End of the Earth

Today Matthew Partridge tries to convince me that I might not die in a horrible disaster movie style way… thanks to fibre optics?

Learn more about how great fibre optics really are at Matthew’s Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas shows on the 11th and 13th August. 

Can fibre optics save me in a zombie apocalypse?

If there is one thing my childhood prepared me for it’s what to do in a zombie apocalypse. Zombie apocalypses were so common in movies that it was very hard not to grow up as someone that is always looking for how they could fight zombies using simple every day objects I happened to have lying around my high tech fibre optics lab.

Now almost every zombie apocalypse involves losing power (apparently zombies have a thirst for electrical fuses more than brains) so I think we need to rule out any use of the fibres and lasers or light sources. But even without these fibre optics still have two vital uses in a zombie apocalypse, as a weapon and as a way of pooping safely. Firstly weaponizing fibre optics is relatively simple, they are after all glass and their tips are so small that they can quite easily break the skin. You can even ‘sharpen’ them by simpley heating them and stretching them out into tapered ends. These tapers can be so small that they don’t so much cut as push between skin cells. Making a bundle of these into a spear is going to be a formidable zombie brain stabbing weapon and one that is very durable thank to their strength. Secondly, pooping in zombie movies is practically an extreme sport given the number of protagonists that die from zombies sneaking up on them in the toilet. This is where you can use fibre optics in one of the oldest applications, as a bendy flexible scope. Using a long length of fibre optic as something called an endoscope you can sit in comfort on the toilet while keeping an eye under the cubical for any sneak zombie trying to interrupt.

Can fibre optics save me from a pandemic?

This is a tricky one to answer because there are so many different types of pandemics. A pandemic is a fast spreading infection which sounds simple but encompasses lots of different things including fungal, parasitic, viral and the most infectious agent of all, glitter. But one thing they all have in common is that you are a big squishy bag of biology and there is a very small thing that wants to get inside and multiply like crazy and in the process probably make you cough in that special movie way that means that you are now going to die in about 2 scenes time. The best way to survive a pandemic is to not get infected in the first place, simple. Now obviously you can just make yourself a giant hamster ball and bury yourself under the ground in a bunker wrapped in clingfilm (which my Mum assures me keeps everything out) but with fibre optics you can continue to live a semi normal life and remain infection free. One particular type of fiber optics is something called Hollowcore fibre optics. Unlike their solid counterparts hollowcore fibre optics are hollow (the clue is in the name). The property has many different applications but one that is already in use in various places is filtration. As a liquid is passed through a large bundle of fibre optics the larger components like cells (which on a micro scale are big and fat) get ‘stuck’ and the liquid passes through without them. You can even coat the insides of the tubes so they don’t just passively stop all cells but actively grab the right cells, viruses or glitter and stop them flowing through. So by making a straw made up of a bundle of hollow core fibers you could happily enjoy your Starbucks Frappuccino safe in the knowledge that each sip is pandemic free.

Can fibre optics save me from robot ascension?

Robot ascension isn’t just hypothetical. Ever since Boston Dynamics posted that video of a robot being kicked it has been inevitable that one day the robots will rise up against us and begin their enslavement of humankind. How exactly robots will ascend is a bit harder to predict. Developments in robotics is moving so fast it’s hard to keep track. Somewhat embarrassingly for this question one of the reasons for this rapid development is that fibre optics being so much lower power and smaller than regular electrical connections are helping with this rise of the machines. The use of fibre optics as shape sensors and pressure sensors are even helping to make machines that can feel themselves, their surroundings and the neck of the researcher they forcing to release the safety locks. Luckily some of this technology is even being used to enhance humans so that we have a fighting chance. Fibre optic artificial nerves are helping people missing limbs to interface with their prosthesis and control them more naturally. Some of these nerve connections are so responsive they out perform their biological version. If we are to survive against our robot overlords we should start an immediate enhancement program giving humans new stronger limbs with better nerves slowly replacing all of them with better synthetic components…. join us human, become better, become a robot.

How else can fibre optics save our lives/make our lives better?

