BIMS display at Cheltenham science fair

To see all the photos from this event please see here

On a cloudy and rainy Saturday at 4 o’clock in the morning in early June I found myself driving down the M66 motorway heading for the Cheltenham Science Festival. I had a selection of CDs for the journey which consisted of Nirvana, Guns N’ Roses and Free, had a cup of coffee in the cup holder and was ready for anything the drive could throw at me. As I headed south the rain and drizzle eased and after an enjoyable and painless journey I arrived and met with Luther Jackson in the centre of Cheltenham. Luther had arranged parking for me and guided me to where he had already parked. We were there a bit early so decided to head off to a nearby café for a coffee. We were in Cheltenham to set up a display of meteorites on behalf of the British and Irish Meteorite Society (BIMS) at the Cheltenham Science Festival. This is a prestigious, internationally acclaimed science event that runs for a week every June. Organised to promote all branches of science to people of all ages and attended by some of the world’s greatest scientists it really is quite an event. We were there as part of the family fun weekend and had a small marquee all to ourselves. After meeting with one of the organising team we were shown our marquee and luckily the weather still held up as we unloaded our cars and began to set up our display.

Not a very promising start to the day but it got better as the day went on.

Not a very promising start to the day but it got better as the day went on.

A few days before I had taken delivery of our new BIMS ‘Meteorites’ banner and this was to be the first event that we were going to use it. The banner was three metres long, as was the marquee. What we hadn’t counted on however was the front edge of the roof of the marquee being as low as it was. This meant the banner pretty much blocked the front of the marquee, so that we couldn’t see out and visitors couldn’t see in. Also, visitors would have to duck under it to enter, and so we reluctantly decided that we would not use it and packed it away for next time.

Three metre wide banner that we ended up not being able to use.

Three metre wide banner that we ended up not being able to use.

By 8.30 am we were all set up and at that point the rain started pouring down. Luther and I looked at each other and tried to stay positive as the water cascaded over the edge of the roof and soaked into the cloth floor of our marquee. We kept our fingers crossed that it would clear soon as otherwise we knew we were in for a very long and quiet day as the family fun day event was mostly marquees arranged around a green and people were not going to venture out if the weather stayed like it was.

Luther waiting for our first visitors.

Luther waiting for our first visitors.

UK meteorites featured quite heavily in our display with my normal UK collection pieces that I had brought along, with my Barwell specimen having pride of place. Luther also had a cast of the Ashdon meteorite. The Ashdon meteorite fell on 9th March 1923 in the village of that name in Essex. It was a single stone fall and turned out to be a superb oriented dome-shaped individual that weighed 1.3 kg. The meteorite was acquired by the Natural History Museum in London and a cast was made and given to the Saffron Walden Museum. In 1937 a further cast was made from the Saffron Walden cast by a jewellery and artefact replication company and was given to the local Ashdon Museum for display there. Fast forward to January 2014 when Luther made contact with the cast-making company and found that the original maker of the cast was deceased but that the business was still being run by his son. After tracing the history of these casts Luther found out that the original mould used to make the Ashdon Museum cast was still in the company’s workshop. Luther commissioned a new cast from the mould, after which the mould sadly disintegrated. A new mould was then made from a cast using modern techniques and after a few attempts Luther acquired a cast of the Ashdon meteorite, the first in private hands. More work needs to be done to perfect the process but at Cheltenham we were able to display the prototype cast for the first time. What was amazing was that even from the third generation cast the delicate flowlines could still be seen.

The Ashdon meteorite cast.

The Ashdon meteorite cast.

Luckily after half an hour or so the rain stopped, the clouds parted and the sunshine peeked through, and the weather continued to get better throughout the day. As soon as the sun was out the public began to flock in too. As usual at these events we were soon three and four visitors deep at our display and this continued for most of the day. Banner or no banner it was obvious that we were a display that people wanted to see. We had printed several hundred copies of our basic meteorite information sheet and over the course of the weekend we ran out of them!

It turned out to be a gorgeous day after the unpromising start.

It turned out to be a gorgeous day after the unpromising start.

Young and old, knowledgeable or not, we entertained a constant stream of visitors eager to hold a piece of an asteroid, the Moon or Mars. As usual we ran a competition to ‘Guess the weight of the meteorite’, this time using a nice Gebel Kamil specimen from Luther’s collection. Unlike previous events, this time we had a donations box with visitors free to donate a few coins if they wished. This was not compulsory by any means and people could still enter the competition without donating. The competition attracted lots of attention and in the end we had nearly 300 entries and raised a few pounds for the BIMS accounts to help enable us to attend events like this in the future. One of the first entries was from a gentleman who took a long time weighing up the Gebel specimen in his hand and even returned a few times before finally posting his entry slip. Intrigued by his persistence I chatted to him and it turned out that he was a blacksmith by trade and so was used to expertly handling lumps of iron and was comparing it to pieces of iron he had held in the course of his work.

A blacksmith by trade, this competition entrant took a long time guessing the weight of the meteorite.

