Each year, in the late spring days straddling May and June, the Hay Festival turns the beautifully sleepy town of Hay-on-Wye into a celebration of literature and the arts.
The Festival started in 1988 and has since grown to become the foremost literature festival in the UK. Former US president Bill Clinton is known to have described it as ‘the Woodstock of the mind’. Although grounded in literature, the arts and humanities, its content has become increasingly multi-faceted and welcomes the involvement of partners from a versatile swathe of cultural institutions, including the Royal Society.
A labour of love
The Royal Society has featured events at Hay since 2010, contributing to a line up of high-quality science content. The Society’s own involvement with literature, through its book prizes, is an obvious link, and the Society has often used this connection to promote its presence in the literary world.
This year’s programme included two authors associated with the 2013 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books: Chris Lintott and Callum Roberts. Chris’s book The Cosmic Tourist, written in collaboration with the iconic astronomy broadcaster Sir Patrick Moore, and Queen guitarist Brian May, set the scene for an ‘in-conversation’ style event with comedian and space enthusiast Jon Culshaw. Having worked together on The Sky at Night, the chemistry between them was clear and the event was a natural excursion, exploring the delights of the cosmos. From the Moon to Mars, out to Alpha Centurai and beyond, the conversation provided a whistle-stop tour of our universe. A receptive Hay audience wanted more and probed Chris’s expertise on everything from extraterrestrial life, the origin of the Universe and the frustratingly unsatisfactory nature of the Big Bang.
Broadcaster Gabrielle Walker hosted Callum Roberts, in attendance to speak about his second book Ocean of life. The book explores changes that humans are inflicting on the world’s oceans and the life contained within them. The evidence for this change is especially clear-cut in Callum’s area of expertise, coral reefs. Coral reefs are some of the world’s most delicate ecosystems and changes in them are thought to be an early warning sign for changes in the wider oceanic system – the canary to a coal miner. Although the book is one that highlights very serious problems with the way humans treat the oceans, Callum appears remarkably upbeat about the future. Much of the book is dedicated to solutions, a few of which were highlighted at Hay; these include those that individuals can contribute to, such as making more sustainable fish choices, as well as those that require large scale cooperation, like the establishment of marine parks or the implementation of more stringent fishing regulations.
Stories in science
Away from the literary links, the festival provided a platform for some big thinking. The Society’s remaining events explored the past, present and future of scientific thinking, which illustrated changes in how, where, by whom, and why science is done.
The talents of Royal Society scientists were on show in what has become an annual feature of Hay, The next big thing. Invited as experts in their respective fields, each of the speakers gave stimulating introductions to their research, and alluded to the ideas that will shape the future of their disciplines. Placing scientists from disparate areas of expertise on stage together drew out the similarities that lie just beneath the surface. Big data, technology, global change and ethics were all on the agenda, and the panel were stretched by a particularly curios Hay collective.
It is said that science teaches you more and more about less and less. But if there’s one place where that simply can’t be true, it’s in policy. To tackle the really big questions, scientists need to have a plethora of skills that are transferable, communicable to others, and that are relevant to the task at hand. How humans might hope to become more resilient to a changing global climate is one such question. Brought together to discuss this issue were members of the Royal Society’s Human resilience to climate change and disasters working group, chaired by Professor Georgina Mace FRS. Joined by experts in political ecology, sustainability and economics, Professor Mace worked to bring evidence to the fore, highlighting potential avenues that could help us plan for a resilient and sustainable future.
The call that never comes
Nobel laureates are often present at Hay, with many great authors and thinkers adorning its stages, but a category less fully represented are those that are awarded the most coveted of prizes, not for literature, but for science. Sir Tim Hunt FRS filled that void. With the expert navigation of Roger Highfield, the Wales stage was the scene for a journey through Sir Tim’s life in biology. Starting with a description of ‘the phone call’ (of which Sir Tim’s Swedish accent was undoubtedly the star) the conversation covered all manner of aspects from the life of the exuberant 71-year-old. Each anecdote shone new light onto the personality of one of the greatest scientists alive today; the barriers often felt between an audience and speakers were evaporated with ease – a feature that proved ubiquitous at Hay.
Those that visit Hay in festival season are made to question the everyday laziness of the human mind; it forces them to engage with their creativity and intellect, with their curiosity and imagination, and with all aspects of society and its future. To exclude science from this exercise would be a missed opportunity and it’s great to see that science and scientists are hidden in plain sight amongst authors, scholars, actors and philosophers.
The healthy attendance at all of the Royal Society’s events at Hay is testament to the attitude and aptitude for scientific ideas in the UK. If Hay Festival can be the proof of one thing, it’s that science is, and fully deserves to be, part of the cultural lifeblood of the UK and beyond.