What’s on at this year’s Cheltenham Science Festival

Highly Sprung’s CastAway

Highly Sprung’s CastAway is a gravity-defying outdoor performance (Saturday 11 June) that explores the impact of today’s throwaway society on our waterways - Credit: highlysprungperformance.co.uk

Cheltenham Science Festival: June 7-12

Cheltenham Science Festival is back with a Big Bang in this, its 20th Anniversary year… In fact, this year’s programme explores everything, from the origins of the universe, on into 21st-century ambitions for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. (And a whole lot else in between.) 

Adam Rutherford describes Cheltenham as ‘the Science Community’s AGM’ – not surprising considering the eminent scientists rubbing shoulders in the Green Room. Alongside experts such as Claudia Hammond, Jim Al-Khalili and Camilla Pang, a group of young guest curators will be leading on the theme of Be The Change, examining topics such as climate justice, conservation and mental health. 

Dr Marieke Navin, head of festival programming, is a particle physicist who first connected with Cheltenham back in 2007. ‘I came for FameLab [the festival’s science communication competition]; and, for the next 12 years, I returned to take part in a different festival show. During that time, I had two babies – but never missed a Cheltenham!’ 

Dr Marieke Navin

Dr Marieke Navin - Credit: mcphersonstevens.com

Marieke, what are you most excited about this year? 

I’m really excited about the revamps we’ve made to the free interactive zones in Imperial Gardens. The Cyber Zone is going to take the form of an arcade – the sort of fun place you’d find at the beach – with a focus on gaming. Cyber is massive in the South West, with GCHQ, and also the big new Golden Valley Development [a proposed techno-park for cyber-related companies]. We want to hit the sweet spot between science and culture: so while you might picture cyber as shut-away places such as GCHQ, or dark figures hacking into the Pentagon, ours will be a light, bright look at what it means in people’s own homes. About inclusivity and transferrable skills. 

We’ve also redesigned Discover Zone, with two immersive exhibits. A smoke room will focus on pollution and the importance of clean air; while an ‘underwater’ experience uses ribbons and other materials to produce a walk-through assault on your senses! 

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(There will also be a free Friday late-night for over 18s – with food, music and a bar – so adults can actually get a look-in, too.) 

Cheltenham Science Festival's Discover Zone

Fun and learning at Cheltenham Science Festival's Discover Zone - Credit: cheltenhamfestivals.com

Which of this year’s events will particularly blow our minds? 

I’m telling everyone about ‘Is the World a Hologram?’ [June 12]. The latest research into quantum computing and the structure of the universe genuinely does indicate that we’re living in a hologram on a computer. Jeff Forshaw will be talking to a panel that includes Vlatko Vedral, who’s at the forefront of research into the nature of the universe. I can’t wait to hear what they have to say. 

So that might change our view of the world. But which event might actually change the world? 

‘Can We Cure Cancer in our Lifetime?’ [June 11] and ‘The Future of Cancer’ [June 12] are both game-changers. Deborah James* is taking part, alongside leading cancer specialists. She’s a podcast host and campaigner living with cancer – it’s vital for people such as Deborah to tell their stories and bring subjects to life. 

Another great example is ‘An Air Emergency’ [June 12] with Destiny Boka Batesa, who founded ChokedUp. That’s a campaign highlighting how pollution is disproportionately affecting black and brown people. A really emotional story. 

MakerShack at Cheltenham Science Festival

The ever-popular MakerShack at Cheltenham Science Festival - Credit: cheltenhamfestivals.com

Now let’s have a bit of fun… 

Definitely ‘The Quantum Crumpet’ [June 11] from our family programme.  ANTS Theatre will explore quantum tunnelling – the mad theory that, if you keep throwing a crumpet at a wall, it will eventually go through! We try to work with lots of different artists – this collective was introduced to us by eminent mathematician Marcus du Sautoy [appearing in his own right on June 7]; he’s really keen to talk about science through theatre. 

MakerShack at Cheltenham Science Festival

MakerShack at Cheltenham Science Festival - Credit: cheltenhamfestivals.com

Cheltenham Science Festival has to be the antidote to a recent claim that girls ‘don’t like’ hard maths… 

I hate that kind of attitude. I never felt, when I was a kid, that I couldn’t do physics or maths. And there are loads of brilliant role-models out there. We have a 50/50 male/female split amongst our guests, as well as being committed to diversity. Andrew Pontzen, a cosmologist at UCL, has curated a couple of events, and been key to bringing a lot of younger, more diverse scientists into the festival fold – such as Francesca De Angeli, joining him in ‘Mapping our Milky Way’ [June 9]. 

It doesn’t matter if you’re male or female. Whatever your background, be curious, ask questions, follow your passions. Everyone wants to know ‘Why?’ and ‘How?’ We provide a gorgeous space where you can ask that – and meet people with some of the answers. 

Free Interactive Zones at Cheltenham Science Festival

Getting to grips with science in the Free Interactive Zones - Credit: cheltenhamfestivals.com

If you could bring back one scientist from the past…? 

Ooh! I’d go for Ada Lovelace [19th-century mathematician] and get her in conversation with AIDA, my AI guest curator.  My AIDA – inspired by Ada - would love to know what she thinks about quantum computing. 

What’s Love Got to Do With It? at Cheltenham Science Festival

What’s Love Got to Do With It? (Tuesday, June 7) - Credit: Creative Commons

For more on this year’s festival, visit cheltenhamfestivals.com/science

*On May 9 – after Cotswold Life’s June issue had gone to press – Deborah James sadly revealed she would be receiving hospice-at-home care. Deborah, who was diagnosed with stage 3 bowel cancer in December 2016, has been an inspirational campaigner and fundraiser, determined to raise awareness of this cruel disease. Our thoughts go out to Deborah, her friends and family. We ask if you could join us in visiting bowelbabe.org to raise funds for further life-saving research into cancer. As Deborah puts it herself: 'To give more Deborahs more time!'