Guerilla science

Armed with a master’s degree in chemistry from Oxford University, Richard Bowdler did the unexpected—he took a break from the lab, started work as a memory consultant, and took a gig dreaming up eccentric games for a British music and arts festival. For 3 years, Bowdler organized wheelchair races and set up driving ranges for golfers who hit eggs and fruits rather than balls at the annual Secret Garden Party, held just outside Cambridge, England. But his interest in science never diminished, and in 2007 he switched his focus and established the Science Camp—4 days of nonstop presentations on topics as varied as neuroscience, genetics, and astrophysics. To Bowdler’s surprise, thousands of festivalgoers streamed through Science Camp’s doors.

“I had come across a ton of research over the years that fascinated me,” says Bowdler....

Bowdler scraped together the first Science Camp with no outside funding. Secret Garden Party organizers donated a green army tent along with sound and lighting equipment. Bowdler enlisted his friends to help set up the décor. Researchers donated their time to come present.

Within a year of its inaugural event, Science Camp had evolved into a nonprofit organization with a six-person leadership team backed by grants from the United Kingdom’s Science and Technology Facilities Council, the Wellcome Trust, and the Medical Research Council. The group added more festivals to its annual program, erecting tents at Lovebox, Latitude, Paradise Gardens and the Secret Garden Party.

Science advocates find fertile minds at music festivals.

“Music festivals are a really wonderful place to try and communicate science because people are relaxed, they’ve let their hair down,” says Zoe Cormier, a science writer with a background in zoology and one of the group’s scientific consultants.

But to attract the attention of people primed to listen to music with thousands of their friends, the group had to deploy some novel tactics. Science Camp renamed itself Guerilla Science, a tribute to its “science by stealth” tactics, and began to use guerilla marketing, according to Cormier. Members dress up in gorilla suits with white lab coats and parade around the grounds. Others hand out “sweet science facts,” candies wrapped in a sheet of paper with eccentric science factoids like “you are 60% banana,” referring to the amount of DNA humans share with the fruit.

Once inside the tent, festivalgoers are treated to a line-up of quirky yet stimulating activities. At the Secret Garden Party in 2008, Chris French, a psychologist at the University of London, explained how unusual activity in the temporal lobes of the brain causes the false memories responsible for claims of alien abductions. Carolin Crawford, an astronomer at Cambridge University, explained how stars create sound, playing examples for the audience. In 2009, attendees ate brain-shaped cakes while learning about brain history, anatomy and function, and learned how vocal cords function from scientists accompanied by beat boxers. Each presentation drew crowds of 100 people or more.

In the past, Guerilla Science has typically had to recruit scientists to join in the festivities and work with them to “turn a basic demonstration into something a bit more sophisticated, theatrical,” says Jenny Wong, the group’s head of programming. Lately, however, more and more researchers are approaching them to volunteer. “The scientists who participate often find it’s enriching for them as well,” says Cormier. “They get asked the sorts of questions they normally don’t get from presenting at conferences and are surprised by the level of inquisitiveness people showed toward their research.”

This year, Guerilla Science is continuing its rapid expansion. The group is setting up shop at more festivals, and even collaborating with other organizations, such as Secret Cinema, a London-based project that hosts movies in derelict locations, to build its presence in the cultural world outside of music festivals. According to Bowdler, Guerilla Science would also like to eventually expand beyond the United Kingdom, establishing events abroad, particularly in the United States.

“We’re still a young organization in our experimental mode,” says Wong. “We are still investigating all the different kinds of avenues we can go down. It’s very exciting.”

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