BIG enews
Winter 2012 edition – Issue 21


Happy New Year to our 400+ members! The festive season is well and truly behind us and we look forward to the exciting BIG year ahead.

It's been six months since last year's BIG Event which means that the planning for this year's Event is really beginning to step up a gear. We are so pleased to be heading to the National Railway Museum in York this summer.

There will be a call for session proposals very soon so get your thinking caps on and watch out for the annoucement in your inboxes later this month.

Sarah Vining

Updating the BIG Constitution

Andy Lloyd, Chair

The British Interactive Group was formed from casual meetings of science centre founders, but even though we try to maintain an informal air we are governed by a constitution set down by our founders (in 1992).  They did a very good job in creating this document as it has coped with the evolution of our group and the sector around us.  After the BIG Event last summer, the new Executive Committee decided to revisit the constitution to see whether, finally, any changes might be required to reflect current circumstances and to absorb changes that have been agreed at Annual General Meetings over the last few years.

You can see our efforts highlighted here: BIG Consitution (pdf).  We are suggesting these changes but to be approved they will need to be ratified by a vote of all members.  We propose to do this as part of the process of Exec elections and general motions ahead of the AGM via an online election in the summer, so we’re sharing our suggestions now to give everyone the opportunity to read the constitution (!), think about the changes proposed and have time to discuss them before we hold a vote. 

I’ll run through our reasoning point by point, but in general we found that there was no need to change most clauses and so avoided changing things for the sake of it.  Our founders had been wise enough to set boundaries within which a wide variety of activities could take place.  The following eight points were the ones we felt were most in need of modification:

3.1 describes who will be in the group.  Given our current make-up we have updated this from individuals “whose work or interests lie in the field of interactive exhibitions”, replacing the last two words with “science, technology, engineering and maths activities”.

4.1 was a complicated clause defining the membership year, which used to run from 1st January.  Since we moved to an online subscription system we are able to make membership a rolling 12 month period from the date of joining (this would have been difficult to track in 1992!).

4.2 updates the membership fee to the current rate, agreed at an AGM a couple of years ago.

5 is potentially the contentious change.  Our founders envisioned the committee appointing an external auditor each year to examine the accounts, although our records suggest that this has happened infrequently.  The cost of external auditing is not insignificant, and the annual turnover of BIG is less than half the level that would require audits of companies or charities.  With BIG employing an administrator, the functions of payment processing and accounting are now separate (with the elected Treasurer carrying out the latter) and accounts are published regularly.  The committee decided that requiring an annual audit was an unnecessary drain on resources, but that the issue should not be lost.  Our suggestion is to formally require the committee to review and discuss the issue each year.

6 The list of officer positions on the Exec has been reduced to reflect the loss of the Membership Secretary position, which proved to be quite onerous for a voluntary post. 

7.1 and 7.2 have been updated to reflect the changes to 5

9.3 is a new clause, reflecting the AGM decisions to pay for an Administrator and an Event Coordinator. This has the effect of renumbering the following clauses in section 9.

9.6 changes the number of committee members needed for a quorum, reflecting the fact that the committee is now smaller than in 1992.  We opted for “at least one half of the elected members” as a more future-proof wording than giving a precise number.


ASTC Fellow Award

Colin Johnson, former director and CEO of Techniquest in Cardiff, became the newest recipient of ASTC's (Association of Science and Technology Centres) highest honor: the ASTC Fellow Award for Outstanding Contribution “for his distinguished career as a chemist and educator, from the classroom to the museum. Colin’s determined advocacy, tactful diplomacy, and persuasive compositions have helped build bridges within the field and between science centers and the people they serve".

The ASTC Fellow Award for Outstanding Contribution, first presented in 1974, is bestowed upon individuals who merit special recognition for their significant contributions to the advancement of public understanding and appreciation of science and technology or of ASTC itself. This was only the fourth time in 25 years that the Award has been given outside North America, so congratulations to Colin from all of us at BIG.


