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Science communication along the garden path

Science communication along the garden path

Starburst Fountain by William Pye, Alnwick Castle Gardens. Photo (C) afmaxwell.” src=”×300.jpg” alt=”Starburst fountain by William Pye, Alnwick Castle Garden; photo credit, afmaxwell” width=”225″ height=”300″>I’m a lapsed scientist, so it’s no great surprise that I find science at every turn. However, I was pleasantly surprised to realize on a recent trip to the United Kingdom that science communication is also all around us, even as part of something as innocuous as visiting a garden. Even though I could only gaze at Alnwick Castle in the distance, the castle garden was fully open, warmed by an unseasonal blaze of sunshine and backlit by glorious blue skies. I quickly realized that this wasn’t just a walk in a park; science communication popped right out from the shrubbery.

…okay, yes—it is difficult to switch off as a writer. There’s always inspiration for another story just around a corner, even on holiday.

photo credit: afmaxwell

The Poison Garden

Alnwick Castle has had its Poison Garden since 2005, and with appropriate Home Office licensing, it contains enough herbaceous material to kill off a small army. Letting myself in through the iron gates was like going back in time to veterinary toxicology lessons, where recognizing the plant and what it could do was often the only thing standing between the survival or death of a patient. Since graduating, I’ve met only a few people who can wax on about oenanthotoxin or discuss why it’s best not to dig over drainage ditches adjacent to cattle fields, so stepping into an entire garden with guides devoted to the topic was like stepping back in time and career.

The garden’s creator, the Duchess of Northumberland, describes her focus on the garden’s website. And her description fits right in with the Hogwarts vibe, as an echo of apothecary gardens of yore and as an educational project for modern times:

“I wondered why so many gardens around the world focused on the healing power of plants rather than their ability to kill…I felt that most children I knew would be more interested in hearing how a plant killed, how long it would take you to die if you ate it and how gruesome and painful the death might be.”

All the plants in the Poison Garden’s beds are toxic, serving as an excellent reminder that natural is not always good for you; labels contain a skull and crossbones alongside the usual markers identifying plants by their Latin and common names. Notes on the plants’ medicinal and other more sinister uses sit nearby. Garden guides warn visitors not to sniff, touch or taste the shrubbery. Seeing the plants in glorious 3-D and hearing about their medicinal powers in real life makes much more practical sense than reading about them on a computer screen or in a botany book.

Be aware of your companion taking an unusual interest in the beds; maybe they are plotting something unsavoury…

hellebore crop


Torricelli Fountain at Alnwick Castle Gardens. Photo (C) afmaxwell” src=”×300.jpg” alt=”IMG_20160314_141659″ width=”225″ height=”300″>The Serpent Garden

The Serpent Garden is a much less dangerous experience of science, although the potential for a soaking is real. The threat takes the form of a low holly hedge winding around the lower slopes of the formal garden. Within the serpent coils lie eight intriguing water fountains, each one featuring polished stainless steel forms with water playing over the surfaces.

I may have missed the magic up at the castle with Luna Lovegood’s thestrals or even a unicorn or two, but I did spy the ethereal rainbows forming in the mists of the Serpent Garden’s fountains. But that’s not the only magic.

What seems at first an amusing water park where kids and adults can dip their fingers to disrupt the flow soon reveals itself as physics in action. Polished signs mirror the metallic fountains, explaining to visitors how the hydrostatics at work form the water movement in front of them.

At the centre of the serpent lies the Torricelli fountain. Special pavers surround the water sprays so that kids and adults can dart in among the declining jets safely without slipping.

While they play, they can experience the wonders of Torricelli’s theorem of fluid dynamicsTorricelli equation
So much simpler when you watch the fountain jets decline in height as the column of water drops in the central feeder reservoir.

Sculptor William Pye, who has an ongoing fascination with the science of water movement, created eight mirror-polished stainless steel fountains for the garden. Each one shows a different way that the environment affects how fluids behave, with signage explaining to the visitor why the fountain looks the way it does. If you’re a casual lay observer in the field, it’s far easier to understand fluid dynamics concepts such as meniscus, surface tension and vortex by observing in real life than by reading dry and dusty textbooks.

Coanda fountain at Alnwick Castle Gardens. Photo credit: afmaxwell” src=”×125.jpg” alt=”coanda” width=”601″ height=”250″>

Although most of the fluid dynamics theory washes over the numerous under-fives running around in the water spray, I’m sure that this early exposure to science communication in action stays with them into later life. It’s also not lost on the appreciative adult supervisors when they manage to grab a few seconds’ quiet reflection or seize a teaching opportunity on the fly.

After all, perhaps the best science communication happens when you least expect it?


Check out the Talk Science to Me portfolio for more examples of science communication in action.

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