One piece of advice I was once given by a fellow scientist about being interviewed is to not answer the question being asked, answer the question that you want to answer. I’m not entirely sure it was good advice and it certainly didn’t answer the question “when is my paper deadline” which is what I’d asked them, but I’m going to follow this advice now.

The question isn’t how else ‘can’ fibre optics save our lives? It’s how else DO fiber optics save our lives. Fiber optics are everywhere doing all kinds of amazing jobs. They floating in the ocean listening for leaks in pipes or sensing pressure waves from earthquakes. They are in hospitals sensing minuet amounts of proteins or the insides of tumors to help treat them better. They are in prototype fusion reactors directing impossibly powerful lasers. They are in a million places doing a million amazing things making our lives better.

Why does no one know how great they are?

Fiber optics are a technology that is old and new at the same time. It’s technology that has existed since the late 1800s it has been a corner stone of communications since the late 1900s and it’s only recently that new applications have been discovered which allow them to do yet more amazing things like kill zombies, filter out diseases or work as artificial nerves. They are developing so fast and doing so many things it’s hard to keep up with all the publications and new stories. What people need is a fun 1 hour format show that helps explain these developments and links them to problems in their daily lives. If a show like that existed then in no time at all everyone would know all the amazing ways fibre optics could save the world.

Direction (2)

Because you can never have too many directions…

Nicola Osborne explains data protection and GDPR to me (we should all understand it by now I know!)

For more from Nicola come watch her shows on the 4th and the 15th August.

We’re all worried about data protection rights, but what direction are they really going in?

Well since we are loosely in World Cup season I’m going to say it’s a game of two halves…

If you look at the amount of data we’ve gotten used to sharing on Facebook, Google, etc. and the way we use phone apps and home voice control systems like Alexa then it looks pretty bad. We are totally used to sharing our name, date of birth, our pictures, our emotional state, our current real world location, tracking our weight, our runs, our lives… And never really reading the terms of service.

At the same time, I think most people are getting much more thoughtful about how they share data, and who that data is shared with – even as we are adopting more potentially-privacy invading technologies, I think we are becoming more demanding about our data and much more aware of the impact that sharing data can have.

Where will data protection be in 5 years?

Well, we could be in a great place with data protection…

At the University of Edinburgh and EDINA we’ve been undertaking research on how people manage their digital footprint – tracks and traces that are left behind online whether on purpose or by accident – for the last five years. When people start to think deeply about how they would want to present themselves online you hear questions like “but how do I get rid of something I posted that I now regret” or “what if someone else posts something about me” or “how do I know how my data is being shared across sites and apps?”. We’ve had lots of suggestions of course, but as of 25th May 2018 we have a whole new set of ways of exercising our rights…

The new General Data Protection Regulations (or GDPR) might sound like the least exciting piece of legislation but I think they could be the new superhero powers to help us make those demands, exercise our rights over our own data, and really start questioning how our personal data is used and shared. They cover all kinds of data – including “metadata” like our location, ip address, etc. so a really broad and inclusive sense of “personal” data. And the regulations require real transparency over how data is used, stored, retained, shared, and bulks up consumer rights to understand what data others have about them, how its stored, how it is used, who it is shared with, and also how they can request its removal.

Is that good?

It’s brilliant! It gives us a chance to step back and curate our digital footprint more thoughtfully. Although GDPR includes lots of protections that were already in the Data Protection act, they now come with much sharper teeth. A really good example of this is that the Information Commissioner’s Officer has recently announced an intention to fine Facebook £500k for two data breaches associated with the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Facebook makes that much money every 2.5 minutes. Under GDPR – so anything that happened after 25th May – they could be fined 4% of their global turnover – which would be £1.4bn; or responsible individuals could face a (max) 2 year prison term. That’s quite a ramp up in super powers!

Can/should we change the direction of data protection rights?

Yes! And the best way to do that is to question what data we want out there about ourselves, how we want that data used, and then really take advantage of these new rights and legal obligations. If we use them, we could really reshape how our data is used, and the kind of privacy we want in the future. If we don’t use those rights and make it clear that how our data is used matters, we make it harder to have conscious choices about our data and the way it is used. That isn’t just about having a great online presence for potential employers, or looking really cool for our personal social media audiences – though that’s part of it – it can be much more serious than that.

