Byron Bay’s “Splendour in the Grass” music festival featured a “science tent” for the first time this year, and I was fortunate enough to be invited to present in it! In exchange for doing two presentations in the science tent over the course of the three day festival, the lucky scientists who were invited to present received free VIP festival tickets, so we could mingle with our 30,000 new BFFs! Having never been to Splendour before, and loving a good shin dig, for me it was a no brainer to accept this offer. The generous folks at UNSW Science kicked in some extra cash to help cover my flights and accommodation when they found out that I was the only person from UNSW who was invited to present (thanks UNSW Science, you rule! side note: UNSW is a great university kids).
The presentation I planned to do was about the work my PhD project has been based on, and I was going to have everyone in the audience play 'the telephone game' to explain how viruses and bacteria can change and evolve as they are transmitted from one person to another. I put together a slide show and collected hilarious tweets from all over the internet that I could use as the messages when we played the game. I packed my gum boots (a festival staple, known to others as wellingtons or rain boots), my party hat, and my bubble gun, and jumped on a flight to Byron Bay, ready to find out how well science and music festivals really go together.
I arrived the night before Splendour officially started, and was shown to my pre-pitched tent, which I discovered was full of water due to heavy rain a day earlier. Not wanting to get wet so early in the piece, I ventured out in to the festival ground to find some dinner and get inebriated enough that I wouldn’t mind sleeping in a wet tent. I found that things were already heaving, despite the fact proceedings hadn’t really kicked off yet, and I quickly discovered a tiki themed karaoke bar, tucked away behind the Happy Kanye. After downing a few ‘Shaka’ cocktails and belting out two of my personal favourite karaoke tunes (‘All that she wants’ by Ace of Base and ‘Pony’ by Ginuwine) I struck up a friendship with the karaoke hosts, Svetlana and Ivanka, to whom I promised that I would be back again (and again) to do some more karaoke during the festival. Rather a lot earlier than most other punters that night, by midnight I decided I was drunk enough to fall asleep in my wet tent, so I stumbled back to get some shut eye.
The next morning, I awoke after a deep and long slumber- it was already midday! How I slept in a cold puddle till midday is still a mystery, but it wasn’t worth dwelling on, as I had a festival to slay. I bounced out of my sleeping bag and headed straight for the Glitoris tent. I had a date with Dylan the glitter fairy. Dylan glittered me good, so good in fact that a photo I posted to my Instagram of the two of us was later picked up by news.com.au as their number 18 ‘wackiest look at Splendour’. I decided my next stop for the day would be to check out the back stage area at the science tent and try to charge my phone. As soon as I arrived at the science tent, I was greeted by a large sign out the front that had the timetable for performances during the festival. I froze when I read my name listed at 11.30am on Friday, as it was currently 1pm on Friday. And I hadn’t done a presentation yet… woops.
There was chaos backstage as the organisers were scrambling to set up props, clear the stage between acts and just generally keep the show running. I quickly realised my earlier no show was probably a welcome break for them, and shamelessly decided I should just own being the ‘science diva’ from now own (this isn’t the first time I’ve not turned up somewhere important I was supposed to be, so I really deserve this name!). Luckily, the Future Crunch team behind the science tent had a way I could make it up to them, and I was mic’d up and sent roaming around the festival with a camera man to administer their “half glass” experiment survey. This consisted of six questions designed to gauge people’s optimism about the future of the world and correlate it with either faith or distrust in science. I had a lot of fun administering the survey and was really surprised by the results (coming soon!). In between science-ing I did some more karaoke and checked out some bands (The XX KILLED it!).
Day two of Science in the Grass saw a much anticipated event- Doctor Karl presenting in the Forum tent. But first- he had to get glittered. Doctor Karl in all his glittery glory packed out the Forum tent and it was a whirlwind of science, but really nothing could compare to what was going to happen later that night. The topic of karaoke had been bought up a few times throughout the day, probably in response to my increasingly husky voice, and it was discovered that my new BFF Doctor Karl was dying to hit the stage himself, and he knew exactly what song he wanted to sing! With only a short amount of time till he was due to be picked up from the festival, we headed to the karaoke tent. Luckily my good friends, Svetlana and Ivanka were on the mic again that night, and when I told them my ‘friend Karl’ wants to sing Doctor Doctor, by Robert Palmer, they obligingly added him to the list. But time was of the essence, so I had to name drop, “Svetlana, do you think we can bump up my friend to next in the list? It’s Doctor Karl, and he is getting picked up in ten minutes.” The universal appeal and admiration of Doctor Karl was immediately evident when Svetlana’s face lit up, and she stammered out “THE Doctor Karl? Of course, he’s up next!” Doctor Karl then proceeded to belt out one of the most enthusiastic and awe inspiring karaoke performances I’ve ever witnessed (and I’ve seen a few). Mumblings in the crowd began to spread “is that Doctor Karl? No, don’t be silly” and by the time the first chorus hit, everyone in the tiki bar was screaming “Doctor doctor, give me the news, I’ve gotta bad case of loving youuuu” and Doctor Karl’s Peter Garret-esque dance moves were so powerful, the whole tiki bar was shaking. If you don’t believe me, check out the video I filmed (which has since gone a little viral on Twitter and in the Australian music media [1, 2])! We saw Queens of the Stone Age later that night, and I’m still not sure if I was more impressed by Josh Homme or Doctor Karl….
The third and final day of the festival had me hitting the stage in the Science tent at 10am to kick the final string of talks off. I have a feeling if my reputation as the ‘science diva’ was better known, I wouldn’t have been scheduled for 10am on the last day, but never the less, I was determined not to miss my final opportunity to talk about my research. Unfortunately, due to copious amounts of karaoke and screaming, my voice was almost totally gone, and after sleeping in a puddle for 3 days, I was generally feeling pretty worse for wear. But I decided to put on my floral playsuit, a sparkly hat, some glitter, and soldier on. Despite a small audience, we had a lot of fun playing the telephone game, with my favourite moment being the butchering of a Tweet from Donald Trump that ended up as “You idiots! My IQ is 100! You’re all idiots!” And that, my friends, is exactly what happens to viruses as they spread through a population of people.
Later that night, someone who was in the audience during my presentation recognised me while I was watching Sigur Ross, and they told me how much they enjoyed my presentation, and how much they learned. So at least one person other than my mum (she watched online on the live Facebook stream) loved the presentation!
Earlier that day, Doctor Karl and I were snapped by a photographer while walking through the festival (unbeknownst to us), and the photo later surfaced in the Daily Mail with the bizarre caption “Colourful printed shirts and t-shirts were the go-to attire for some of the festival-goers.” Clearly they had no idea that Doctor Karl and I both dress like that all the time.
All in all, I had a fantastic experience at Splendour and was genuinely inspired by people's enthusiasm for science and knowledge. I've always believed that if we make science and knowledge accessible to people, they will consume it! I'm now more confident than ever that this is true, and know that the days of science and knowledge being hidden away in libraries and dark lecture theatres is over. It's time for science for the masses!
This blog is written by Dr. Sofia Bartlett; scientist, ocean lover, and curious human being. Her bio can be viewed here.
© Sofia Bartlett and Rogue Transmissions, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited.