Thursday, May 31, 2007

The appliance of Science

In my pre-teens, I had a motley selection of education magazines, called Understanding Science and Mind Alive. I wasn't particularly aware of where they had come from but I became conscious that there were a number of them missing. When working out from the index that a particular copy would help me in school I asked if there were others around. After deciding that I was old enough, my parents reveled a treasure trove of them in binders which I devoured with delight.

When I first went to senior school, a few days into the first week, an announcement was made in assembly about a meeting for those of us who were interested in science. The big hook that caught our attention was that the first event was on the topic of explosives.

I made my way to the hall balcony that lunchtime to find that there were about twenty other 11 year old hopefuls. A Sixth Former told us about the British Association of Young Scientists (BAYS) and what it got up to. I went to the first meeting the following week, a very noisy and entertaining lecture about bangs which culminated in the setting light of a wad of cotton wool- drenched in liquid oxygen. The resulting fireball stunned us all and I was well and truly hooked.

BAYS was the junior wing of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, a venerable institution of Scientists that lived up to their legendary stereotypes. The most well known Member was Dr. Magnus Pyke (we jokingly called him Dr. Magnus Prick in newcastle BAYS). The BA was formed as an an alternative to the Royal Society which was regarded as rather aloof at the time (and still is).

BAYS held an event every month, half of them being lectures, the other half film shows. The movies were somewhat variable, generally being hand me downs from the likes of ICI and the oil companies about industrial processes and such. The film shows were held in the Newcastle University Faculty of Engineering Claremont Building which was distinguished only by having a tower block served by Paternoster lifts, an endless chain of slow moving two person cars that remained the right way up as they reached the top (& bottom) & changed direction.

The lectures were generally held in the Science faculty closer to town and this was memorable by having a pair of huge concave mirrors at either end of their long entrance hall. The topics were many and varied but in order to appeal, they were always very practical, with the emphasis on participation and showmanship.

I continued to attend throughout school, joining the organising committee in my 4th year and becoming the school rep in the 5th form as there were no VI formers interested. Despite a huge publicity campaign with posters on all the noticeboards and assembly announcements, my balcony briefing attracted a big fat zero response.

BAYS organised occasional events, the first one of which I attended was a "Micro meeting" at Huddersfield University which featured a lecture on fluorine (and probably the only chance anyone ever had to smell it) and a Saturday evening film show - Those mganificent men in their flying machines. I also went along to a number of annual Conferences which ran for a week during the Summer and attracted considerable press interest. (From memory I went to three, held at Stirling, Canterbury and Bristol, the latter being in the 80s).

I met one lad called Robert Spackman at Huddersfield who was a real character. He had passed his A levels at 16 with A Grades and was going on to a London University because Cambridge wouldn't take him until he was 17. He had been given his Gran's house in Penge (Sarf London) by his parents and he had a couple of lodgers. Several of the rooms were padlocked off for no obvious reason other than they were full of furniture. I went to stay with him a couple of times for events and for when I got onto the National Exec. He sneaked me into his former boarding school in the Medway area once for the sole purpose of watching Monty Python as he didn't have a telly.

Travelling down to see Robert (generally to align with an Exec Board meeting at BAYS HQ) involved going on the all night bus from Gallowgate Bus Station in Newcastle to Victoria Coach Station. Unfortunately, it took all night, leaving at 9pm and getting in at about 6am, stopping all over the place for pickups and toilet stops. Over the years I grew to intensely dislike Motel Leeming (now Leeming Services) near Northallerton as you had to go by then and it was turnstile toilets.

Then, one day, a letter arrived from the BAYS office with a black border. Robert had died in an (unexplained) accident at Waterloo Station. I was absolutely devastated, this was the first time a friend of mine had died and it was an unnerving experience. Then, about three weeks later, the phone went and my mate Keith told me to turn the box on, Robert Spackman was on the Telly. Indeed he was, making a posthumous appearance on University Challenge. This was unnerving and Keith reckoned that he had faked his death. The reality, of course, was much more mundane; the programme had been filmed many weeks previously.

Being involved with BAYS had two beneficial effects. The first one was that it helped me get my first job; being active at National level in such an organisation stood me in good stead at the bulk interviews to find twenty-four Technician Engineer recruits from the hundreds of applicants.

The second opportunity was to meet my first celebrity- the legendary Botanist, Dr. David Bellamy. The BA had organised a lecture by him in the University Curtis Auditorium and BAYS were invited along. The lecture was called the edge of evolution and it was all about moss & lichens at the land/ice boundary towards the North Pole. I have to say it was a rather dull lecture... about mosses and lichens, livened up only by a slide of their portable house being helicoptered in for the expedition. At the end, I was invited to join the BA luminaries for a meal in the University Refectory whilst the great hairy one held court at table, entertaining us with stories about his travels.

I was suprised to see David Bellamy in the celebrity audience for the Comic Relief 5000 Miles video (by Peter Kay and Matt Lucas with the Proclaimrs). More than thirty years on, he looks almost exactly the same, a bit ruddier & wrinkled in nose & face, but otherwise the character he has always been.

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