Brian Ferguson in A Number at the 2017 EISF / credit: Aly Wight
As the world's first public celebration of science and technology gears up to celebrate we look back at some of the remarkable advances made across three decades
This year's Edinburgh International Science Festival is themed around Life, the Universe and Everything, the third book in Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series. It's a fittingly philosophical angle considering the festival's ambitious mission statement: to inspire, encourage and challenge people of all ages and backgrounds to explore and understand the world around them.
In 2018, the Edinburgh International Science Festival celebrates its 30th birthday, a milestone that provides the perfect opportunity to look back on its impressive success, and examine some of the extraordinary advances that have taken place in the fields of technology and science during that time.
The advent of the digital age has transformed our everyday use of technology thanks to the internet, smartphones and social media. It's astonishing just how much this triumvirate of technology has become hardwired into our lives, and how much it continues to shape how we think of ourselves and others. We're living longer and healthier than ever before thanks to revolutionary work in health science such as developments in CT and MRI scanning, and the introduction of endoscopy and keyhole surgery. Further afield, our knowledge of the universe has exploded thanks to extraplanetary landings and the recent detection of gravitational waves.
In just three decades, we've also sequenced the human genome, explored the far reaches of the solar system, developed cell and gene therapies, discovered the existence of elementary particles, created synthetic organisms and nanotechnology, and used the internet to help connect the world around us. And all this has happened despite (and in some cases because of) extraordinary pressures from conflict, division, demographic shifts and environmental degradation across the world.
Tim Peake at the EISF in 2016 / credit: Eoin Carey Since its inception, the Edinburgh International Science Festival has grown to entertain, educate and enthral over 150,000 people each year through exhibitions, workshops, debates and special events for two weeks every Easter. Naturally, the festival has attracted some of the biggest names in science, including naturalist legend Sir David Attenborough, environmental futurist James Lovelock, astrophysicist Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, theoretical physicist Peter Higgs, broadcaster Brian Cox and British astronaut Tim Peake.
While Edinburgh's first ever celebration of science – the International Exhibition of Industry, Science and Art – took place on the Meadows in 1886, the first Edinburgh International Science Festival launched alongside the internet in 1989 and, appropriately enough, adopted the theme of 'communication'. During its fledgling year, the festival featured an ambitious 99 events around the capital with original director Howard Firth opening the inaugural programme with this pronouncement: 'the aim of the Science Festival is to highlight a direction for the city of Edinburgh, to draw on its historic strengths and its present-day developments, and put forward its resources to assist the wider awareness of science and technology.'
Two years later, the festival's educational outreach strand first came about thanks to requests from parent-teacher groups. 'Generation Science' toured Scottish primary schools and reached over a million children. Plans are afoot to further develop this programme to inspire even more people to better engage in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education. For Year of Young People 2018, the festival includes a strand called 'Existence: Life and Beyond', which is co-designed by the festival's first Youth Engagement Panel. Each year, EISF continues to celebrate our remarkable successes while helping to spark interest in the next generation of scientists and technologists.
Edinburgh International Science Festival, various venues, Edinburgh, 31 Mar–15 Apr, sciencefestival.co.uk