A blacksmith by trade, this competition entrant took a long time guessing the weight of the meteorite.

Just before this event I had also completed a poster that I had been working on to showcase the sorts of activities and displays BIMS gets involved in, and it was good to be able to showcase the poster at Cheltenham. We do many outreach displays at similar shows around the country every year and I wanted to produce something that showed off our efforts. The end result was very pleasing and looked good next to the BIMS UK and Irish meteorites poster.

A new poster that i made for the Cheltenham Science Festival showing a bit about what BIMS  does and why.

A new poster that i made for the Cheltenham Science Festival showing a bit about what BIMS does and why.

During the day I spotted Liz Bonnin, presenter of science and technology TV show ‘Bang goes the theory’ and Professor Robert Winston walking past our marquee but I wasn’t able to get out quick enough to grab them. Both had been involved in the festival, giving talks and being on discussion and Q & A panels.

In the afternoon we had a visit from new BIMS member Steve Sutton who had popped along to meet us and see our display. He came with his son Ricky who was as fascinated with meteorites as his dad was. It was great to meet them both and hopefully Steve will be back at a future event to help us out.

New BIMS member Steve Sutton popped by to say hello along with his son.

New BIMS member Steve Sutton popped by to say hello along with his son.

All in all it was a great day and as usual both Luther and I were very hoarse from talking non-stop all day long! I had to get back home that night as I couldn’t stay for the Sunday due to family commitments, so at the end of the day I packed up my meteorites and we shut up the marquee ready for Luther and Graham to man our display the next day.

Would you like to have a hold? ;-)

Would you like to have a hold? 😉

Graham had an early start on the Sunday, which was quite good going as he had been to a music festival the night before! The weather was nice and sunny from the off so I am sure that made it a bit more bearable and setting up was easy on arrival. The crowds began to pour in quicker than on the previous day due to the sunshine, and Graham and Luther were on their feet all day talking space rocks with visitors. They had a visit from Dallas Campbell (Another presenter from ‘Bang goes the theory’) who stayed a while and was fascinated by Graham’s chunk of Murchison. Nothing like the smell of Murchison in the morning! 😉

Dallas taking a close look at some space rocks (photo copyright Luther Jackson)

Dallas taking a close look at some space rocks (photo copyright Luther Jackson)

There were plenty more entries to the competition and again we managed to add some more funds to the BIMS kitty. This was the first time we had attended this prestigious event and we all felt that it was definitely worth it and that we would be back if we were asked. This actually didn’t take long as Luther was approached by one of the organising team on the Sunday afternoon asking if we would be interested in attending next year. They had been watching all the exhibitors and displays and noticed that ours was particularly busy and so offered us a larger marquee for our display in 2015. We gladly accepted and have pencilled it in for next year. BIMS is getting to the stage now where we have to pick and choose the events that we are able to attend. As much as we would love to attend them all, we all have jobs, families and other commitments. Although very enjoyable, these events do take up a lot of time to plan, organise and attend. Hopefully these displays spread the word about the intriguing world of meteorites and as well as nurturing the fascination with all things space-related in children and adults they will also bring potential new members to BIMS in the future.

A few weeks after this event I was approached by the organiser of another show called ‘Cosmic-Con’ which was hoping to be a UK version of  America’s ‘Spacefest’. There will be talks and Q & A panels with Apollo astronauts. There will also be autograph sessions and book signings, and many other attractions. It looks like an excellent event and one that we would have loved to attend. However unfortunately it was exactly the same weekend in June 2015 as the Cheltenham Science festival so after much deliberation we sadly had to pass. Hopefully the dates won’t clash in 2016 and we will be able to attend this event too.  More active members joining BIMS will hopefully mean that we won’t have to pass on other events and we can keep the ball rolling in order to carry on promoting meteorites and the history, stories and science behind them at more events around the country. ** Update – We will now be attending the Cosmic Con event in 2015 **

After pulling out a few winners who, after repeated tries,  we were unable to contact, we were finally able to pull out a competition winner who answered the phone. And the winner we picked out was………………………………………. James Chambers. Congratulations James! When Graham spoke to James’ dad, he said that James was so excited when being given the news that he ran around the house shouting and screaming. It also transpired that James’ elder brother who was 13 was actually the one more interested in astronomy, and so to avoid disappointing him, Graham, Luther and I decided to send a few extras along with James’ prize of an unclassified North-West African (NWA) meteorite. Between us we sent another NWA stone, a couple of small Campo del Cielo specimens with information cards and a book. Hopefully their infectious excitement and fascination with meteorites will remain and their knowledge will steadily grow over the years. Who knows, they may well be future meteoriticists! If our hard work and effort in promoting the study of meteorites can make a young lad shout and scream with excitement then our job is done and we can have a sense of satisfaction that it’s been worthwhile. Results like that certainly put a huge smile on my face and always make me come back for more!  🙂

Luther has put together another excellent video of the event which is shown below 🙂

To see all the photos from this event please see here