Gosh it feels an awful long time ago now, but back in bleak short days of December 2013 I attended another one of the excellent STFC Daresbury Laboratory (DL) public engagement “Talking Science” events - this one was entitled: “Cayman Caves and Past Life in Paradise” and presented by Dr. Phil Manning, University of Manchester.

20131213_190617Now as usual I just made it through the door before the talk began but as I did I was handed a little white remote control. We can gloss over the just making in time remark until later but I know you want to know more about the remote control. You see at this particular event there was a new member of the public engagement (PE) team up from the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) - Sophy Palmer and of course the usual faces such as Wendy Cotterill as she is the leading light in the STFC Daresbury SIC public engagement camp. So what was this remote control you ask? Well go on ask…..

The remote control was in fact a device for undertaking audience participation such as voting. In fact that is what it was used for voting. Voting in particular with respect about public engagement, science and of course the talk which were about to be presented with. I’d love to post the results of those polls here seeing as we did quite a few questions and that was great fun. Me being me I tried to rig the result by pressing the button as many times as possible especially for having more chemistry based talks - it did not not work though. Of course at first you think it is a little cheesy and will this actually mean anything but as you get into the questions and voting and the results are relayed back to you on the screen in real time you think, “yes” and “I hope they actually use this data”.

Ok so we had audience participation but why do you need an audience? Of course it is to watch the presentation/lecture/talk. Now I got a chance to talk to Phil after the event and he said he wasn’t overly happy with his performance. This you may be surprised to hear if you had been in the audience like me. He worried he was too jet lacked. But I personally think the pace, the content and the energy of the talk was absolutely pitch perfect. It just worked. There was also another nice feature his talked contained lots and lots of video footage. Video which was in fact shot from helmet-cams worn by the people whilst they were exploring and excavating the caves on the Cayman islands.

Cayman Islands you say not Caveman Islands

Wikipedia map Cayman IslandsI learnt quite a lot from the talk, things such as the tectonic plates for that region making the Cayman islands quite unique in that they sit on a tectonic island, for want of a better word, and as such entire plate could raise or lower depending on geological forces. The fact that the islands are part of the United Kingdom a “British Overseas Territory” and as such potentially subject for funding applications from UK and EU research councils was also pretty cool!

The islands themselves are Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman and the bulk of the talk was based about research undertaken on Cayman Brac. So little the runway also doubles as a road (part of it at least) and has to be closed to allow the planes to land.

So what was the research?

I’ve already hinted at the research but basically Phil and his team were exploring the limestone caves which make up the islands looking for deep deadly “death pits” - that is not the correct name I think but these are sink holes where a vertical channel has basically been cut into the limestone by the action of erosion - from running water. The result is a shaft where if you are a small “wee beasty”, or a large one for that matter, and you fall down the shaft you are most likely to die and just stay there. The floor of the shaft and surrounding chambers then being exposed to deposition of the mineral rich water from the limestone start to encapsulate the material. Then every now and again the entire tectonic plate sinks the islands resulting in a different type of deposition, etc, etc. The end result a stratified deposit of history contain geological and biological information and in some cases collagen which can be used for identification and classification of the bones. [Related research: 10.4081/antiqua.2011.e1 10.1016/j.jas.2013.08.021 & 10.1016/j.jas.2009.08.020]

Distraction - Remote Viewing

Ok, so I am sorry to throw in this distraction right here, right now but I need to go back to the “just made it through the door” statement. You see the talks are at 19:00 which is fine but I need to get home from work and then get from home to Daresbury so it is pretty close with the traffic and distance travelled in such a short time. So whilst I had the STFC PE’s team ear I asked “Why can’t the lectures be webcast?”. Now being a former DL staff member I know that the lecture theatre is kitted out with superb webcasting/video conferencing kit. The speakers are all microphoned and well STFC has the bandwidth on the Janet-Net to distribute the media load. Unfortunately I got the classic PR line of it would be hard due to audience privacy. Which I personally think is a cop-out line. In order that you attend the talk the STFC sign-up papge takes nearly every possible metric from shoe size to eye colour. So adding a public release statement would be trivial.

The RSC can present their public lectures for example “Not just for Christmas” online via theReaction.net. So why can not the STFC? It would potentially open up the audience and it would definitely make attending the talks a lot easier and less rushed for me when I need to work late or if I wanted to not drive to Daresbury. Also seeing as the STFC is based all around the world from Hawaii, Didoct and Edinburgh (just off the top of my head) surely it would be nice to provide access to everyone to publicly engage with the world? And finally to produce a catalogue of excellent talks saved as videos to be watched by anyone whenever or where ever they may be.


So the talk was great and the material captivating and entertaining. You know the kind-of-thing that you would watch on TV. Excellently performed and engineered but fortunately without a random American presenter with little or no idea about the material they are discussing <—

  • digg at the current state of science on TV (hard to do when you only watch catchup TV via Iplayer and 4OD).

We finished the event with another quick series of polls and that was that, I guess for everyone else. I got a chance to chat with Phil his wife and the STFC PE team and I must admit I truly admire Phil for his honesty and driving passion about engaging with the public and commuting science, just as Prof. Ian Stewart had done in the previous PE lecture at DL. You know when you are in the presence of people who truly care about their science and care about trying to educate and share that passion with everyone and anyone around them as you just get that buzz. It is hard to explain but they seemed to emit an energy a vibration if you will that just hooks you and reels you in.

In short just another great Daresbury PE event and excellent speaker.

Science meet the public - public wake up to science!

Being that Phil is a caring sharing kind-a-guy you can read all about his research via his blog as well as on Twitter and Google+. Plus catch him on TV: National Geographic and of course via the University of Manchester.