Pythagorean Caberet – A Science Variety Night

Rhys Phillips, EADS Research Engineer

Last year, I launched a new science & technology radio show and podcast, Pythagoras’ Trousers. The weekly half hour programme covers all sorts of topics from the worlds of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. As well as featuring interviews with guests such as Simon Singh, Marcus du Sautoy, Ben Goldacre and Robin Ince, I've had the opportunity to meet and feature many local scientists, engineers and communicators to talk about their work.

One year on, taking inspiration from Uncaged Monkeys and the IgNobel tours, I hatched a plan to bring them all together on one stage: a Pythagorean Cabaret. Generously funded by the IET, the event took place in October at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff. Hosted by standup comedian and neuroscientist, Dean Burnett, the first act to take to the stage was guitar physicist Mark Lewney who wowed the audience with some cool guitar visuals before going on to explain various acoustical processes in his own inimitable way. Next up was Prof. Jon Holt, a Systems Engineer who talked us through how systems engineering can explain magic tricks and then performed an escapology stunt live on stage to demonstrate his faith in simulation and models.

More music followed in the form of scientific raps with Jon Chase. Jon’s unique musical take on the Periodic Table couldn’t be further from Tom Lehrer’s classic version set to a Gilbert & Sullivan tune. The first half ended with Science Junkie, Huw James who talked us through the link between bicycle wheels and the Herschel Space Observatory making use of both audience members and other scientists to demonstrate his point with a Red Arrows styled finale!

After more funny brain stuff from Dean, the second half resumed with me donning my imaginary super hero cloak and taking to the stage as ‘Rhys Lightning’. Once the classic song from the popular musical died down, I talked the audience through what happens when planes are hit by lightning and the current research going on in this field (no pun intended). Then it was time for some astronomy – our very own Cardiff equivalent of Brian Cox but who says ‘billions’ a lot less and can be seen regularly on The Sky at Night, Chris North talked about Herschel and impressed the audience with cool pictures of the universe. Finally, junior doctor and comedian, David Steele had the audience in hysterics as he gave us his take on the seven deadly sins.

The evening proved to be such a success that further funding was then provided for the show to go to London and on 12th December, the cast (without Mark, Chris or Dave but with the additions of chemist Rosie Coates and astronomer Ezzy Pearson to fill the gaps) took to the stage in the Faraday Theater at the IET’s venue on Savoy Place.

For more information on the radio show or the cabaret night, please contact me.

Episodes of the radio show can be downloaded here and the Cardiff cabaret night can be watched again by clicking here.


Early Science Centre History

Andy Lloyd, Centre for Life

In the last enewsletter, Colin Johnson wrote about the Royal Panopticon of Science and Art and suggested that this, rather than Urania in Berlin, might be Europe’s earliest science centre.  This followed a conversation at the BIG Event in Bristol about the history of our sector where Colin and other notable members of our community gently pointed out some omissions in a list of early centres that I had in a presentation.  Since then I, with the help of many others, have been attempting to draw up a time-line of science centre and museum openings (mainly in the UK, but with some notable international cases).  It turns out that this isn’t a trivial task, but the list is taking shape and I hope that we can put it up on the BIG website soon to encourage more conversations and, who knows, maybe collectively we can compile a history of our field by expanding from the list.

Anyway, back to the Royal Panopticon.  Reading about this and the circumstances of its birth I stumbled across the nineteenth-century equivalent of the millennium boom.  Instead of lottery millions, there was an explosion of entrepreneurial activity chasing after the disposable income of London’s middle and upper classes.  The Great Exhibition of 1851 had created an appetite for “improving” activities, of which the Royal Panopticon (1854) was one.  However (sorry Colin), a couple of years earlier in 1851 the centre of Leicester Square was home to “Wyld's Great Globe”.  This massive spherical structure contained a scale model of the world mounted on its interior surface, with viewing platforms inside.  The proprietor, James Wylde, had failed to get his vision included in the Great Exhibition so secured a lease in Leicester Square to go it alone.  Crowds flocked to see this wonder, with an estimated 1.2 million visitors in 1853 (most paying!) despite the proximity of other attractions (many based on panoramic dioramas of foreign lands, such as “Burford’s Panorama” and the “Gallery of Illustration”). 

