Is It Alive? Big Bang Explores Space, DNA, Robots And The Brain in Wigtown

From Frankenstein’s monster to the future of AI and from outer space to the inside of the brain – The Big Bang Weekend held in wigtwon, Dumfries and Galloway explores the mechanics of life.

The arts, literature and science event, in Wigtown, Scotland’s National Book Town, from 2-4 February 2018, will be an inspiring and entertaining mix of talks by leading scientists and authors, plus comedy, music, film, cabaret, food and drink.

With lots to do for adults and children The Big Bang Weekend is all about the search for life – wherever it may be and whatever shape it takes.

Synthetic biology and robotics experts from the University of Edinburgh will leave their labs to play a leading role in the event – talking to the public about their world-leading work in everything from cloning to artificial intelligence.

Jessica Fox, Festival Director, said: “The Big Bang Weekend celebrates the point where science and the arts collide. There’s a whole series of lectures and fringe events in the idyllic setting of Scotland’s National Book Town.  
“With the new discoveries being made in space exploration, artificial intelligence and genome engineering, we explore the intriguing question of when is something alive? 
“We are particularly pleased that there will be such a big input by scientists from the University of Edinburgh’s synth lab and robotics lab which are doing such incredible work – pushing back the boundaries in so many fields. 
“We’ll also take time to celebrate Galloway’s very own scientific giant, James Clerk Maxwell. His work in the 19th century on the electromagnetic spectrum may be the key to understanding life as we know it and is a great reminder of Scotland’s great contribution to the world of science.”

This will be the second Big Bang Weekend – the one in 2017 was dedicated to the role of women in science. The event is run by Wigtown Festival Company, organisers of the annual Wigtown Book Festival, as part of its year round initiative. It is part-financed by the Scottish Government and the European Union – LEADER 2014-2020 programme, to promote cultural tourism.

One of its great joys, according to Jessica, will be the chance to hear lectures or attend events, then search the shelves of the town’s bookshops to find out more. Jessica, who was previously employed as NASA’s storyteller, is also artist in residence at the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Mammalian Synthetic Biology.

She said: “So much of knowledge has become regimented and specialised – events like Big Bang are rare opportunities to celebrate true liberal arts again and offer access to wonderful lectures and learning opportunities for any age.
“Bookshops are a great reminder of how ideas often relate to each other, how we should never stop learning and that thoughts, like the rambling shelves in the bookstores, are all interconnected.” 

In addition to speakers from the Centre for Mammalian Synthetic Biology and the Edinburgh Centre for Robotics there will be a Frankenstein scholar, a Comedy Central comedian and Dr Jane Greaves, this year’s Hoyle Prize winner for her work on exoplanet habitability.

Jono Zalay, a Los Angeles-based comedian who swapped the neuroscience lab (where he gave cocaine to rats) for a career in stand up, will be among the star attractions at Big Bang.

He said: “I was always fascinated by comedy and by science as well as by the workings on the human brain and why we act the way we do. For example, we are the only species that’s aware of whether we are doing right or wrong – but we often do what’s wrong anyway.”

There will also be fringe events such as film screenings, planetarium shows and the infamous pub science quiz. Talks include:

  • Why do robots need common sense?Dr Subramanian Ramaoorthy, University of Edinburgh School of Informatics, to explore the future of intelligent machines.
  • Life and death in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein:Sharon Ruston, Professor of English Literature at Lancaster University, reveals the science behind the novel and the anxiety it spawned.
  • Life in the cosmos:Cardiff University astronomer Dr Jane Greaves looks at other worlds and which ones are home to aliens.
  • Being alive at very small scales:The University of Edinburgh’s Dr Erika Szymanski delves into the world of microscopic life forms – and how Scotland’s world-beating studies in synthetic biology can solve our biggest health challenges.

Stuart Kelly, the author, critic and Wigtown Book Festival favourite will also be discussing the life of Dumfries and Galloway’s James Clerk Maxwell, one of the world’s greatest scientists.

Other Big Bang weekend events and activities include:

  • Comedy from Dr Jono Zalay, a neuroscientist who swapped life in the lab for a career in stand up
  • The spectacular thinkScience Planetarium Show
  • The Big Bang Pub Quiz
  • DNA and Danish pastries – special guests, chat and music from the Bookshop Band
  • Children’s activities sponsored by the science festival
  • Science cabaret and film – the Silent Signal animations.
Paula Ward, VisitScotland Regional Director, said: “The Big Bang Weekend is an exciting addition to the events calendar in Dumfries & Galloway and is sure to attract more visitors to the region, further raising the profile and reputation of the region as one of Scotland’s strongest regions for festivals and events.
“Events like this provide a boost to the local visitor economy by enhancing our region’s tourism offering and showcasing the very best of what the region has to offer all year round. I hope as many local people and visitors from further afield will be able to come along to enjoy the great programme on offer.”

Image credit Colin Hattersley

  • Website and tickets – www.wigtownbookfestival.comor call 01988 403222
  • Organised by– Wigtown Festival Company, 11 Main Street, Wigtown, Dumfries and Galloway, DG8 9HN.

·       Wigtown Festival Company is limited by guarantee with charitable status. Charity number SCO37984