Personal data, including social media postings and location data, on phones is already being used in refugee validation/deportation processes already; leaked personal data and “doxxing” can have serious consequences for employment, mental health and physical safety; health tracking data can have significant influence on insurance prices or availability (for good and bad); there is some evidence that pregnancy apps have been selling data to political campaigns (the ICO is looking at that one at the moment); and in China a “social credit system” which is in trial combines bill-paying, spending patterns, their social interactions, their “compliance”, etc. to give a score that influences access to jobs, schools, mortgages.

Where do you want to see data protection rights end up?

Most of the businesses using data in lets say sketchy ways didn’t mean to do anything evil, they just a cool idea they wanted to build, but data selling and data analytics are a really easy way to finance and tailor products, especially if privacy doesn’t matter too much to you (more likely when you are young, privileged, undiverse). The result is that our personal data is now big business, but taking a more informed and proactive role gives us much more opportunity to rethink how and why we use the digital tools we do, to challenge potential inequalities, to avoid some of those risks to our right to a private life, and to really tell our own stories.

We are at a pivotal moment for personal data: we are all just about used to pervasive access to the internet and smart phones but a lot of the business models that support social media, online content, etc. aren’t mature yet, and some of the most exciting and potentially most privacy invading technologies around big data have a long way to go. Now is the time to really engage and start shaping our own futures before someone does it for us!

So come join me at CODI to hear some more scare stories, and plot some of the ways to start demanding your data and your data rights!

Vive la personal data revolution!


Today I’m talking to Dr Stephen Darling about science and where it’s going.

Hear more from Stephen at his shows on the 9th and 18th August at the New Town Theatre.  

You say science is fucked, what do you mean by that? What direction is science going in?

It might be going downhill.

There are two problems that I see – the first is an increased political willingness to ignore scientific research when it is inconvenient – the most glaring example being the whole climate change area, where a vociferous political movement has engaged – depressingly successfully – with attempting to discredit the scientific evidence for human influenced climate change. Scientific explanations have been attacked in favour of dogmatic (often political or religious) positions. Of course, this kind of thing has been going on since time immemorial but it has increased recently.

And it arrives at a time when science itself has become a little more self-critical. An important paper has claimed that ‘most research findings are false’, and while the title is – perhaps – a little more eye catching than the contents, there is unease in the scientific community that there may be some aspects of the way science works that introduces bias and error. Although this concern, from scientists, tends to be targeted at developing new, better, less error-prone ways to do science, it represents fuel to fan the flames of the dogmatists and demagogues, who can claim that even scientists don’t have faith in their findings.

Scientists have already begun to popularise methods and approaches to counteract these problems, but it remains to be seen if enough scientists will recognise that there is a problem and adopt such methods, or whether science will continue to whither as it becomes seen as more and more flawed.

Where will science be in 5 years?

Hopefully having countered some of the more persuasive criticisms made of it. I am, by nature, an optimist.

Is that good?

Of course!

Can we change the direction of science and people’s confidence in it?

I think so, but only by being open about the problems and the solutions, and engaging the public about the idea of science as a diverse knowledge-finding process rather than a canon of facts. It would help if science tried to address its elitist image – after all, a good scientist is someone for whom answering a question ‘I don’t know’ should lead to musing ‘I wonder why…’ – which seems to me to be hugely liberating and far from an elite perspective.

Governments could help as well, by changing the incentive structure around scientific funding.

What are you doing to un-fuck science?

Trying to practice it in as open and responsible a way as possible – but I’m just getting started on that road.

Celebrity Crush

Today we’re finding out all about Chris Blumzon’s celebrity crush!

Chris’s show ‘School of Batman- Live!’ is on Sunday 12th August. His

show, based on podcast ‘School of Batman’, also features Megan Hardeman of Figshare and Matthew Partridge of Southampton University. 

Who’s your celebrity crush?

CB: Poison Ivy! Poison Ivy is one of the many great Batman villains and had quite the impact as a child which has carried on to adulthood. Uma Thurman did a good job in the movies but it was always the Poison Ivy of the comics for me.

