This week’s guest blogger is Jan Zalasiewicz. He is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Geology, University of Leicester, UK. His main research interests are in palaeoenvironmental change during episodes of Earth history ranging somewhat irregularly from the early Palaeozoic to the present (‘Anthropocene’) time. He has published two popular science books, The Earth After Us and The Planet in a Pebble. He is discussing science at the Hay Festival, tying in nicely with our mini-series on science festivals.
An Oscar is unexpectedly heavy. Given that such a thing is often awarded to actresses who tend to the fragile and gazelle-like, one might imagine that it should be a delicately spun confection. No: it’s solid metal through and through, and a couple of weeks in the gym beforehand, toning up the biceps, should be advised to any potential winners. This particular trophy was on one of the many cluttered desks in the crowded temporary office from which operations at the Hay-on-Wye Book Festival are masterminded; it had been recently won by one of those involved, and it (not he) had a slight dent to the forehead. There had obviously been a good party.
This is one of the many strange and magical things that one can encounter at that remarkable event, as one moves – no, is swept – through its course. I had been asked to give a talk there, describing the life (so to speak) and times (surprisingly various) of a pebble of Welsh slate, having recently written a book on such a thing. It’s one of the occasional treats that writing a popular science book brings with it. For, as almost every author knows, the rewards of book writing do not generally encompass yachts, pet football teams or inflated bank balances – particularly when one is attempting to popularise geology, even in microcosm. Rather, the rewards – other than the pleasure of the writing itself – lie largely in the small adventures that turn up, just now and then, once the book is out there, like a shiny silver sixpence in the solid plum pudding of Life.
Seeing the festival from the view of a writer (or ‘artist’, as the notice-boards endearingly put it) is especially revealing. As an operation, it is simply staggering. Like the apocryphal bumble-bee that shouldn’t fly but does, this multi-dimensional happening gets off the ground and, somehow, stays aloft. The arrivals, appearances and departures of a bewildering number of writers (here, one really does seem to be among a cast of thousands) is calmly (so it appears), efficiently (for sure) and above all amiably navigated, by a large team of employees and volunteers – and that’s even before the legions of bibliophiles come through the gates. Orchestrating the whole lot is Peter Florence, who is clearly very good at this kind of thing. When those painfully convoluted climate negotiations of Kyoto, Copenhagen and Cancun are finally re-cranked, it would be a good idea to put the whole show in his hands. Atmospheric CO2 levels should begin to plummet within the week.
Giving the talk itself was a touch different to giving a standard undergraduate lecture – or even the standard popular lecture of an evening. All the talks are in large tents. When the wind blows strongly (as on that Welsh springtime afternoon), the structure creaks and groans like a storm-tossed galleon. A spotlight illuminates the speaker while the audience is in darkness, so eye contact is mainly in the infra-red spectrum. There was nothing for it, then, but to hold forth in the manner of one of the more despairing tenors of a Wagner epic, and hope for the best. Luckily, the sound system was (of course) more than capably managed. Enough pebble science got through, thankfully, for the questions at the end to be right on the button.
It’s the noises off, though, that make the event. The lightly concussed Oscar was next to a small laptop streaming in the European Cup Final, around which a motley assemblage of volunteers and stray writers was clustered. Even with the rather pointilliste images (despite all the available bandwidth being plundered for the purpose), it was obvious that Barcelona were playing in some different part of the space-time continuum to the gallant Mancunians. For the second half, I was smuggled into (it wasn’t quite gatecrashing, honest) an exclusive party on the other side of the creative tracks. There, amongst other delights, was a very large 3D television screen. This was a new experience to me. Heaven knows what the new technology will do to the flying crockery in the more emotional soaps, but David Villa’s goal soared like a comet.
And, of course, there was lots of conversation, and the meeting of people that normally don’t cross my personal orbit. The Hay Festival is good for science – this year, there were John Barrow, Brian Cox, Martin Rees and many others. But at heart it represents a cross-section of human life and interests that, to a scientist, provides a kind of reality check. Science may have brought about the conditions by which the Earth can support, now, seven billion people. People, however, generally have more immediate concerns than science; more, even, than the state of the Earth that supports them. Most people live very much in the world of people, and within the intricate human networks that seem like a living vindication of the ‘noosphere’ – the global sphere of human thought that Teilhard de Chardin proposed almost a century ago.
This is a sphere crammed with human tragedy, triumph, greed, commerce, low comedy, love and hope and fear – in the tradition of Tolstoy and of Jackie Collins too. By contrast, the world inhabited by, say, the average Earth scientist spans billions of years, encompasses extraordinary volcanoes, deep glaciations and bizarre life-forms. This world is literally inhuman, one nigh well impossible to connect with emotionally: even the most ardent cat-lover would not think to scritch the ear of a sabre-tooth tiger, while the trilobites and armoured fish of deeper times might as well have been on another planet.
The two worlds are interconnected, naturally. We all need a stably functioning Earth. And the Earth, these days, in a sense, needs us – especially given how many of its functions we have appropriated. It needs us collectively, at least, to try to steer the least damaging course consistent with human need. Occasions like Hay might – just – help bridge the gap. And, of course, one can have a hell of a good time there too. Even scientists are human, after all.
If you want to read more highlights from our mini-series on science festivals, you can find a summary of all our coverage here.