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New Scientist Live 2018 – a review

November 21, 2018

The “New Scientist Live Festival of Ideas and Discovery” took place at ExCel London from 20th-23rd September, the third in a series of annual events started in 2016. I attended on the Saturday.


The show was once again divided into five zones: engineering, technology, humans, earth and cosmos, but better laid out than for the first show two years ago.  The stage areas had been given more space allowing more people to attend the speakers’ lectures. While the major exhibitors included big players such as BAE Systems, the European Space Agency and Shell as you would expect, it seemed to me that there had also been an increase in the number of stands aimed at families and trying to attract children to science.

Thus, “Mad Science” set out to inspire primary school aged children on a scale that made a difference. Currently, 30,000 children take part in a Mad Science After School Club. The “Little School of Science,” running holiday camps and science clubs, was a place to learn, experiment, explore and play for 3-13year olds. With a wider appeal, “Maths in the Real World” was a combination of seven different mathematical organisations joining forces to promote the importance and use of maths in everyday life.

Elsewhere, a light bulb moment occurred while I was talking to a representative of the Association for Nutrition. The UK Foresight Report on Reducing Obesity from 2007 is perhaps one of the most well-known and well-regarded reports that the unit has produced, but I hadn’t realised that anyone can call themselves a nutritionist, and today “expert advice” on social media drowns out the professional voice encouraging a healthy diet. The British Dietetic Association faced a similar uphill struggle. Pause for thought. At least they were there, as was Wateraid with some simple straightforward material on how to get clean water and decent sanitation to those who don’t have them through appropriate low-cost, long-term solutions.

Finally, with regard to the problem that affects us all directly – climate change, Copernicus1, Europe’s flagship Earth Observation Programme, gave a most impressive demonstration of its databases that deliver freely accessible information on environmental issues. The climate change service provides quality assured information about the past, present and future climate worldwide, and can be searched with great specificity.

This gives a flavour of what was a much bigger exhibition. But to the speakers of the day. I settled down to hear four who were working at the frontiers of their fields.

Mathematical physicist Ivette Fuentes’ presentation was entitled, “How to build a quantum teleporter.” I must admit that I struggled to follow all the quantum mechanics(!), but the nub of what I understood her to say was this. At very small scale an electron can be in two places at once. It also has something called a spin property, explained as being either up or down. However, in this quantum entanglement, it is in a maximally correlated state or non-separable: in other words the “state” of the electron in one place must be the same as its state in the other. Thus if you can encode information in the electron particle in one place, it must appear in the other. If this all sounds rather weird, perhaps the more understandable and better known point is that at the very small (and very large) scale quantum mechanics applies, but classical physics does not work. The current problem is to work out how to link the two together. However, Ms. Fuentes stressed that the era of quantum mechanics was coming, and that the UK was in the forefront of initiatives on quantum technologies.

Astrophysicist Chamkaur Ghag addressed a parallel problem: “The Hunt for Dark Matter”. 85% of the universe was missing. Yet “Dark Matter” had existed since the beginning of time, and was the mysterious glue holding galaxies together. Addressing the key question of whether it mattered, he pointed out that in the absence of understanding it, how could we know what is going to happen next. How would it affect what we thought had happened in the past. To gain this understanding, we needed to go beyond standard model physics. He posited the question: “Where is the doorway?” Complex experiments had yielded no answers yet.

However, the talk of the day came from Daniel Davis on the latest developments in immunology. The basic principle of vaccination is the idea that an infection is dealt with more efficiently if the immune system has encountered the same virus or bacteria previously. By using harmless versions, vaccines work by provoking the immune system to build up defences against them. (Upon this basis I was vaccinated as a child against diphtheria, polio and tuberculosis etc.) Yet this is only adaptive immunity. It wasn’t until 1989 that Charles Janeway of Yale University postulated that the immune system must contain receptors that that interlock specifically with germs or infected cells. In other words there is a part of the system that may be called innate immunity. Since then:

“… the world of immunity has opened up to reveal … not a simple circuit involving a few types of immune cells, but a multi-layered, dynamic lattice of interlocking sub-systems, one of the most complex and important frontiers of scientific enquiry that we know of.”2

Professor Davis pronounced that this enhanced understanding of how the immune system worked had brought us to the cusp of a new world, and a revolution in how we deal with health matters.

The day ended with a keynote lecture from Carlo Rovelli on the nature of time. The context he outlined at the start of his talk – that time is not the timeline we think it is, that time is different in different places because of mass and so forth – will be familiar to readers here. I won’t attempt to denote the abstruse ideas he developed in his lecture (his new book3covers this subject) except to say that after listening to him for an hour it was easy to understand how he has become such a famous populariser given the calm charisma he brings to his delivery.

What must be mentioned was how the session ended. When the chair announced that there would be ten minutes for questions, my heart sank. (In my experience this usually means that some eccentric will drone on unstoppably about their particular high horse for nine of them without asking anything.) On this occasion, however, five pertinent questions were put and answered directly and compactly. The last of them, to do with free will, elicited the following approximate quote from Spinoza off the top of Professor Rovelli’s head: “Free will is a fact which happens in our brain: we can’t predict things about the world, or our internal state.”

Those of us who apply ourselves in trying to make sense of our possible futures spend a good deal of time looking out into the various aspects of our social, cultural, economic, political and physical environment and beyond. My day at New Scientist Live was a reminder to give due weight to the world underneath and alongside the tiniest atom of matter and the world inside the bodies within which we are confined. What we don’t know about what we don’t know may be more than we think.


  1. The Copernicus ECMWF (European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts) websites demonstrated at the exhibition were:
  2. DAVIS, Daniel M, “The Beautiful Cure”, The Bodley Head, 2018.
  3. ROVELLI, Carlo, “The Order of Time”, Allen Lane, 2018.

Written by Tony Diggle, SAMI Associate.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.

SAMI Consulting was founded in 1989 by Shell and St Andrews University. They have undertaken scenario planning projects for a wide range of UK and international organisations. Their core skill is providing the link between futures research and strategy.

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