Which celebrity provided the inspiration for your show?

CB: Surprisingly, Batman. As one of the few superheroes without powers, I was enthralled with how Batman used science, technology and intellect to overcome the many challenges that he faced. Working in scientific software, this same enthrallment is substituted perfectly for the admiration and esteem I hold for the academic community and I wanted to use the framing device of Batman to tell their stories. They are my real superheroes!

At what age did you become interested by batman?

CB: Batman was such a persistent part of culture growing up that I can’t ever really remember a time when Batman was not a part of life. It was absolutely the Tim Burton Batman film of 1989 that kicked it all off and by the time the animated series rolled around and I had enough pocket money for comics, I was hooked.

What is it that makes him more than a kids character for you?

CB: One of the great things about Batman is that with so many incredible artists and writers over the years using the character to tell the stories they want to tell, there is truly a Batman for everyone. If you want a Batman for kids, he’s there and there’s stories that explore complex themes without patronising that I think is a key reason he resonates so much with younger people. You want pulpy crime dramas? Gothic noir? Futurology? Sci fi? Explorations on madness and the human condition? I truly believe that no other character has such a breadth of scope and that’s why I love him.

Is your show only for batman fans?

CB: Absolutely not. If you’re a big batman fan, you’re certain to get a kick out of the science behind the Shark Repellent Bat Spray but ultimately it is a fun celebration of humanity’s search for knowledge with relatable stories that will help you get to grips with complex topics.

Back to the Future

Today I’m talking to Rachel Hosker all about the past, and the silences we have to deal with when exploring it. Her show ‘Silence in the Archive’ will be on in The NewTown Theatre on the 5th and the 22nd of August!

Which period/ moment in the past would you return to?

Wow, that’s a tricky one. I totally loved growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, but would never want to relive teenage years again! Perhaps the 1970s,


Partly because Women’s liberation and the equal pay act came in, so it would be an interesting time.  And because of flares and music!

Who would you speak to and what about?

I’d love to speak to students at the University I work for, so I could see the changes through their eyes, here their views on politics and equality. It was a time when students did undertake sit-ins and actively protest.

Why would you need to time travel to find this information?

The technology of the 1970s such as photographs and with the dawn of computing in a more widespread way, we know that much has been lost in terms of archives and documentary evidence. People didn’t wander around with cameras in the way we do now on our mobile phones, and if they did take photographs or film the quality of the printing could be poor that it has now disintegrated.

What are some of the other reasons for silences in the archives?

There are so many. Willful destruction for politics, power, embarrassment, public image, discrimination, the law such as data protection, suppression, lack of realising the value of events or decisions at the time, information overload, cultural and societal bias or view, accident or act of nature, war, terrorism and violence, personal choice not to be documented.  The list could go on and on.

How should we be changing these issues of silences in history?

Archivists as a profession are very much about the democratisation of this form of evidence. Thinking about and challenging bias’ and reflecting on who’s voice is being heard or who is being affected, when records are being created or decisions being made is important. Everyone has a role, from your family archives, to creating documentary evidence in work it is interesting to reflect if a silence is there.


More Advice!

Today I’m talking to Andreas Zaunseder for even MORE advice! He’s telling me all about the dark net and why we should all be using it.

If like me you need a double dose of advice, come see Andreas’s show, ‘Turn To The Darknet’ on the 12th August.

What one piece of advice would you give to someone who’s worried about their privacy on the internet?

Stay offline and wait for better times.

Haha…just joking. That’s hardly possible for an awful lot of people these days, isn’t it?

I most enthusiastically congratulate this someone for worrying! Your worries  signal critical engagement with the online world that has become such an essential part in our everyday life – and yet has often remained unscrutinised.

I would suggest trying to look behind the stage and see how the “online show” is being run. The “show” here is what pops up on your browser or the software installed on devices such as laptop, work station, smartphone, or tablet. Keep in mind we are an active part of this show as soon as we establish a connection with the WWW. That’s the side on knowledge. The other side of the advice is tread carefully on the stage of the show: you always leave a trace, a so-called ‘digital footprint’. There are some ways that help to tread more lightly – for example in what is commonly as the ‘Dark Net’.

