Programme launched for Orkney International Science Festival

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A wizard from Kansas with a science show featuring four western music legends, and a singing cowboy with a PhD in plasma physics. An ancient Greek computer rescued from a shipwreck. The story of the Orkney man who helped link the Northern Lights to solar storms, and spectacular images of the aurora from an Arctic quest. Plus the story of a solo journey to the South Pole.

The programme for this year’s Orkney International Science Festival, which will be held between 7 - 13 September, was announced today and includes speakers from many places, with subjects ranging from Ice Age mammoths to the latest research in robotics – with some robot visitors as well.

The mammoths were featured in the TV programme Attenborough and the Mammoth Graveyard, and the discoverers of the 215,000-year-old site, Neville and Sally Hollingworth, will tell the story and run workshops during the Family Day.

On view will be a replica of a 2,000-year old computer with mechanical gears to predict the movements of sun, moon and planets. The original was rescued from a Mediterranean shipwreck and Dr Vassilios Spathopoulos will describe how its operating system was worked out.

Orkney-born Ben Weber will tell the story of his solo journey to the South Pole, amidst minus 40C wind chill, whiteout conditions, driving snowstorms, and ice fields and crevasses.

Dr Melanie Windridge will describe her Arctic quest to see the Northern Lights in their fullest power. A plasma physicist who has climbed Mount Everest and the Old Man of Hoy, she says she believes that science and exploration go hand in hand. She will also speak on the latest progress towards long-sought energy generation from nuclear fusion.

Another of this year’s Festival participants, Woody Paul, has a PhD in theoretical plasma physics from MIT but his fiddle-playing from early childhood led in 1978 to joining a newly-formed group that would become a western music legend – Riders in the Sky. Over more than four decades since then, their music has taken them to the Hollywood Bowl and Carnegie Hall, Grand Old Opry and Nashville – and now Orkney.

The visit has come about through Dr Steven ‘Jake’ Jacobs, former chief scientist of the Discovery Channel and known as Wizard IV from his place in a line of science communicators. He has raised support from several American foundations to bring Riders in the Sky, who will join him in his own presentation and go on to give a full concert the following evening.

The Festival will also hear the music of the Scottish composer Eddie McGuire, whose works include five astronomy-inspired pieces, among them Big Bang and Symphonies of Galaxies. All five will be shown in films specially made by the Festival, with recordings by St Andrews University musicians

The Pier Arts Centre will bring link art and mathematics in an exhibition and a day of events, and the Festival will mark the centenary of the birth of Prof. Tom Flett, whose life and work combined mathematics and dance.

Prof. Jim Flett Wilson of Edinburgh University will bring together genetics and family history to seek the origins of the Flett family. Prof. Karen Scott of Aberdeen University’s Rowett Institute, and also from Orkney, will look at the nutritional value of oats and bere.

Prof. Tom Stevenson will join local historian Patricia Long to highlight the life of the physicist Balfour Stewart, of Westray and West Mainland descent. It was his observation in 1859 of a massive disturbance of the earth’s magnetic field, at the time of a great solar flare, that led to the connection between solar storms and the aurora.

There will be a look back to the 1953 hurricane, and a look into Orkney’s future – in energy from wave and tide and offshore wind, in transport, in soil improvement, and in using microalgae to turn waste into food and pharmaceuticals.

And does rock dust help potato flavour? John Firth said so a century ago in his Reminiscences of an Orkney Parish, recounting the flavour of the potato crop after the dust carried south from an Iceland volcano in 1845. Orkney College will host a Tattie Tasting, and the Festival programme will also include the story of Robert Burns’s experience of the aftermath of an Icelandic eruption.

Information about these and many more events is now available to view on the Science Festival’s website. Some further details will be added over the next two weeks before an announcement is made for tickets to go on sale towards the end of the month.

Also to be announced soon is another key part of the Festival plans for this year, indeed its centrepiece – an installation of the Sun in St Magnus Cathedral. The installation, created in a collaboration between a solar physicist and an artist, used time-lapse NASA spacecraft photography to bring out the seething imagery of the solar surface and the sheer awe and power of a close-up view.

Find out more about the Orkney International Science Festival and keep up-to-date with programme information on the official website. Newsletter

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