Sadly the Great Globe closed after a decade, suffering from competition, wear and tear and disputes over the lease of the land.  Reading the surviving records (summarised quite well at Wikipedia, you get a sense of an exciting time with many issues that would be familiar to anyone working in one of the new millennial science centres.

When the timeline goes live on the website, I hope that some of you will take a look and perhaps contribute a few words against places you know about.  Who knows, there may be lost gems from the eighteenth century and earlier yet to be rediscovered.


Maths Gear

Steve Mould, Maths Communicator

Matt Parker and I are maths communicators. After shows, we're often asked where they got their maths toys.

Often there's no easy answer. So with what looked like a decent market for hard-to-obtain geek items we've set up a brand new website - At the moment we only sell a few things but we're adding more soon. Currently you can buy a set of three Non Transitive Dice which is the cheapest on the net; a set of five Non Transitive Dice called Grime Dice you can only buy from Maths Gear; and a card game all about set theory.

In the future we'll be selling Klein Bottles, Solids of Constant Width, Self Siphoning Beads, nerdy valentines items and loads more. If you've got ideas for other things we could stock, please email us.


A Day in the life of a... Pathologist

Dr Suzy Lishman, Consultant Histopathologist, Peterborough and Stamford Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust

I am a histopathologist, also known as a cellular pathologist. My job involves diagnosing diseases by examining tissue samples both with the naked eye and under the microscope. People often associate pathology with dead bodies and autopsies, as seen on television programmes like Silent Witness and CSI. Although some histopathologists do perform autopsies to determine the cause of death, the majority spend their working day diagnosing diseases in the living. When you have a biopsy or an operation, the tissue removed is sent to a histopathologist for analysis. The tissue might be a mole or skin cancer, a biopsy of the lung or gut, or a whole organ such as a breast or kidney.

A typical day starts with a multi-disciplinary team (MDT) meeting. I attend three MDTs every week – covering tumours of the oesophagus (gullet), stomach, liver and colon (large intestine). The meetings are attended by a team of different healthcare professionals to make sure that every aspect of each patient’s care is considered. So there’ll be a surgeon, oncologist, radiologist, specialist nurse, dietician, palliative care specialist as well as junior doctors and other trainees. The team approach ensures that patients are given the best possible advice about their condition and what treatment is available. As a pathologist I am a core member of the MDT; without a pathologist to make the diagnosis the other doctors wouldn’t know what treatment to offer.

After the MDT I often do a specimen cut-up session in the lab. This involves examining all the specimens that have arrived, describing the abnormalities seen and selecting appropriate sections for further processing and microscopy. I might look at small biopsies measuring only 1 or 2mm, or deal with over a metre of colon. For larger specimens I describe the appearances carefully and select the most important areas to examine in more detail.
The rest of my day is spent in my office looking at slides under the microscope. The specimens cut up the day before have been processed and thin slices cut, placed on a glass slide and stained to show the cellular characteristics. I dictate reports on each slide, describing the microscopic appearance and making a diagnosis. If a case is unusual or difficult I might show the slides to a colleague and ask for their opinion.

The great thing about being a pathologist is that you never know what you’re going to come across at work. In the same way that a GP doesn’t know who’s going to walk through the door next, as a pathologist I have no idea what samples I’m going to receive each day or what disease processes will be present. I really enjoy working as part of a team. It’s like detective work – putting all the pieces of the puzzle together to come up with the correct diagnosis. Although I don’t meet patients face to face I feel that I’m making an important contribution to their care. I love being a pathologist and can’t imagine doing anything else.


What is Science for?

The next Science for Global Citizenship conference is being held at Catalyst Science Discovery Centre and Museum on 25th February 2012. 

