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Alchemy for all

Participation is the key to the fifth Edinburgh Science Festival: hands-on experiments and talks by scientists aiming to involve people in the science they use every day. With over 370 separate events over the festival’s two weeks. there shotild. as they say. be something for everyone.

It seems that every aspect of technology is covered. From the explanation of what goes on in your gadgets as the science of sound is examined in IIOVI High IS My Fl? (Wed l4. Royal Society of Edinburgh). via the opportunity to make your own gadget at the ever popular Madlab (Sat lO—Sat 24. King James Thistle Hotel) to the discussion of new ways to use your gadget at Science for the Amateur (Tue 20. Royal Pharmaceutical Society).

As science isn‘t just about building gizmos: human. social. historical environmental and fundamental aspects of science are also on show and up for debate. What is Science Really For? is the theme fora sequence of talks at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society. which will look at aspects from the flippant to the philosophical. Then again. whatever your political ideology. you‘ll find a scientific aspect right (or left) for you: from Marxism and Science (Sat 17. Royal Pharmaceutical Society) to A Licence To Print Money (Tue 20. Royal Society) about exploiting your ideas. A free Science Festival Programme is available from the Box Office. (Thom Dibdin)



The Science Festival Box Office. Ticket Centre Waverley Bridge Edinburgh 031 557 4296

The Box Office is open until 24 April Mon-Fri 9.30am—6pm Sat 9.30am—4pm Sun 2-5pm

Tickets will also be sold at the venue 30 minutes before the event starts.

Science Friction

Thom Dibdin asks Iain Banks if the science in science fiction is fantastical. or simply futuristic?

Want to make the strange seem a little stranger. to add a shimmer of reality to that alienly gleaming purple beach in your space opera‘.’ Just add science and see your fiction grow. And if you don‘t fancy inventing a new law of physics.

well. guess what. it's the perfect way of

getting high-calibre weaponry into the plot. so the goodies can blast the baddies out of the cold black vacuum.

Witness those X-Wing lighters in Star

Wars. serious gadgetry. which wheeled and dog-fought round space with all the verisimilitude of a Korean war jet- fighter. Wrong! The small problem of a vacuum means that rocket ships quite simply would not act like that. .\'or would they blast lire out of theirjets or explode in orange sheets of oxygen- hungry flame.

Crystal-bail gazing in science fiction has created some crackers.

‘Your whole magazine wouldn't be long enough to list the scientific cock- ups in science lietion' says the Fife- born author Iain M Banks. He ascribes Star Wars" total clanger in the scientific credibility front to Hollywood’s need to retrieve the megga bucks spent on celluloid product by creating easy-to-

digest hokum for the ‘somewhat cranially challenged denizens of middle America‘.

While some directors are busy starting fires in space. others are using scientific reality to their advantage. In 200/: A Space ()(l_v.v.ve_\'. Stanley Kubrick has his last remaining astronaut cross a few feet of space without a helmet. It‘s not until the air at last enters the airlock that you realise the complete scene has been played out in silence. In space no-one can hear you scream. .

Not that Banks is averse to tearing up the laws of physics to suit himself. Notwithstanding the Big ()ne: (‘ or the absolute speed of light: should he need a character on the other side of the galaxy in the next day or two. rather than after several million generations. well. hell. he'll just invent a machine or a paradox or something to do the work for him.

‘So long as you can make it sound plausible. you can convince people.‘ says Banks. If the story is using a future society to exallllne contemporary life. then science is there to make the background feel right. ‘Jlist as you don‘t need to explain the workings of an internal combustion engine as soon as someone gets into a car. the furniture of science fiction can play the same role. In the old days you used to say “Hmm. this is the (iuggenheim Drive" and then spend three pages explaining. in totally hokum science. how it was supposed to work.’

Although such writers as Arthur (‘ (‘larke are notorious for their ability to extrapolate the science needed for future technological advance. crystal-


Using scientific reality to good advantage in 2001: In space no one c

an hear you scream ball gazing in science liction has created some crackers. ‘I remember a great illustration of an engineer climbing up to look into the inspection hatch of this great big towering needle- shaped space ship. with lots of other great big towering needle-shaped space ships in the background.‘ says Banks. ‘It was obviously meant to be well into the 33rd century or whatever. and gripped between the engineer's manly teeth is. . . a slide rule.‘

Easy-to-digest hokum for the ‘somewhat cranially challenged denizens of middle America’.

Not that science fiction always gets it wrong. ‘It tends to guard you against future shock.’ says Banks. ‘If you think bacho '86. '87: Challenger blew tip. Chernobyl blew up. and people were starting to understand what a threat AIDS was. So. you had a space ship blow up. a nuclear power station blow up and this weird and ghastly disease. fatal. which takes ages to kill you and is going to change the sexual habits of a planet. These are topics that only science fiction had ever handled before. So read science fiction: it inoculates you against the shocks of the future becoming the present.‘

Iain M Banks will be on the panel at the Science in Science Fiction seminar. chaired by Ben Bova. Wed /4. 2—5pm. Royal Museton ofScotlaml. £3 (£1). Several Science in Space events take place at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society on Sat [8.

10 The List 9—22 April I993