Issue 7, 25th March 1996: SET96 - an interim report by Adam Hart-Davis
By Adam Hart-Davis.
[Computing, Law, Science and Technology, SciFi, Sport, The Unexplained, UPicons]
Science Week has begun with enthusiasm, although the energy put into it seems rather unfocused. For example, it isn't a week, and it is no longer called science week. A couple of years ago there was so much fuss from people who thought they were being left out that the name was changed; so officially it's SET96, which is completely unhelpful, because the name gives no indication of what it is, unlike "Science Week," which was a good clear title. And it goes on for about ten days...
During the last few days there have been thousands of events, all over the country, and a good deal of enthusiasm on radio and tv, ranging from Horizon's two-programme special on the work and loves of Albert Einstein to John Pertwee's A Short History of Time on Radio 2. Tough, enthusiastic Head of Science Features, Jana Bennett said "There's an eclectic and exciting array of programmes from diverse areas of the BBC spectrum." My feeling is that if only the Controllers had been prepared to put money into the making of special programmes for the week the output would have been more focused - but everyone wants more money...
In the Barony Hall in east Glasgow, the floor of the elegantly converted church trembled on Friday and Saturday to the stamping of mechanical feet, for this was the meeting place for dozens of robots from all over the world in the extravaganza of Robotix 96, organized by MEA Pubic Relations for the Glasgow Development Agency. There were machines of every shape and size, from the tiny insects of huge, eccentric, behatted Mark Tilden, who had a veritable Jurassic Park of solar-powered creepy-crawlies, to wall-climbing machines and a vast yellow eight-legged monster designed to rescue human beings in dangerous places, although I'm not sure I'd like to be at the mercy of its great clunking limbs. The army were there with the remote-controlled vehicles they use to investigate suspect vehicles and to set off controlled explosions. Mike Topping of Rehab Robotics had a row of machines that would wash your face, shave you, brush your teeth, give you breakfast, and fix your make-up - though I did wonder how many disabled people need both shaving and make-up!
There was a pneumatic humanoid dancing to music, walking machines, talking machines, a robot lawnmower, smart wheelchairs, and even build-it-yourself robots, with a tableful of soldering irons standing by. Kevin Warwick, Professor of Cybernetics at Reading, had a collection of mechanical "guinea-pigs" on wheels. They wandered around their little corral, learning not to walk into walls or one another, went into huddles like sheep, and then when a leader emerged set of behind it in a trek across the floor. Each has its own "brain" with 8 neurons, and they communicate with one another; so don't be surprised if they conspire to take over the world - or at least the Web.
Martin Smith was running a splendid competition called Micromouse. On the floor lies a maze five metres square, with passages 18 cm wide between low walls. Each competitor is started in one corner, and slowly explores the whole maze - or at least 70 per cent of it - and then returns to the start, having formed a map of the maze. Then it is set off to race to the centre, and hurtles along the passages, cornering almost on two wheels, having worked out the quickest route - not necessarily the shortest, since they can travel much more quickly along straights than when cornering.
And there on display were the five finalists in the schools' robot-building contest. There was a poster for a machine to feed small birds but scare off big ones; there were two cardboard-box machines designed to collect rubbish, with an impressive set of rubber-band belts for control. There was a machine designed to mark out white lines for football pitches. Unfortunately technical hitches prevented the table-top model from showing its potential skills. Lawside R C Academy produced a splendid machine for greenhouses, which could detect when any particular plant was too dry, and then went to water it. Holyrood Secondary School in Glasgow brought an impressive Fischer-Technik model of a remote-controlled manipulator called VERA - for Versatile Electronic Robot Arm - designed, for example, for moving nuclear fuel rods, with elegant electronics and home-written software. But the machine that won first prize was a window cleaner called Washbot.
The children of one class of Torbain Primary School in Kircaldy had voted on what sort of robot they wanted to build, and had a string of interesting ideas, including a robot to do homework. They settled on a window cleaner because the school has 792 windows, and cleaning them is expensive.Two boys and a girl were chosen as builders. They built their prototype from Lego Technik, and then a working model that cleaned a perspex window a foot square. It was basically a squeegee that wiped up the window and then down again, with water pumped on the window above the sponge. They had not only built all the moving parts, and solved such problems as glues that don't stay stuck when they get thoroughly wet, and motors of which no two run at the same speed, but also learned BASIC in order to write the controlling program on a BBC micro. The whole project was photographed, and written up with brilliant candour - and hilarious details of what went wrong. They won a trip to a the Technical Student Association Conference in Louisville, Kentucky in June.
In the evening a Great Debate was held in the Glasgow City Council Chamber - a stunning semicircular room with a heavy speaker's chair presented by Queen Victoria for the first debate. The motion - This house believes that in the next millennium robots will become better citizens than human beings - was proposed by Kevin Warwick, thoroughly argued by a dozen speakers, and eventually defeated soundly - according to Speaker Heinz Wolff.
On Saturday evening, after the rugby and before the boxing, while snow was falling wetly on Yorkshire, I delivered a lecture to 250 people at Sheffield Hallam University on the history and technology of the lavatory. The audience ranged in age from 7 to 70, yet no one seemed upset to be told about the chemisty of farts or the funnel that allows women to wee standing up. At the end the entire congregation joined in the prayer to the Lady of the Loo:
O Cloacina, Goddess of this place Look on thy servant with a smiling face. Soft and cohesive let my offering flow - Not rudely swift, nor obstinately slow.
I was most impressed by the organization in Sheffield, where events seemed to be going like clockwork in spite of the dreadful weather.
In Bristol over the week-end SET96 stalls were set out on the upper floor of the Exploratory by Temple Meads station. Hundreds of children flocked through, and treated the stalls as part of the normal "plores," to use Richard Gregory's word. I had helped to set up a stall about testing your psychic powers, and thoroughly enjoyed watching seven-year-old girls trying to guess the future order of Zener cards in a pack before it was shuffled. Meanwhile the boys seemed to prefer trying to use mind-power to influence the dice. Of the 36 dice in the shaker, how many could they persuade to come up 6? Each person who tried entered the score on a bar chart, which gradually developed into a normal distribution - although one shaker notched up a staggering 14! Other stalls had robots, a competition to draw a scientist, and various tempting ideas. My main criticism was that there was nothing outside to suggest to any passer-by that SET96 was happening, let alone on display upstairs. Poor promotion.
Finally, on Monday evening, I went to a BBC booze-up in the Science Museum, hosted by Will Wyatt and Liz Forgan, big bosses of TV and radio. The drink was plentiful, there was a good if dainty finger buffet, and a galaxy of stars attended, from Jana Bennett, Head of Science Features, John Lynch (Horizon), and Ed Briffa (TW) to Sir David Attenborough, Richard Dawkins, Margaret Boden, Ian Stewart, and Peter Atkins among the scientists, and several former TW presenters; I can reveal that Maggie Philbin and Kate Bellingham are just as glamorous off-screen as they were on. Some guests turned up a bit late, having been lured away to a rival attraction by some non-scientist at 10 Downing Street, but nonetheless it was a cracking good party.
And perhaps the best thing I heard came from Liz Forgan in her welcoming speech,
that she hoped the day would come when science has become so much a part of the
nation's culture that the idea of a science week seems not only unnecessary but