Archive for September, 2015

Orkney Science Festival 2015

Earlier this month I had the great privilege to take Illuminating Geometry to the Orkney International Science Festival.

The Orkney Islands lie just north of mainland Scotland. These flat, treeless islands seem to spend a lot of time shrouded in mist if my experience of the last few days is anything to go by. However, beneath the mist lives a creative and innovative community. For 25 years the Orkney Science festival has been held every September attracting scientists from all over the world. This year’s star attraction was the Nobel Laureate Peter Higgs (of Higgs boson fame).


St. Magnus' Cathedral Kirkwall

St. Magnus’ Cathedral Kirkwall

At the cutting edge of renewable energy, the Island of Eday is home to the European Marine Energy Centre, where wave and tidal generation devices are tested. I was surprised to find out that Orkney exports electricity produced from wave, tide and wind to mainland Scotland. They produce so much energy from renewable resources that they can’t export it all at peak generation times. Rather than let it go to waste they are about to start using this excess electricity to produce Hydrogen which they hope to use in many ways across the Islands. It may even power the ferries that are such an important part to life in the Orkney Islands.

The range of topics covered by the festival was diverse. As it is the 150th anniversary of the first presentation of Maxwells’s equations, the life and work of James Clerk Maxwell was celebrated. Maxwell’s Torch has been made to signify how Maxwell’s work on Electromagnetism underpins so much of the technology we use today. The links between Maxwell’s work and that of Peter Higgs were also discussed.  It seems that even in Neolithic times Orkney may have been a centre for innovation. By the late Neolithic mainland Orkney was running out of good clay for making pots. This was a challenge for the potters of the time but it seems they may have added duck fat to the clay to make it more malleable inorder to make their beautiful groove ware pots only three millimetres thick.

Paper bag lanterns at Firth  Primary School

Paper bag lanterns at Firth Primary School

I was delighted to bring my Illuminating Geometry workshop to the festival. This was made possible by sponsorship from Proto-pic.  I visited three primary schools on the mainland of Orkney to show the children a little about geometry and electricity. We had so much fun making paper lanterns. For the younger classes we made lanterns out of a paper bag. The children decorated the paper bags with tissue to form a wide variety of designs. My favourites included: dragons, sailing boats, flowers and butterflies.

The older children and I made octahedrons from folding circles of paper to form triangles and then gluing them together. We illuminated these paper shapes with an LED to make a lantern. We talked about where the Platonic solids are found in nature. I love the fact that the pollen grains of Heather are tiny tetrahedrons. We also discussed how to make an electric circuit and how useful and energy efficient LEDs are at making light.

Octahedrons with Primary 6 Dounby Community School taken by Alistair Forsyth

Octahedrons with Primary 6 Dounby Community School taken by Alistair Forsyth

The focus point of the festival for me was the family day. Both floors of the King Street Halls were filled with science activities for families to do. Again the topics covered were wide-ranging, from developing photos the old fashioned way, how we can achieve zero waste, a remote controlled robot, geology and all sorts of Orkney foods. I made Illuminating Geometry lanterns with 96 children and one or two adults over the day. Many of the families told me how they looked forward to the festival and come every year.

The moment of illumination at Dounby Community School taken by Alistair Forsyth

The moment of illumination at Dounby Community School taken by Alistair Forsyth

The Orkney Islands are magical, they are full of folklore and legends, and covered in ancient archaeology that gives intriguing clues to how people once lived, now they are looking to the future developing technologies that may affect the way we all live.

Here is my appearance on the Proto-pic blog:

I also made an appearance in Frontiers, the OISF magazine. Follow this link to take a quick peek: