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The Big Science Saturday

The “Big Science Saturday” allured science fans with a plethora of popular science talks, debates and games. These ranged from the hidden mathematics of sport and a potential cure for obesity to the curious science behind blasphemy and climate change. As one of Brighton Science Festival’s main events, it certainly did attract inquisitive people of all ages and from diverse backgrounds.

Of all the lectures, “why does swearing work?” was especially interesting. The brain is the most complicated object in the Universe. Amazingly, 60% of it is used to process language. While conscious, we fail to be aware of such simple actions such as limb coordination or breathing. Similarly, language is an unconscious act, affected by our emotional state. Thus language is expressive: it is a release. But is it possible that language can ease pain?

Richard Stevens began researching this idea after witnessing the startling profanities his wife cried during childbirth.  His study involved two types of individuals: those who swear rarely and those who swear excessively. The experiment was carried out on Fry’s Planet World (a five-part series in which Steven Fry explored language), with Steven Fry as the former individual, and Brian Blessed as the latter. They were asked to successively put their hands in ice-cold water for as long as they could tolerate. With one hand, Fry and Blessed were told to shout and repeat a neutral word whenever they felt pain from the coldness. While with the other hand, they could swear freely.

Fry’s neutral word “functional” helped him to keep a hand in the freezing water for only 38 seconds, whereas his use of “fuck” allowed him to withstand the cold for 1.30 minutes. His emotional attachment to the swear word enabled high levels of adrenaline to be released into his body. This made him more resistant to the pain, showing that swear words can reduce pain.

On the other hand, Blessed’s results indicated a different connection to swear words; his neutral word “wooden” resulted in a profoundly high time of 2.30 minutes in the ice bath, while, surprisingly, his use of “bollocks” gave him a lower time of 1.20 minutes. Blessed’s day-to-day use of swear words made his body less receptive to the adrenaline released: swearing did not help him resist the cold.

Stevens explained that swearing is addictive, like smoking, and can be used to habitually release adrenaline to control emotion. Swearing can thus be an effective release of aggression.

This leads us to the question: could swearing reduce violence? If we taught our children to use profanities in moments of fury would this make the world more peaceful?

The second talk that I particularly enjoyed was, “confidence from uncertainty: how to interpret climate science”, by Dr. David Stanforth from LSE. He is a climate physicist who explored the basis of certainty and uncertainty in climate change measurement. Since industrialisation in the early 19th century, the emission of carbon dioxide has exponentially increased, causing drastic climate changes such as global warming. But how confident can we be that this is the case?

Consider a ball: when thrown up in the air we know for certain that the ball will reach its optimum height, and then fall back down under the force of gravity. It will not hover nor endlessly travel up into space unless certain variables are altered. However, there is no certainty as to where the ball will land. Dr. Stanforth explains that this analogy can be applied to measuring and predicting climate change; by understanding known processes and theories, one can develop a certain level of confidence on the long-term outcomes.

With climate change we can be certain that several processes are occurring. Firstly, the greenhouse effect: atmospheric greenhouse gases absorb energy, and without this process the world would be up to 30 degrees colder. Secondly, that levels of carbon dioxide have increased.  This is in no doubt a reflection on human behaviour: observations show that the great increase in carbon dioxide coincides with human activity, especially during periods of industrialisation.  Finally, we can be certain that temperatures are rising.

Climate change is extremely difficult to predict due to the huge amount of ‘non-linearity’s’. For example, if we think back to the ball analogy, the uncertainty of the landing location is increased dramatically if the ball bounces off another object on the way down. Similarly, climate models are complex, affected by a multitude of unexpected variables. They can predict the climate in the short-term, but fail to show the actual global condition in the long-term. In order to determine the potential long-term global crises we may face, we have to understand all the uncertainties that exist in climate predictions: uncertainties in the initial conditions and external influences. Dr. Stanforth explains that by exploring the numerous possible outcomes we can prevent forecast errors; thus through uncertainty in climate science you can find certainty.  Through this rigorous method, Dr. Stanforth is sure that global warming is affecting our climate in the long-term.

But can we really be confident that global warming is a long-term event? In opposition, Dr. Matthew Pope believes that geological evidence implies that there is long-term “global cooling”, and only short-term global warming.

Either way, it is certain that human activity is damaging the future climate. The difficulty in taking action lies in population ignorance, corrupt capitalism and unforeseeable catastrophes.

Overall, the “Big Science Saturday” was a mesmerizing event, with many interesting talks and debates. Major social, economic and political issues were explored in a scientific fashion, facilitating heated debates. Listening to other people’s perspectives was eye-opening, allowing me to sharpen my own arguments, regardless of how much I agreed or disagreed with the ideas. Science really does affect everything around us, but we should continue to question scientists’ conclusions.

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