Peter Grist reports from Scifest 2018 in Grahamstown. Image: Hennie Marais

As is quite usual the first day of Scifest usually tends to be on a bit on the quiet side as full numbers of schools and visitors have yet to arrive however numbers improved as the afternoon wore on evident from increased crowd numbers of both teachers and students clustered around the tables holding the exhibits and piles of pamphlets.

South Africa’s Science Festival Scifest is celebrating its 22nd anniversary and is programmed to run from the 7th-13th of March taking place in its hometown of Grahamstown. Scifest was established by the Grahamstown Foundation in 1996 to promote and advance public awareness of science, technology, innovation and to keep in touch with the rapidly developing and changing world of our times. With this in mind, the Scifest theme for 2018 is to be called “Innovation 4.0” with reference to the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution which is universally known to mean and refer to the quite incredible advancements made in science, space, medicine, robotics and artificial intelligence.


With this in mind, the 2018 Scifest organisers said that they were encouraging all participating organisations to think artificial intelligence, 3D printing, nanotechnology and digital quantum computing. Quite a mouthful but in reality, this is where we are in today’s world. Quite scary really and one can only but wonder where this is all going to take us!

Well as bad luck will always pop up in the most embarrassing circumstances there was a power outage followed by a power surge which as luck would have it, took out the three generators of 1820 National Settlers Monument blowing three capacitors. This sadly meant the first lecture of Scifest could not be properly presented which was indeed, a great shame as it would have been of most interest being about South Africa’s base in Antarctica presented by Danielle Taljaard, Antarctica engineer with SANNAP (South African National Antarctic Programme). In view of the power outage, the lecture ended up being a question and answer event held in semi-darkness. Nevertheless, the talk did not turn out to be a complete disaster as we heard a great deal about 15 months of life in Antarctica on the South African base 3 months of which, is in complete darkness as the winter sets in. Danielle mentioned that there were no less than 45 year-round research stations scattered around the icy and cold continent with 30 additional field camps active only during the Antarctica summer periods.

For the three months of the winter period when the sun never rises above the horizon the Aurora’s with the flashing shimmering changing light is quite something to behold and one of the wonders to enjoy on the devilishly cold winter days (can reach -26 degrees) and nights. In all, just nine members of the team are left in the camp over the winter period the camp being supplied with enough food and materials by the South African Antarctic supply vessel 120 miles back from the camp on the ice shelf and transported to the camp by the ship’s helicopter

The second presentation on the first day was by Professor Henrietta de Kock and titled “Some live to eat..others eat to live; who cares most about the taste of food.” This talk was also carried out with minimum portable light and consequently lacked full slide back-up.

As I been requested to chair the talk I was unable to take notes and can only partially refer to the programme. “The sensory quality of food relates to the look, smell, taste, feel and sound of products and plays a huge role in the daily lives of consumers.”

Henrietta had brought with her from Pretoria packets of what appeared to be lollipops  but what turned out to be a selection of novel sweets containing different flavours with a glow stick lollipop.

All this caused a great deal of amusement fun and interest amongst what now became audience participation. Prof. de Kock is an Associate Professor at the University of Pretoria and is involved in the development of future food science.

In 2016 she was recognised as a distinguished woman scientist by the Ministry of Science and Technology for her outstanding contribution to research and innovation leading to socio-economic impact and woman empowerment.

Day 2 at Scifest

Amongst the many interesting presentations talks, talk shows, exhibitions perhaps there is one that in a way stands out bringing in the ‘Wow “faction. This is the stuff of science fiction, Star Wars, the worlds of Jules Verne, H G Wells and Superman comic books. Lasers, death rays stuff. What is it? It is VR Virtual Reality!

This relatively new invention for lack of a better word, is indeed the stuff of science fiction; in reality! Put on the head set, hold a pair of palm sized controls in each hand attached to high powered computer with a special component, hard ware, and the individual concerned could take himself or herself to anywhere in the world, back to meet the dinosaurs or even meet E2. Alternatively, take a class of school children to view the pyramids in Egypt or even a voyage to Jupiter and its moons and then perhaps travel on a moon shot! This all sounds too incredible to believe and in reality, to the average mind, it is. Yes folks, technology has now advanced so far that we can now live in the Virtual world. Scary yes, I personal believe so.

VR is still in infancy, still evolving and there seems to be no end to what can be done with this magical, creative, wonderous creative, make believe magical world. Facebook’s Mark Litterbug has not only taken an interest in VR but also bought a 50% interest in the company which is at the forefront of developing the device. Andy Mathis Director of business studies of Oculus the company making and producing the hardware, head set and hand-held controls and in conjunction with Facebook and others, the Apps to take one literally anywhere and everywhere beyond one’s wildest dreams.

Andy is bubbling with enthusiasm over his company’s product explaining the myriads of uses the device can be used for such as a teaching tool or designers tool or even a composer’s tool. Others can take themselves to strange worlds or visit futuristic cities and towns. Infact, do,  or go and do  just about anything imaginable In this virtual world and even out of this world!

So, what now and were does this rapidly moving world of ours in innovation, technology, science, AI (Artificial Intelligence), Robotics, VR, algorithms lead us to? What and where is our world going? Who knows who can hazard a guess it is all moving ahead at frightening pace.

Perhaps not too long in the future we will have robots with AI ability dealing with us in a Virtual world far removed from the world that we all knows today.    VR undoubtedly will have its uses in teaching modules, design and construction of just about anything one can think of from for example virtual refrigerators to virtual rockets, aircraft and ships that can travel at enormous speeds in absolute comfort, Improved housing and, more productive land use and better nutritious foods and so on. The apps that are already there and will be developed in the future will take people to places beyond their dreams or to places so scary that those who entered them had wished that they had not done so! VR it is argued is just a natural development another example of progress in innovation a useful new tool  a natural progression as we have seen in science and technology since time immemorial.

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