Guerilla scientists infiltrate Secret Garden Party

Synaesthesia, Petra Boynton's intimate places, communicating with the comatose and Marcus du Sautoy all feature at this weekend's Secret Garden Party, courtesy of Guerilla Science. Zoe Cormier will be there

It may have been the burlesque freak show temptress who set fire to her skin, the empathic robotic bust of Elvis sitting in the eyeworks laboratory in Blade Runner, or the three metre long tube that reveals the shape of sound with dancing fire – but regardless of the victor, there are many contenders for the title of the quirkiest performers Guerilla Science has featured this year.

This weekend at The Secret Garden Party might find us a new claimant to the title – perhaps Sampa Von Cyborg, who will perform live hangings and hookings in the name of science. Or maybe the giant brain that sings when you show it colours.

Guerilla Science started four years ago, sedately enough, with eight lectures in a grassy field at the Cambridgeshire music festival The Secret Garden Party, with scientists talking about such everyday topics as "Is God a number?" and "Could we live forever?" This year we have found ourselves in the most strange and unlikely settings for science, far more bizarre than an English music festival.

Astrobiologist Lewis Dartnell, accompanied by Guerilla Scientist Louis Buckley clad in a silver spacesuit, took us on an audio tour of the stars at the Stoke Newington International Airport arts festival Distance, where he spoke alongside a performance artist offering free "spoonings".

Then there was Secret Cinema's grandiose homage to Blade Runner. To help the audience think about what makes us human, computer scientists Laurel Riek from Cambridge University and Peter McOwan from Queen Mary, University of London, brought robots and surreal visual tests. Seeing them chat about neural networks inside the smoky eyeworks laboratory, while above us strippers danced on platforms, and outside costumed midgets smashed vintage cars with baseball bats, was truly memorable.

At the Lovebox in east London last weekend, burlesque artist Vivid Angel performed live piercings and burnings while hooked up to live biomonitoring equipment while she discussed pain with clinical psychologist Matteo Cella. (Her favourite kind of pain? "A broken heart.")

And the incredibly talented Vid Warren, who beatboxes while playing the flute, lent us his sonic skills as we amplified his sounds into our Reuben's tube – a three-metre-long metal tube that reveals the shapes of sound waves with a string of dancing flames, a performance we call Sonic Fire. Our physics maestro Steve Mould (the science presenter on Blue Peter) was on hand to explain the properties of sound. As he said, "Things become more beautiful when you understand how they work."

There are many groups doing fantastic science outreach events for the public around the world, but we're pretty sure nobody does it quite like us. We're especially passionate this year about creating interactive events, to break down the barrier between "expert" and "audience". As our head of marketing Mia Kukathasan puts it, "The lab is everywhere."

And so at the Secret Garden Party this weekend near Huntingdon in East Anglia, music psychologist Gianna Cassidy and singer songwriter Eoghan Colgan will discuss the science of musical expression, and festivalgoers will be able to help score a soundtrack for the festival using nifty interactive iPad technologies. Also on music, Cambridge neuroscientist Jessica Grahn will help us understand how babies are better at picking up rhythms than their parents and will lead the crowds with sonic social bonding routines.

Sex scientist Petra Boynton will discuss our intimate places with intimate questions and ask us where we like (and don't like) to be touched. Boynton and other scientists and philosophers will host small intimate discussions in a boat on the lake.

"I am really excited by the prospect of having festivalgoers being
indulged in a private rowing boat experience chaperoned by a
philosopher of physics musing over the possibility that we may not
exist, or a cognitive neuroscientist chatting about artificial
brains," says our founder Richard Bowdler, a chemistry graduate from
Oxford who started the science camp four years ago."

Perhaps most spectacularly, agency of adventure and play Coney has teamed up with scientists who study synaesthesia to produce a game exploring this condition, in which the senses are blended. Some people "hear" colours and "smell" numbers, for example. A giant brain, created by model-maker Roseanne Wakely, will be "fed" visual stimuli and in turn will sing tunes and instructions, leading participants through an elaborate and undoubtedly original game, like "a giant visual Kaos pad" says Bowdler.

There will still be lectures. The current Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science, mathematician Marcus du Sautoy will tell us about the beauty of prime numbers and why David Beckham wears the number 23 shirt.

And neuroscientist Dr Adrian Owen will explain how we can speak to people in comas. He made history recently when, after a decade of careful work, he used brain scans to prove that some people in comas are actually conscious and can communicate if asked the right questions in the right way.

We cannot imagine any reason why science would not belong at a music festival, alongside cabaret strippers and crystal healers. The theme this year is "fact or fiction", and of course we fall into the former category. But we don't consider this to be a handicap. As our tagline goes: truth is stranger than fiction. Reality provides the mind with incredible fodder for the imagination. Some people just aren't willing – or lucky enough - to see it that way.

"Why does Guerilla Science exist? Simple: Science is part of our culture, yet often it's left languishing in the lab or conveyed in dull or patronising ways," says director Jenny Wong. "We are experimental people by nature, who like new trying new things. So 'mixing science, art, music and play' [our motto] reflects all of our interests. By bringing these together and collaborating with interesting people with new ideas, you can't help but think we'll produce something amazing. People who think in creative ways and succeed in capturing your imagination only make life more exciting."

By helping people to experience "science" in new ways, in unexpected places and with the quirkiest of collaborators, we hope to inspire them to reflect on the complexity of their lives and how remarkable it is to exist at all.

Zoe Cormier is one of the directors of Guerilla Science


Zoe Cormier

The GuardianTramp

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