I just got back home for the Cheltenham Science Festival with the ackward feeling to have left right before the real fun began. I’ll never stop telling people how amazing my experience has been, and how honored I am of belonging to the International FameLabber 2012.

If you belong to the smart gang of people that watched in streeming the FameLab final yesterday evening, you already know that this year was a real blast. Ten young and talented scientist that blend together emotions, clarity and high standard science in three minutes of fame.  After the show, the crowd was hyper: “the best FameLab I’ve ever seen” was the first comment I heard.

The event was host by the amusing Quentin Cooper, a well known scientific journalist and  fluent speakers, very comfortable on stage. As his favorite gag, he made up anachronisms out of the contestant names with absurd significances. Very kindly, Quentin kept the audience updated with the ongoing scores of the Europe Soccer Cup, played at the same time of the show. He soon realized that those 200 geeks were there for some rocking science, and very little for football updates. A difficult audience indeed 🙂

Quentin Cooper at the radio show in BBC radio4 at the program ‘Material World’. Photo by Steve Bowbrick

Along with Quentin and the finalists, on the stage there were three exceptional judgers: Roger Highfield ‏(Daily Telegraph) Kathy Sykes (University of Bristol – Festival Director) and Marcus Brigstocke (comediant – Festival Guest Director)‏.

Roger Highfield, Kathy Sykes and Marcus Brigstocke
Roger Highfield, Kathy Sykes and Marcus Brigstocke

I managed to get a very good spot to look at the show, the middle of the forth row, right in front of the stage. After few minutes of regular show business waiting, Quentin jumped on stage and the show began!

While we all wait for the official videos of the final (and hopefully of the semi-finals as well?), here comes my very personal record of the ten performances the Cheltenham Science Festival 2012 with some critics.

Yael Grossman, Israel

Yael Grossman discusses with the judgers whether the A.I. 'Emily' passed the Turing test.
Yael Grossman discusses with the judgers whether the A.I. ‘Emily’ passed the Turing test.

Did humanity created an Artificial Inteligence able to fool humans and pass the Turin test? Yael talked about ‘Emily Howell’, a software developed at University of Santa Cruz by professor David Cope. This program, in a way or another, is able to compose wonderful classical music, that Yael made play through the high-speakers at the beginning of her talk. After describing how Emily could fool the hear of any trained musician, Yael informed the public that Emily’s job is simply copy and paste strings of melodies already written in a database, and learn how to make them more melodic. This make this program ‘less cool’ than what you thought, says Yael… but then bring up the question: aren’t other human composers taking ‘pieces of sounds’ from what they hear, and just put them in a right, comprehensive and beautiful order?  Don’t we all arrange the nature around us to make something beautiful using our personal computer (the brain)? Very good performance, touching from the very beginning and a clear content.

Brendan Mullan, NASA (USA)

Brendan Mullan holds its beer that contains the material of 10.000 stars
Brendan Mullan holds its beer that contains the material of 10.000 stars

Carbon, hydrogen, oxigen and all the other elements that composes the Earth are not only present in our planet, but in the entire universe. Where do they come from? Brendan get on stage with a bottle of beer to explane that the atoms that compose that sweet liquid come from exploded stars. After such ‘tragic death’, the stardust of the universe diffuses to create galaxy like ours, said Brendan. Based on his calculations, 10.000 stars died in the past to give sufficient material to make one bottle of beer (or to make our planet, this wasn’t very clear). We will leave to a board for physicists to peer-review Brendan conclusions, but what it’s certain, is that his talk was well balanced between scientific informations and good actin, characterized by powerful poetry and audience engagement.

Bechara Saab, Switzerland


It would be fantastic if one day humanity could walk on Mars. This will be possible, says Bechara, since on that planet are present both water and carbon dioxide, just at a frozen state. Bechara explaned all of this in shorts and bare foot, to stress on the fact that future generations will be able to do so also on other planets (a pity that part of the judgers didn’t really get such link). Bechara continued: why humans would be interested in going to Mars, an ‘island’ so far away from us? He used that planet as a metaphor to describe the insatiable desire of people to discoveries and learn new things. Just because it there, a place to go, reachable in some years, we’ll wanna walk there, says Bechara. This FameLabber also touched on how scientists think to warm-up the surface of Mars, drawing out a couple of very effective jokes that provoked explosive loughs from the crowd. From the theatrical point of view, this was probably the best play of the Final, with a great balance between voice and gestures.

to be continued…

Roger Highfield tweets after FameLab Final.
Roger Highfield tweets after FameLab Final.

PS: after the show, we reported the three judgers and the presenter in the following confusing status.

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