Unfortunately, there is no one catch all advice. You might want to ask yourself what specifically you are worried about online privacy – and why – first, and bring it to the show. Is it surveillance and censorship by state authorities? Manipulation? Your email account? Customised shopping adverts? Or the rest of profit-driven harvesting and processing of information about your personal interests and predilections?

Does the internet also know more about yourself than your soulmates, closest friends, parents, and partners combined? That sounds a bit barmy, yet it is anything but exceptional.

Does that advice apply even to people who use the internet more casually?


It matters less how often I go to the pub than what I do in there, right?

Also, remember the internet is not just opening the Internet Explorer, Safari, Mozilla Firefox, Iceweasel, Google Chrome.

 If I do ‘turn to the dark net’, will my experience of the internet change drastically?

It might do. That depends what your understanding of the ‘dark net’ and knowledge about internet had been before the show. Would it be drastic if you learned that the dark net is not the global gang house of heavy criminals? Would it be drastic if you started to appreciate being shrouded in a bit of a protective dark net rather than clearest exposure?

Why would you advise people to come to your show?

Online privacy and the “Dark Net” can be a quite intimidating sphere and a very complex matter to grasp. Would you like to shed some light into the dark net? Why not approach it in a fun way together at the show? If you would like to learn a bit of how to enhance your online privacy, pop in. Do not be afraid – it is all GDPR compliant.


Today we’re joined by Alan Gow to discuss his advice on how to look after your thinking skills. Alan’s show ‘What Keeps You Sharp?’ will be on at the New Town Theatre on both the 7th August and the 16th August. 

What’s the most important piece of advice you’d give to someone who’s worried about a decline in their thinking skills?

As with any health concern, if there’s something you’re worried about the best thing you can do is to speak to someone about it. In most cases, your GP would likely be the first person to speak to. They’ll be best placed to discuss what your concerns are and how they can support you in seeking out the right services should any follow-up be required.

We’re also very fortune to have excellent resources provided via charities and other groups, and I’d recommend that people take a look at the information produced by Age Scotland and Age UK, for example; both groups also have helplines if people want general advice about any concerns they might have.

What piece of advice do you wish you’d been given when you were younger?

When we talk about thinking skills in later life, people will often think that’s something they only need to think about when they’re older. But as with many health outcomes, the health of our thinking skills is a lifelong process. It’s never too early to start thinking about the behaviours and lifestyles that might be good for our brain health. Equally though, it’s important to stress that positive changes at any age might be beneficial – so people shouldn’t think it’s too late to make those changes too.

Why would you advise people to come to your CODI show?

In What Keeps You Sharp?, we cover a whole range of questions related to our thinking skills: what do we mean by thinking skills, at what ages might we expect changes in those to begin, are those changes linked to genes or lifestyle, and importantly, what kinds of things can we do to best protect our brains as we age?

With each of those questions, we start by exploring what people think about their thinking skills before linking those beliefs to some of the most recent research evidence. Hopefully, people who come along will have an interesting time exploring the topic together, and also, that it’ll be fun!

If people are interested in some of the work we do at Heriot-Watt related to health and ageing, they can find out more at www.healthyageing.hw.ac.uk . And if they’re 65 or over and live in Edinburgh or the Lothians, they can even get involved in our ongoing project exploring how taking up a new activity might have benefits for thinking skills!

15 minutes

As we all know, the alphabet starts with 15…

Today, we’re talking with Dr Caroline Hewson (The Pet Loss Vet) and Professor Scott Murray (The University of Edinburgh) all about death- how we talk about it, why we should talk about it and how much our experiences of death might differ.

Scott and Caroline will be performing their show ‘Never Say Die?’ on the 23rd August at 1:30pm at the New Town Theatre.

Who would you spend 15 minutes with (living or dead) if you could?

CH: The late Irish poet-philosopher John O’Donohue.

What would you talk about?

