A Pint of Science

Last night we went to a science festival in a pub. Specifically, we went to The Boathouse for a Pint of Science session. This is a series of talks by scientists in different fields, with the talks grouped around a particular theme. Six venues have a session each over the three days of the festival, and I believe each session has three talks, for a total of 54. Ours was Into the Darkness, which was about death. My background being mainly in funerary archaeology, I was really interested to see what would come up; I was familiar with the work of two of the three speakers and excited to hear more.


The talk sold out — indeed, I believe every session sold out, which is pretty impressive considering this is all also happening during the Cambridge Beer Festival. The venue for our talk was the upstairs room at the Boathouse; I used to game there, which was a slightly odd contrast. They even had a special beer for the festival, which I did not have any of. Again, clever.

One unusual feature of this festival is that each speaker is paired with an artist who creates something based on the subject of the talk. There’s an exhibit of these artworks on Thursday, so if you’re reading this in Cambridge there’s still time to check them out. It’s free!

I’m not going to go into huge detail about the talks: I took 12 pages of notes, though, so there was a lot to take in. This is just edited highlights.

First up was Dr Corinne Duhig, who talked about her experiences as a forensic archaeologist/anthropologist in Kosovo. Way back in 2007, I co-edited a volume of ARC about “the disturbing past” — Ian Hanson wrote a fascinating piece on the same topic for it. People who know more about forensic archaeology than I do were probably less alarmed by phrases like “then, in went the mine-detecting dogs.” The centre of the piece was “the clothesline,” which was also the topic of the painting by Barbara Nasto that went with this piece. Once the investigation was done, Duhig and her colleagues washed the victims’ clothes and the blankets their bodies were wrapped in, then hung them up on a long series of clotheslines outside the morgue. Bereaved relatives would walk along the ever-lengthening rows looking for clothes that had belonged to their loved ones. The painting is a bright scene of colourful blankets hanging on a line with a bright red building or shipping container in the background; the container is full of dead bodies and the blankets are from murder victims’ graves. I was particularly struck when someone asked Dr Duhig about her motivation and she replied “hatred.” She also told a story about going to the Hague to a different part of the war-crimes tribunal just to get close to Slobodan Milosevic — “to get as close as possible to … one’s enemy, I suppose.”

I thought Duhig was going to be a tough act to follow, but I had confidence in Dr John Robb, who did not disappoint. His talk was on “how to achieve a social life after death” and was about the active role that the dead continue to play in the social lives of communities — and how modern Western society, in which this is downplayed, is really the exception rather than the norm. However, he pointed out that “we believe different things that are incompatible” about the dead — we simultaneously view death as an instant transition to an inanimate state and we treat the dead as if they’re still around. Consider the idea of “owing something” to the dead — it’s ridiculous to think you can owe something to an inanimate object. He also mentioned the story of a woman who received texts from her dead grandmother, the precaution of burying Osama bin Laden at sea, and the Hand of Glory, so this was a wide-ranging talk. I was pleased to see the “Robb Scale of Research Believability” which ranges from “Publish in Nature” at one end to “mention in the pub, but only after five pints; deny at all other times.” The accompanying artwork by Liza Read was a hologram in a little black casket; once you got close enough to look at it, you saw a little frog skeleton staring back at you. It reminded me (intentionally?) of Dead Like Me: 

Last up was Professor Clive Oppenheimer, who talked about volcanoes, their potential for death and destruction and the ways in which this is sometimes overlooked — but also some of the good sides(?). I had much less background in this one, and I’m sure there are things I didn’t know that would be obvious to someone who knew anything about the subject — like that 10% of the world’s population lives within a relatively short distance (100 km?) of a volcano. I also discovered that Cambridge contains something called the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, which studies events that could wipe out the human race. That is baller extreme. I missed the name of the artists who created the “Angry Mountain Pendant” that went with this talk, though.

So yeah — three great talks, audience seemed to like it, congenial surroundings, home in time for bed. There was also a pub quiz; I missed one question, but still won a t-shirt. My wife won a goodie bag that also contained a t-shirt as well as various other goodies; notepad, pen, that kind of thing.

There are no more spaces left for this year’s talks, but I definitely recommend it for next year.

A Pint of Science