EDINBURGH — "Scientists put very little emphasis on communication," says Simon Gage, director of the Edinburgh International Science Festival. "Which is odd, since it is an area where communication is essential, even at a professional level."
A trained research scientist, Mr. Gage is now more a communicator than a scientist. Communicating the fascination of science to a wider public appears to be a passion for this soft-spoken young man - though inevitably he has become, as director, more a fund-raiser than anything else.
Started in 1989, the annual festival has always been heavily subsidized by the Scottish capital itself (with whatever sponsorship it can attract). It is not expensive to attend: for every 1 ($1.60) spent by a visitor, the subsidy is 5. It runs, Gage says, "on a starvation diet."
The idea for the festival came from the City of Edinburgh Council, partly as an answer to the fact that Edinburgh's renowned International Arts Festival (this August celebrating its 50th birthday) ignored the many scientists who live and work here. Its scale is still much smaller than that of its arts sibling. And although it has grown into a highly popular attempt to enliven interest in science, it is still far from being as "international" as its name implies.
Part of its appeal, Gage is sure, is that "it's not intimidating at all." Even if he were to have such an influx of money that he could do everything he wants, he would not change the low-tech, human, accessible character of the festival. He criticizes some institutions that spend millions on displays so they can dispense with human beings (and their wages).
Although aimed at those who know little about science, the festival does attract a small number of leading scientists. This year, for example, one of the guest speakers is Joseph Rotblat, a 1995 Nobel Peace Prize winner who worked on the Manhattan project to develop the atomic bomb, but since 1944 has supported nuclear disarmament. These well-known researchers in turn attract some of their associates and a "few young scientists who admire their work and ask them serious questions."
This fair was first on an increasing list of science festivals across the globe - in Sweden, Canada, South Africa, Australia, and India. Like Edinburgh, Gage says, they tend also to favor "small cheap bits of kit" as their equipment.
And interest in the idea continues, with people who think of starting science festivals coming to study Edinburgh's example. Gage says, "This year two people have turned up independently from Munich, and three Maltese people are upstairs gathering skills. A guy from Israel is turning up tomorrow."