Sunday, May 15, 2011

Going Out

I’ve been out for two evenings this week and they’ve both been enlightening and, to different extents, quite entertaining. The first, surprisingly fascinating, was an hour and a half in Lecture Theatre Two in the University of Sheffield’s Hicks Building where One, The Global Poverty Project and Christian Aid presented the case for combating extreme poverty. I hadn’t realised what good progress had been made but I’m well aware of some of the things that still stand in the way. Corruption, inequality, ill health due to malnutrition and preventable diseases, lack of adequate sanitation, rising food and fuel prices and climate change. Many of these issues are ones where we in the developed world are implicated. We accept and sometime encourage corruption because a corrupt government is easier for us to manipulate. We, or at least the richest among us, are the ones benefiting from speculation in commodities, we are the ones primarily causing climate change. We watched the Living Proof roadshow which is full of inspiring stories of what has been achieved so far, then we each sat and wrote a letter to our MP asking them to support the call for investment in diarrhoea and pneumonia vaccinations, major killers of children throughout the world.

My second big evening out was at the EICC in Edinburgh where we saw Monkeys Uncaged. What a fabulous evening! Robin Ince is my hero, both a marvellous (grumpy old) comic and a relentless populariser of science and clear thinking, here holding together a wonderful show comprising entertainment and important insights into the way the world works.

He presented the irresistibly enthusiastic Helen Keen who gave a shortened version of the show we saw at the Fringe some years ago, ‘It Is Rocket Science’, sadly without the puppet show splendid props.

From Helen to Ben Goldacre who was relentlessly entertaining at top speed about the design of clinical trials for drugs. You can get a flavour of his work by reading the Bad Science Blog but for the full-on authentic experience you really should listen to him talk.

The next ‘act’ and the one I was looking forward to least was Professor Brian Cox. I will confess to having a quite pronounced prejudice against his TV programmes. I will not suggest that he doesn’t know his stuff; he seems very knowledgeable. It’s probably more that I don’t like today’s style of science programme, which seems to assume we are all stupid with the attention span ascribed to goldfish. It irritates me so much that I can’t watch. And then the heroic poses; against a lonely seascape, against a range of mountains, against the desolation of a desert, hair blowing, nobly gaze into the distance; make me mildly nauseous. Well this evening was a revelation. Not only is the man amusing and self-deprecating, he has a talent for explaining difficult things clearly without either patronising or sinking into dullness. I was completely won over.

After the break Helen Arney graced the stage with her ukulele and a couple of lovely songs about sex. We really ought to see more of her. She’s bright and funny and produces great songs. Lets make love like animals. Well perhaps not like Angler Fish. I’d sort of not like a pair of genitals left attached to my body for me to use later.

Simon Singh was dependably interesting, with an understandable description of the Doppler effect, a sodium emitting gherkin and proof of the Big Bang. Even though I’d seen the talk before it was worth listening to again.

Perhaps the nicest thing about the evening, along with the gustatory brilliance of the Home Bistro, was the feeling of being part of a crowd of people getting their kicks from learning from and being entertained by some very bright people. I just wish a similar number of people had been drawn to Thursday’s discussion of ending extreme poverty.

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