John wrote and spoke with great insight about the traditional “Celtic” understanding and experiences of living and dying. He died unexpectedly in his sleep, in his fifties.  I’d like to talk about his experience of dying and where he’s been since, and if his insights and beliefs were realised.

Where would you go?

We would walk in some wild but dwelt-in landscape like his native Burren in the west of Ireland or the many lovely wild places here in Scotland.

What about you Scott, who would you spend 15 minutes with?

SM: JESUS as historically he died and I believe is now living.

What would you talk about?

He has personal experience…and a whole lot more. I know it was painful for him.  But as a Christian …as with people of many faiths…. I do believe that death is not the end.  So would like to explore that.  How can I die well..as well as possible for me and my relatives.

We always formulate that question with ‘living or dead’, it seems humans are comfortable talking about death in some situations, but why are we not comfortable asking the questions you mention such as “What frightens you most about dying?” and “What happens on the road to death”?

CH: I don’t know exactly why we’re not comfortable with asking those questions. Recent national research found most participants of middle-age and up were comfortable discussing their own deaths, but felt the people around them would not be comfortable with that. So, we’re close to having those conversations, yet don’t. In my experience, some people don’t want to talk about death—their own or other people’s—which is understandable, especially if they have difficult memories of a bereavement. I think it’s probably different for different people.

I would imagine each of us may have our own deeper reasons for not wanting to discuss our fears and questions about death. We might not even know what those are until we took time with ourselves and in conversations with each other, to recognise—and befriend—our catalogue of reasons.

Meanwhile the more general societal reasons for reticence probably have to do with, for example: our much longer lifespans, so death seems remote and can be put off; in line with more heroic approaches and a focus on prolonging life, people don’t necessarily die at home—or even know neighbours, who might otherwise be coming and going to the house in support and farewell. Thus, human death is very hidden. Also, grief for animals is not accepted in society either, and increasingly we may expect our animals to endure too much veterinary treatment when their bodies really are worn out by disease or frailty.

What do you think Scott, why do those questions make us uncomfortable?

SM: Answer: Birth and death are universal. 100% of people what are currently alive have been born, and 100% of us will die. I have a chart I show medical students. These rates will continue despite rescue helicopters and lots of dramatic operations.  But most deaths now occur in hospitals and hospices and care homes out of the public ken.  And society has stopped talking about it.

Caroline, how do you want to change the relationship we have with death?

CH: I wouldn’t want to intrude on anyone’s relationship to their own death or force a conversation about death generally. It is deeply personal and uniquely important, and while I know a few scientific facts about death in the veterinary context, and about public attitudes to mortality etc, I don’t have any neat answers to the deeper questions. What it is to be dead has always been a mystery. Our own mortality—and that of our family members, furry, feathered and human–is something each of us has to make her or his own peace with. Add to that our lack of familiarity with what the approach to death looks like and the whole business can become reduced to its more frightening aspects, with the aspects such as meaning etc staying out of reach. Speaking only for myself, I would welcome greater open-ness to everyday exchanges about death—not only our practical planning. However, I am all for those too and the peace of mind they can bring–like the aids that Scott and his team here in Edinburgh have developed. They also help open up the space for pondering less cut-and-dried things like death’s irreducible mysteries, how we want our own deaths to be, what we’re dreading or not dreading, how our views have changed or not changed—where we’ve got to, personally, with it all.

What about you Scott?

SM: We need to have death and dying back talked about and discussed in the public domain. We need as shows such as “Strictly come dying”*  on the TV to let people know what it is like to die from different conditions.

Then when they get ill, they have a better idea of what to do! In fact I have produced a video called “ living and dying well: what you need to know before you are ill so can make a plan, if you wish See  ….



Finally, Caroline, as a vet how would you say our relationship with death differ from humans to animals?

As the guardians of non-human animals, especially animal companions (“pets”), I think our own fears about death are sometimes reflected in our wishes and fears for them. The available data indicate most or all non-human animals probably do not know that death is in all biological scripts. They don’t have the mental development to think about it either. It is their great freedom, and their brains enable them to do other remarkable things (–when’s the last time you went on a self-powered, non-stop, trans-Atlantic flight?! Or fell off a tall building and landed on your feet?). One of the founding members of the UK veterinary profession, William Youatt, summed it up in 1839:

Every animal—the horse, the dog, the ox, the sheep, the wasp and the bee– is perfect in its kind; and there are certain faculties belonging to each of them which would laugh our boasted intellect to scorn.

