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Physics hits the festival circuit

The Green Man festival. (Credit: Stinco di Porco)

By James Dacey

If you read my colleague Michael Banks’s blog entry on Tuesday, you will have heard that Queen guitarist — cum doctor of astrophysics — Brian May is poised to unleash his PhD on popular bookstores from September.

Being a geophysicist — cum amateur guitarist — I am in no position to critique the quality of his astrophysics (nor his ear for a guitar riff!). But I am intrigued by May’s activities.

It remains to be seen whether “A Survey of Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud” will fly off the shelves. Even less guaranteed is the number that will be bought, read AND understood by non physicists. But leaving aside these concerns for May and his publishers, the point is that a rock star status can provide a platform to encourage non-physicists to take an interest in the subject.

Another public engagement project with a musical stage is “Physics in the Field” and it plays its next gig at the Green Man festival next weekend (14–17 August).

Let me explain.

During the widely-celebrated International Year of Physics in 2005, the Institute of Physics (IOP) sent a small group of volunteers to brave the Somerset mud and host a workshop called “Einstein at Glastonbury”. The idea was to try and spark public interest in physics by dragging demonstrations from the laboratories and plonking them in the more informal setting of a music festival. Being something of an Einstein tribute act, demonstrations linked the physicist’s ideas to music including the inner workings of Rolf Harris’s didgeridoo.

By all accounts, festival goers were surprised to stumble across science but the workshop received a lot of positive feedback. Many people commented on how their attitudes towards physics had changed after they took part in the activities.

Inspired by the success of this event, the IOP re-branded the team as “Physics in the Field” and sent them off on a nationwide tour of the festival circuit. Their latest stop is this year’s Green Man — a burgeoning festival in the Brecon Beacons specialising in folk and electronic music.

And it seems that three years have given these “physics buskers” the time to expand their repertoire. Festival goers can expect to witness a whole host of kooky demonstrations including balloon kebabs and launching of Alka Seltzer rockets.

So, on the face of it, music festivals are providing a good stage for physics to make a lot of noise and get noticed. But can events like these not only capture, but maintain an interest in the subject? This is a difficult question with no definitive answer (it depends whom you ask).

Songs like Bohemian Rhapsody are unlikely to inspire revelations about the physical universe amongst listeners. But if people can at least begin to associate physics with fun events like music concerts it may start to shake off stereotypes like beards, eccentricity and dimly lit laboratories.

I say, rock on physics!

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  1. Emma & Ruthio

    Very interesting read. I have now been converted to a bona-fide lover of physics! Fantastic writing skills!

  2. Sounds like a great idea. Has any thought of showing a film, say ‘A Brief History of the Big Bang’, with a voiceover? That might attract a good audience, people like a good story with a beginning a middle (if not an end!)


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