Department of Mathematics


Sussex scientists unravel the wonders of DNA and more at Brighton Science Festival

University of Sussex researchers are out in force for Brighton Science Festival this month, sharing their passion for the mysteries of the cosmos, the wonder of DNA and almost everything in between.

Academics and students will be giving talks and demonstrations and guiding visitors through a host of hands-on activities that aim to convey the wonder of science in a way that offers fun for all the family.

One of this year’s highlights will be DNA Day (Sunday 10 February, Sallis Benney Theatre, Grand Parade Brighton, 11am – 4.30pm), which celebrates the story of DNA since the discovery of the double helix molecule – the molecule of life – in 1953.

University of Sussex contributions to DNA Day include:

  • Researchers Dr Oliver Wilkinson and Dr Aaron Alt (Genome Damage and Stability Centre) adopt the personas of real-life scientists Watson and Crick in their telling of the story of DNA, the controversy that arose around the discovery of its double helix structure and DNA’s profound implications for science. The Discovery of DNA: Airing Science’s Dirty Laundry is at 11.15am.
  • Dr Bonamy Oliver and Dr Alison Pike (Psychology) take a look at studies of identical twins and what these can tell us about the power of DNA in shaping our lives.  Twin and adoption studies can help to disentangle genetic from environmental influences – especially if they involve identical twins reared apart. Such studies can show the influence of DNA even in the most complex of human behaviours. Different in identical ways is at 11.45am.
  • Professor Adam Eyre-Walker (Life Sciences), who researches natural selection’s role in molecular evolution, looks at the slowing down of human evolution and asks: “Are we descending rather than ascending the evolutionary path?” The Descent of DNA is at 12.15pm.
  • Professor Alison Sinclair and fellow researchers from the School of Life Sciences will be calling on the audience to help reveal how human DNA is wrapped up then unwrapped as different information is required. Students have produced animations and posters to show how the DNA and RNA of viruses cause disease and there will be the chance for the audience to turn detective and have a go at decoding DNA. Unlocking Genomes is at 12.45pm.

Communication is the other big theme of this year’s festival, and on Big Science Saturday (Sallis Benney theatre, 2 March 2013, 10am – 6pm) media historian Professor David Hendy (Media and Film) will be sharing five sound bites from history that show how we keep being tricked and misled by sound – and how we’ve used sound to fool and manipulate others. Professor Hendy’s 30-part series on sound, Noise: a Human History, begins on Radio 4 in March. The series traces the role of sound and listening in social life from prehistory to the present-day.

The theme continues on Sunday 3 March with Keeping In Touch (10.30am-4pm Sallis Benney Theatre) – a day of events and talks on the topic of communication, its evolution in animals, and history among humans:

  • Dr David Reby (Psychology), whose research focuses on the function and evolution of vocal communication, invites the audience to eavesdrop on humanity’s first meaningful grunts, while Dr Jessica Horst, who directs the Word Lab (Psychology), will be discussing how young children learn words.
  • Professor Andy Field (Psychology) shows how fear and the powerful emotions it engenders can be communicated unconsciously, and asks if such behaviour can be unlearned.
  • Professor Nicola Yuill (Psychology) and members of the Chat Lab join forces with the Myths Morphs and Memes (a collective of artists, psychologists and sociologists who study how we think and what we believe through art, story-telling and games) to explore collaborative play and work using technology. The iPad Picture Consequences game, for example, shows how groups can work together to co-create drawings.  Professor Yuill is to present her resulting paper, ‘Pass the iPad’, at a conference in Paris.  At the Festival, groups of strangers in different locations will co-create sentence and tweet them to Live Sentence. Will these co-productions create a coherent sequence of sentences, or will it all be random?

Dr Darren Baskill and the Physics and Astronomy department’s schools outreach team will again be showcasing some of the regular favourites in their repertoire of activities and talks to inspire A-level physics study, scheduled across the entire festival. Graduate researchers and undergraduate students will also be on hand to introduce visitors to the science behind the thermal camera, the cloud chamber and workshop activities.  Catch up with the team at the White Heat (23 and 24 February) and Bright Sparks (16 and 17 February) weekend events.

Also taking part in the Bright Sparks events at Hove Park Upper School are volunteers from the Genome Damage and Stability Centre, including Dr Meryem Alagoz, who will, among other demonstrations, explain the basic principles of DNA coding in s bracelet making workshop.

Clinical expertise comes to the fore when Brighton and Sussex Medical School students join Bright Sparks (16 February) to take people on a voyage of discovery – inside their own bodies. And Katherine Hurt, Consultant Respiratory Physician at Royal Sussex County Hospital, discusses medical advances and the ethical dilemmas these present for those treating and caring for Cystic Fibrosis patients in Cystic Fibrosis: New Treatments, New Challenges on Tuesday 26 February at 7pm at The Audrey Emerton Building, Eastern Road (opposite the Royal Sussex County Hospital), Brighton.

Passion and science collide at the Catalyst Club’s Science Festival special when Professor Zoltan Dienes (Psychology) explores what function sexual fantasies may serve, and why they are so different for different people. The Secret Logic of Sexual Fantasy at the Catalyst Club, Latest Music Bar, Manchester Street, Kemp Town, Brighton on Thursday 28 February at 8pm. Tickets £5, on the door or online.

Notes for Editors

The Brighton Science Festival runs from Wednesday 6 February to Sunday 3 March 2013. The festival began eight years ago with the aim of inspiring young people to discover the wonder of science. Each year it brings the best science communicators together to share their passion for everything scientific, with interactive displays, experiments, hands-on activities, lectures, exhibitions, music and performance for all the family. View the listings online for the full programme of events and to buy tickets.

University of Sussex Press office contacts: Maggie Clune and Jacqui Bealing. Tel: 01273 678 888. Email:

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Last updated: Wednesday, 20 February 2013

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