As a vet, I’m increasingly aware just how much I am, simply, one among many kinds of animal. The emerging research in fields like comparative neuroscience indicates we are more like other species than we are different from them. So, when I reflect on mortality, including my own, I am reassured by other animals’ apparent ease with the Life-Death cycle—it need not be feared or fought. The great American poet Mary Oliver puts that beautifully in her poem Wild Geese, where she talks about the natural world, with the calls of its critters “[…] announcing your place in the family of things.”


Today marks 1 month till the start of the Fringe, 1 month till our first Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas shows and (most importantly) day one of the A-Z of CODI!

Get to know our shows and our performers through the my collation of the best blog challenge questions I could find! Highlights will include my very transparent attempts at some Scottish lingo and me trying to convince you that eXamples is a suitable theme for ‘X’.

Meet Scott Murray and Caroline Hewson in our first post later today!

Throwback (not quite) Thursday

As the heatwave hits and August and the fringe start to feel much more tangible, here’s a little throwback to last year’s CoDI

Dr Liam Brierley took part in the Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas with his show ‘A Virus to End Humanity?’, here is his experience of CoDI:

Can you really trust your own eyesight? Would it be a good thing return to child labour? Is technology the final solution to cancer, or Parkinson’s disease?

These are just some of the thought-provoking questions explored at this year’s Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas (or the handy abbreviation ‘CoDI’), where different academics present a “dangerous” or controversial topic each day at the Edinburgh Fringe. In January, I was trying to think some different or original ways I could communicate my PhD research. Fast-forward eight months, and I’m on a candlelit stage in an intimate George Street theatre, stood beside a Glaswegian comedian with a box on her head.

I was taking part in CoDI for the very first time, exploring what might happen if the next pandemic started at the Edinburgh Fringe and whether this would be “A Virus to End Humanity?”. I have to admit I didn’t really know what to expect when I signed up for CoDI. And in many ways, I couldn’t have – the shows all end up wildly different, depending on the presenter, the topic, and the audience. But as an academic presenter in CoDI, you’re trained in workshops where the Beltane Public Engagement Network guide you through what might work for your show (you certainly don’t need to turn up with complete ideas!) and prepare you for the stage and how to generate discussion with the audience. Compere Susan Morrison co-presents and supports all the shows, so you’re never alone, in the run-up to the Fringe or on the actual stage.

As my own show opened, the audience were informed that the theatre was quarantined because of the new Fringe virus and together, we would conduct our own scientific investigation to find out how risky it might be. Firstly, we explored how viruses jump from animals to humans with the help of our ‘computer simulation’. We found out the Fringe virus came from rodents – pretty risky! – and next, looked whether the virus was spreading. Finding infected audience members with our UV torch, we saw that a lot of contacts of infected people were also infected themselves. Using the epidemiologist’s measure of R0, it seemed like the virus was spreading quite quickly. Our audience then suggested some ideas as to measures we could take to prevent the Fringe virus spreading further across the globe (some successful and some not so successful!) While playing each of these games, we adjusted the levels of risk to humanity as we went along and, happily, our audience successfully prevented the Fringe virus pandemic.

The Beltane Network’s aim for CoDI is to generate “debate, discussion, and discourse”, and in my experience, it certainly did! Obviously, the show was going to attract some people already working in epidemiology, but I was fascinated to find out just how much non-scientist members of the public knew – and they came up with some really challenging questions!

It is surprisingly hard work doing a CoDI show, and it’s easy to feel like you’ve just dived into the deep end. There’s not only your show content to think about, but your staging, your promotion, your dialogue with the audience, etc. But for any academic interested in public engagement, it’s a fantastic way to pick up a lot of new skills and new perspectives in a supportive environment, no matter how experienced you are. And who wouldn’t want to be able to tell all their friends they’ve performed at the Edinburgh Fringe?