Sovereign science meets rat laughter at the Royal Society

Fellows and visitors at the Royal Society Summer Exhibition

Fellows and visitors at the Royal Society Summer Exhibition

Now that I live in the ‘burbs, I’ve not been able to get to the Royal Society’s Summer Science Exhibition for a few years, and I’d forgotten how much fun it is. The chance to wander the Society’s various hallowed halls – CHECK. The opportunity to ask scientists my own random questions about their fascinating work – CHECK. The spectacle of seeing miniature robots resting next to marble busts of famous Fellows after playing football – CHECK.

The range of science represented, and the cross-disciplinary teams working on the 21 featured projects, was really impressive – would you have put particle physicists together with palaeontologists? Perhaps not, but at Manchester University, they’re using intense X-rays from a synchrotron to scan ancient Chinese bird fossils. The results show the chemical traces of the long-lost feathers, which in turn indicates what colour they were. Black and white, according to the augmented reality demonstration that one researcher caused to appear on my shoulder.

I learned many, many other things, too. There’s enough DNA in your cells to reach to the Sun and back… 600 times. Doctors can diagnose illnesses using ultrasound scans of bubbles inside the body. If you tickle a rat, it’ll giggle.

The beauty of the whole exhibition is how interactive and personal the participants make everything. I did an experiment to see if I could tell real laughter from fake (surprisingly difficult for adults accustomed to polite chortling), took a quiz on my understanding of epigenetics (better now than it was before), and had my face scanned in 3-D so that my nose could be analysed (smaller than the average but a similar shape).

As well as enjoying the live displays, I was also keen to see the Sovereign Science exhibition, for which I had written the text. This multi-part display explored the top discoveries and breakthroughs made by Fellows of the Society since the Queen’s Coronation – as selected by Fellows themselves.

Royal Society president Paul Nurse's Nobel Prize in the Sovereign Science display

Royal Society president Paul Nurse’s Nobel Prize in the Sovereign Science display

Sixty years is clearly a long time in science, as these few decades have seen researchers decode DNA, develop fibre optics and the Internet, perform the first successful transplants, recognise pulsars, confirm continental drift through plate tectonics, and discover not one, but two entirely new forms of carbon – among many other things. Some of the discoveries and their associated Fellows are included in the online exhibit.

Together with the Royal Society’s Rachel Francis, I had worked out some big questions to bring each group of discoveries into focus – how do my genes make me who I am? Can medicine make me healthier? How can computers change people’s lives? What’s so special about carbon? What are the forces that shape our planet and its atmosphere? Can we understand why our universe is the way it is?

Science is, of course, all about asking questions – and the Society had provided a blackboard for visitors to add their own, as-yet-unanswered questions in science. The Higgs Boson put in an appearance, as did intergalactic travel, controlling the weather, and whether genetically modified food could feed the world – so there’s plenty of further enquiry to keep enterprising scientists going for years and years to come.