The conference will enable KS3/4 science teachers and educators to engage with topical debates about the potential of science in today’s world.  Whilst exploring innovative and participatory teaching methods for bringing these issues into the classroom/learning environment. The cost is £45 per person and £15 for trainee teachers including lunch and resource pack. To find out more or book tickets click here.


BIG People

Who are you? Jenny Shipway, Planetarium Manager at the INTECH Science Centre & Planetarium

A typical day at work consists of a morning presenting school shows and an afternoon working on projects, with a big cheesy potato somewhere in between. I’m generally jumping between projects as the emails roll in, chasing deadlines. My favourite metaphor is that of spinning plates, where I’m leaping around the stage attending to each as it starts to wobble. And if they’re all spinning fine? Well then it’s time to start a new project!

What got you into this career? I was doing a biochemistry post-doc in California when I met someone who was off to the UK to do the Imperial Sci-Com MSc. This was a revelation: I hadn’t realised you were allowed to do this sort of thing as a proper job! The planetarium aspect was just chance in that the first sci-com job available when I got back was with the amazing magical Explorer Dome mobile planetarium. Doing that alongside the UWE Sci-Com MSc and working in At-Bristol was a great introduction to the field.

What is the best thing about your job? George. George came to a corporate evening recently, part of an important international conference. Great big Nigerian middle-aged businessman. I came out of the planetarium after the show and found him with tears literally pouring down his face. He asked me “But how can I tell my children? How can I tell them that I have flown through the stars?”. It’s incredible to work with something that has such emotional power. Adults are moved to tears more often than you’d imagine.

... and the worst? Frustration at having this incredible resource but not having the tim/people/funding to use it to its best effect, or the capital to market it effectively.

What is your favourite meal? A picnic with sourdough bread and a million tupperware pots full of palma ham, cashew nuts, buffalo mozzarella salad, cannelini hummus, capers, olives, artichoke hearts, smelly cheese, smoked salmon and other such goodies. Add champagne (cheap from Tesco), sunshine and good company.

What is your favourite smell? The Black Boy pub in Winchester when the fires are roaring on a cold winter’s night.

What talents do you possess? I used to temp as an audio typist so type ridiculously fast. A friend once thought I was faking it for comic effect. I can also whistle tunes through my rolled tongue, but I find that less useful in day-to-day life.

What talents would you like to possess? Recognising faces; I frequently embarrass myself by not recognising people. I was tested for a research project and they reckoned I can recognise individual features but my brain can’t put them together to make a ‘face’ in my mind. I’m not pathologically face-blind but right at the end of the bell-curve. So please don’t be offended if I don’t recognise you!

Which actor do you think should play you in the film of your life? Good grief I have no idea, my knowledge of actors is terrible. I like to blame this on not being able to recognise them film to film, although it’s probably more to do with my seldom going to the cinema.

Most beautiful place on earth? Northern Norway took my breath away. The incredible snowy landscape, reducing everything to monochrome, then the simple stick-figure trees deliniating every curve of the hills. Mountains coming down to icy fjords. Staggeringly beautiful. The aurora was amazing, but it’s the landscape which will make me return.

What is your Motto for life? Never think of anything as malicious if it could possibly be explained by stupidity. People spend too much time thinking others are cruel or mean when usually they’ve just been a bit rubbish. Generally people are pretty nice and decent but everyone’s socially inept at times.


And finally...

Something to tickle the old grey matter during these dark winter evenings. This teaser has been kindly submitted by Steve Sherman of Living Maths in South Africa.

Can you place the numbers 1 to 8 into the following grid. No two consecutive numbers can be placed directly next to each other either horizontally, vertically or diagonally.


With best wishes from the BIG Executive 2011/12…

Andy Lloyd, Chair
Savita Custead, Vice Chair
David Porter, Treasurer
Ashley Kent, Secretary
Brian Macken, General Member
and Sarah Vining, Administrator


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