Monday 6 April 2015

EasterCon Monday

Final mushroom-soaked breakfast, final day at this year’s EasterCon.

First up, a panel on Faeries: The not-so-nice creatures at the bottom of the garden.  In particular, fairies were originally quite nasty, but “tweeification” (it’s a word now!) has made them smaller and somehow less threatening.  Or is it the fae themselves corrupting out image of them, so they can get closer?  Is it them persuading us to replace iron with plastic?  Barrie knew a lot of historical folklore: he had Tinkerbelle as a murderous little thing, and Disney kept a lot of that.  But the fair folk are not evil as such: they just have a completely different moral code, incomprehensible to us, which they stick to rigorously.  This makes them hard to deal with.  “I wish the goblins would take my baby brother.”  So why do you get so upset when the goblins help you out by fulfilling your wish?

This year’s George Hay Memorial Lecture, To the stars and beyond – making the most of what we have, was presented by Anna Croft, on green chemistry.  “Chemistry: the science of things that are taken for granted.”  We will have limited resources on other worlds, and will have to make the most of what we have.  We are starting to do that now.  Fossil fuels are the basis of a $3tn chemical industry, irrespective of the fuel economy.  We need to replace volatile organic solvents.  There is a lot of interesting progress with using carbon dioxide in its supercritical phase, where it has both liquid properties of a solvent and gas properties so it can permeate into small spaces; it leaves no toxic residues and is recyclable.  The other big advance is ionic liquid solvents.  These are non-volatile, non-flammable, and there are over a million different types, compared to ~200 organic solvents. Some are switchable, between miscible and non-miscible forms, so no distillation is required. Then there’s 3D printing with dissolved Yak wool keratin…

We ended on a high note: a panel called Not For The Squeamish.  It wasn’t for the squeamish. Dr Bob talked about her work watching dead animals rot for a living, taking living things and turning them into fossils; the smell of rotting squid can’t be removed from glassware, even after an industrial acid dishwash.  Necrotising fasciitis smells very bad.  “Gangrene has a very distinctive smell and taste: I’ve tasted my own gangrene.”  “You win!”  Seanan McGuire (in her Mira Grant persona) just wanted to listen to doctors talk about dead stuff.  Nevertheless, she told us about the “six perfect poopers” in the US: they have never had a course of antibiotics or gastric infection, and they are vegan (so have never eaten antibiotics in meat), a great source for fecal transplants.  They want to sample the Amish, who eat meat, but without antibiotics.  A slightly less squicky factoid: archaeologists fall into two groups when they find unexpected bodies: they either faint or run away; or go oooh! and steal the skulls.

So, another great EasterCon ends.  Time to check out and drive home.  The hotel was straightforward to find; escape was not so easy.  I took a wrong turn, and was inexorably funneled into Heathrow’s short stay car park.  However, once exited from that maze, the route was straightforward, and the M25 less clogged than on Friday.  Next year, Manchester.

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