Review: Bluedot Festival 2019

Over the weekend the fantastic bluedot festival descended on Jodrell Bank observatory for its fourth year of music, science and cosmic culture. I was lucky enough to attend and took a look at just how much ‘blue’ had been packed into this year’s event.

The main stage in front of the iconic Lovell telescope at bluedot festival

My bluedot journey began last year after somewhat stumbling upon the festival accidentally through work. I was amazed at how much I enjoyed the unique combination of exciting musical acts alongside a range of excellent scientific talks from world-leading researchers. Ever since I have been counting down the days to this year’s event, and it was well worth the wait. In the shadow of the famous Lovell telescope tops acts such as Hot Chip, Kraftwork and New Order wowed a diverse crowd, in both age and dress sense. At the same time top academics and journalists delivered an inspiring array of talks on subjects including insects, robots, pulsars and everything in-between. But as a marine enthusiast I was particularly interested to see what ocean content I could get my hands on. Last year’s festival had a distinctive marine feel to it after being kicked off with an orchestral performance of the BBC’s original Blue Planet series. However on the 50th anniversary of the moon landings, of which Jodrell Bank played such a crucial role, would ocean sciences take a back seat this year? I take a look back at some of my favourite talks and aspects of the festivals that really put the ‘blue’ in bluedot.

The problem with plastics

The first talk on my list was given by perhaps the most recognisable speaker of the entire weekend, the fantastically engaging and informative Liz Bonin. Following on from her eye opening TV series ‘Drowning in Plastic’ she delivered a summary of the plastic pollution problem with an emphasis on its impacts in the marine realm. As someone who has written about the subject and is well aware of just how massive and endless the issue really is I was initially sceptical of anyone’s ability to summarise it in a 45 minute window. But I was taken aback by just how detailed and informative the talk managed to be whilst also remaining concise and easy to follow for everyone in the jam packed audience. She began the talk by joking “I know this won’t be the most uplifting talk you come to this weekend but it may be one of the most important” and it was a fitting description of what was to follow.

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A bumper crowd at the Mission Control stage listens to Liz Bonin

The talk began by looking at the effects of micro-plastics on marine life highlighting just how widespread and long reaching the problem already is in our oceans today. It then switched to some of the more highly concentrated areas of ocean plastic pollution on Earth in places such as Indonesia and Malaysia where we were shown images of rivers completely covered in plastics. Liz explained how the plastics had ended up in this part of the world not just via poor waste management in these developing countries, but also via our influence from the UK. She systematically showed how our consumer habits and sub-par ‘recycling’ was influencing the problem on a global scale. It was at this part of the talk where a collective twang of guilt could be felt throughout the tent. However rather than leaving us in the dumps the talk ended on a positive note highlighting potential solutions both individual and collective that could help turn the tide on plastic. I left with a renewed feeling of optimism and determination on the issue which is a sign of what an excellent talk she delivered.

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Liz Bonin explains the problem with plastics

Polar thinking

The next talk was one of the more surprising and thought provoking ones I attended this year. Climate scientist Dr Tamsin Edwards delivered a powerful presentation on her work on unstable ice cliffs in Antarctica whilst also sharing her experiences on dealing with climate sceptics and her own very emotional battle with cancer. The central message of the talk was that things are never as black and white as they appear both in life and the issue of climate change. She began by talking about her relationship with a climate sceptic she had met via a heated twitter exchange many years before. Interestingly she revealed how the two actually got on quite well and what she had initially mistook for denial was actually a desire for accurate representation of climate research. She also revealed the ‘sceptic’ was actually more right about most issues than she had previously assumed. To me this was very interesting and highlighted to me that despite my own strong views on climate change it was probably best to keep an open mind when talking to others.

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Dr Tamsin Edwards on stage, the image is a representation of different possible futures of climate change

The talk then progressed to some of Dr Edwards own work on climate science. She explained how she had been re-examining work by fellow researchers that had predicted severe sea level rises from melting ice cliffs. Her simulations showed that the increases would be less than predicted but still enough to be a serious problem. As she explained the science she also read out a series of emails both with Nature magazine, who she was trying to publish with, and friends and family as she underwent treatment for bowel cancer. The two stories simultaneously showed the unpredictability of both life and climate science in a way that was both informative and emotive. Dr Edwards ended by reflecting on how the future of climate change is still very much uncertain and offered some much needed perspective on why it matters. I think it was a testament to her fantastic performance that she received the largest applause of all the speakers I was lucky enough to listen to this year.

Past the tides

The final talk on this list is one which perhaps best combined marine science with the astrophysics and cosmic thinking that makes bluedot so popular. Dr Mathew Palmer from the National Oceanographic Centre in Liverpool gave a very informative talk on how our moon influences ocean life not just via simple tides but also via altering productivity and controlling ocean systems. Using slides filled with some of the most entertaining and informative graphs, visuals and videos I had seen from any talk, he explained to a packed house how the moon (and the sun) is responsible for sustaining ocean life. He also shared some of his own work using ocean gliders and other exciting technologies and how it helps expand our knowledge of ocean systems. Although it was a brief talk it really highlighted how life in our oceans and on land relies on forces external to our own planet and shed a fresh cosmic perspective on marine sciences. He and his colleagues were also on hand at the exhibition hall all weekend to tell people about their work and answer any burning questions. It is this type of outreach work done by amazing people that can really make a big difference.


The Incredible Oceans pop-up base next to the Mission Control stage

But it was not just talks that focused on our oceans and marine life at this year’s bluedot. The presence of several amazing organisations at the event also added to the marine theme. One of those was the amazing Incredible Oceans. This fantastic group attends festivals and delivers educational events to tell ocean-saving stories through art and science. From their beautifully decorated pop-up base next to the exhibition hall they gave talks and showed off interesting specimens to anybody that walked past. Their infectious attitudes and inflatable killer whale drew in people of all ages and whenever I walked past it gave me great pleasure to see young children learning about our oceans. I talked to several of the inspiring people working there and it was evident to me that they felt the same way. Moving away from strictly marine organisations there was also a strong environmental presence at the festival in particular by Greenpeace and Extinction Rebellion. It was definitely evident to me that as well as celebrating our place in the universe, bluedot is also about protecting it.

A stall shows off the amount of plastics that can be collected on our beaches

Our little blue dot

It was Carl Sagan who coined the term ‘pale blue dot’ when referring to an image of the Earth taken by Voyager 1 when it turned its gaze back to home in 1990. It serves as a reminder of just how small and alone we really are in the vastness of space and as a result how important we really are. But as well as that it shows us that our world is a blue one dominated by the water that provides us with life. Now nearly 30 years on bluedot Festival continues to remind us of both of these things. Although it is and will always be an event dominated with astrophysics and cosmology it is increasingly looking inward to our oceans and how we treat them. For that reason it is deserving of the ‘blue’ in its name. But more than that it is an amazing place to meet, talk and dance with like-minded and free thinking people of all ages and backgrounds who just love science and music. I leave with a reignited passion for science and communication and more certain of my place and role in the universe than ever before. The countdown to next year has already begun.

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