festival enters its second year, Maxton Walker interviews its Director, Brian Gamble, a man who knows white coats are not just for cricket umpires.
How do you classify the sciences? Easy. Ifit stinks, it’s chemistry. Ifit's green and wriggles, it's biology. And, of course, if it doesn't work, it's physics. Unfortunately, for a lot of people, this is as close to the facts as they get. But over the last decade, more and more people have been demanding to know what’s what about the world around them: about the food they eat, computers, physics. the environment, space. pollution. and are demanding that science comes up with the answers.
It is almost certainly true that the increase in desire for information has been an impetus for the creation of the Edinburgh Science Festival, now in its second year. This year the Director is Brian Gamble, who came into the Festival having run his own businesses in Tayside, and having worked in the Council Development Department. In fact, he doesn’t have any background in science at all. Isn’t that a problem trying to organise a science festival?
‘Running the Science Festival is just like running a business. I am not a scientist. But then about 70 per cent of our audience are non-scientists - and that‘s me. Another 20 per cent of the audience are young people and I have young people of my own so I’ve got a fairly . good idea what makes them tick. Ten per cent of our audience are serious academics and technologists, and they’re catered for because I do have an academic advisory committee that helps me on the scientific side.’
Already you get the feeling that Gamble is undaunted by science. The public, however, is a different proposition. Is the Festival trying to break down the existing barriers that people have, or attempting to
encourage more children into the field in view of the expected shortage of scientists expected within the next twenty years?
‘One of our main aims and objects is to try to make the general public more aware of the relevance of science in their lives,’ admits Gamble. ‘I think that one ofthe problems that scientists have is in communicating their ideas to people like me, because they use funny words or it doesn’t occur to them that I might actually be interested to know why something works. Take, for instance , a cash dispenser machine. Probably it’s the most common form of computer used by the general public and I would venture to suggest that something like 70-80 per cent of users don’t even realise that it actually is a computer. And I’m sure there are lots of people like me who wonder, ‘Is there really a man in behind there counting out the money?’ How does it work? How can I actually put a piece of card into a machine to take out money? Show me how it works.‘
Suddenly I see the person the
Festival is aiming at. It’s the one who always manages to arrive at the cashpoint machine seconds before you do, takes four goes to get their PIN number right, asks (twice) for a statement, removes their ‘flexible friend’, slots it back in again, takes out £5, asks for another statement, and is quite happy to go on and on until surrounded by a deputation of very desperate people. I should know, having been stuck behind someone who insisted on taking out £60, a note at a time. So perhaps it is true that people need to be educated. What has the problem been before?
'If you take the technologists, and even the banks, they don’t want to show you how it works because there’s a possible security risk. I have read about lZ-year-olds who lock themselves in their bedroom and do something called computer hacking. It seems to me that some of them are capable of moving the Rhine Army across Germany, or breaking into the Pentagon or something like that. I would like to see how that was done. As a man in the street, or as a
businessman, I would be interested to know if somebody could break into a bank’s computer, or if they could break into our computer. But if you go along to somebody and say ‘could I set a bunch of kids to try to break onto your computer?’ They would run a mile. Then I begin to wonder, ‘Is it easy?’ Maybe that‘s why companies don’t want people to try it. Surely the banks might want to know if it can be done.’
A conspiracy of ignorance? Perhaps not such a crazy idea as it sounds: after the spate of cashpoint ‘muggings’ a couple of years ago by people who discovered that they could make fake cards with bits of videotape stuck onto cardboard, it is understandable that the banks feel a little jumpy. But how many science festivals have been set up so far to counter this?
‘Nobody in the world has a science festival except us, and originally we weren’t sure exactly what the audience wanted us to deliver. However last year we ended up getting about 75,000 visitors in ten days. This year we aim to get 150,000 visitors in fourteen days. We have an amazing variety of levels, right from top scientists to a party of underprivileged school children from the Bronx in New York.
‘In the end, we are all walking about asking questions: Why? How does this work? Why are you doing that?, and that’s how we plan the Science Festival.’
How about a science festival fringe?
‘We could have had a fringe programme this year, had we had
enough money to develop it. As opposed to the Summer Festival which has only got to find 40 or so official events, we have got 367 events and we found all of them ourselves. We have to fund them and we have to manage them all, and we have a core team of only four people. So we have an enormous logistical job.’
So what has the Science Festival in store in future?
‘Once we have recovered from this year, we'll start to have to organise next year when the main event will be the human body. Also we have had requests from Australia, Japan, and Korea about how one goes about organising a science festival because they want to do one.’
And if all this doesn‘t sound like the basis for a big success story, I don‘t know what does.
The List 23 March - 5 April 1990 75