Preview: Manchester Science Festival

The Manchester Science Festival has evolved from a grassroots get together of scientific thinkers to the most popular science festival in the UK

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Black holes remain one of the most remarkable phenomena in the known universe and a source of endless fascination for contemporary scientists. Now you have the opportunity to experience falling into one – albeit through an immersive, interactive audio-visual installation called Distortions in Spacetime, courtesy of design studio Marshmallow Laser Feast.

It’s just one of the attractions at this year’s Manchester Science Festival, which continues to pride itself on its playful approach to the subject. Festival director Antonio Benitez says: “I always tell my team that Manchester Science Festival is not here to lecture people. For us, the mission of the festival is to create experiences that can ignite a curiosity in science.”

This will be the 12th year of the festival, which started modestly back in 2007. “It’s evolved from being a much smaller grassroots festival to become what it is now – the most popular science festival in the UK, with more than 132,000 visitors last year. We like to call it a science playground. It’s somewhere that people have can fun, at the same time as learning something new.”

The location is far more than a backdrop, too. “Manchester is one of the most important cities in the world in terms of its scientific achievements,” Benitez says. “As well as looking at the past, though, the festival is about what is happening in Manchester today within the fields of STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics].”

Many of the festival events are aimed specifically at children and families, and for Benitez this is crucial. “Not enough young people are developing careers in STEM. By offering these accessible experiences, we want to help inspire the next generation of scientists. It’s about building science capital as well, about parents and children seeing science as something that’s an important part of their day-to-day lives.”

Not everything in the festival line-up is for children though. One of this year’s headline events, You Have Been Upgraded, takes a serious but no less accessible look at innovations in the field of biohacking. “It’s an evening event for adults which examines how we as humans could use implants to enhance our intellectual or physical performance and improve the way that we perform.”

Other elements of the festival include a new exhibition on the subject of electricity, a specially commissioned dance piece entitled Contagion about the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, and screenings ranging from cult BBC Two comedy Look Around You to Wall-E and Jurassic Park. The latter will take place at Manchester Museum, in the shadow of their T-Rex skeleton. This notion of science events in a variety of venues is encoded deep in the festival’s DNA.

“We like to take science to unexpected places,” Benitez says. “The Science and Industry Museum is the festival hub, but we’ll be delivering events in 68 venues across Greater Manchester and beyond, to as many different venues as you can think of: museums, libraries, shopping centres, nightclubs and cathedrals.

“Science is everywhere, it’s all around us, so it’s about trying to go beyond engaging with the usual suspects, the people who normally engage with science, and making sure that we take events into popular destinations like supermarkets and shopping centres. Really, the festival is about science taking over Greater Manchester for 11 days.”

Manchester Science Festival 2018 is at Manchester Museum of Science & Industry and venues in Greater Manchester, 18-28 October (manchestersciencefestival.com)

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