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Birkbeck academic joins line-up for new Science Fair at Glastonbury Festival

Professor Gilly Forrester’s Leverhulme-funded project on great apes will feature in the new Science Futures area which will look at the role of science in identifying environmental and societal issues, and the scientists working to find solutions.

Professor Gilly Forrester showing her research

One of the stalls within the new science area at this year’s Glastonbury Festival (22-26 June) will invite festival-goers to take part in The Great Ape Challenge, a fascinating look into how language makes humans different to animals, part of a Leverhulme-funded research project being led by Birkbeck’s Gilly Forrester, Professor of Evolutionary & Developmental Psychology. 

The ‘Science Futures’ area at Glastonbury has been introduced to consider the crucial role science plays in identifying environmental and societal issues, and the scientists working to find solutions. The area features science-themed stalls, installations and performances to create a relaxed and engaging atmosphere in which visitors can find out about the scientific evidence behind headlines and discover how different areas of research are coming together to secure a brighter future for all life on Earth. 

Professor Forrester said, “I am delighted to have been asked to present my research at Glastonbury and to be part of the effort to bring science to the mainstream. I will be doing a few different science engagement activities including an interactive Soapbox Short on the Laboratory Stage, making contributions to the ‘Ask a Scientist’ moderated panel, and running a science engagement stall in the Science Futures area that will feature my Leverhulme funded research project.  

The Soapbox Short will look at the two sides of the brain with an interactive talk that follows the evolutionary journey of the human brain and allows the public to take part in assembling a vertebrate tree of life, essentially looking at how ancient vertebrate brain traits still underpin some of our most human unique behaviours. 

Professor Anna Vignoles, Director of the Leverhulme Trust, commented, “The Trust is extremely proud to have funded this exciting research and I am sure that the science will be fascinating to a very wide audience; taking it to Glastonbury is a fabulous thing to do.” 

The Great Ape Challenge at Glastonbury will provide an interactive experience for festival-goers with the use of puzzles, developed by Professor Forrester, that mimic language structure and can be manipulated by all great apes (including humans) to test a unique theory about how human speech emerged over evolutionary time and develops in modern human children. Experiments with these same puzzle boxes have been taking place across the UK with chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans and humans looking at how different ape species use their hands to solve problems.  

Professor Forrester has made it her mission to better understand how humans became the upright walking, talking, tool-using great apes that they are today – both through the evolution of the species and though the development of infants. She studies the behaviours of humans and other animal species and is dedicated to science engagement, founding the Me, Human project in 2019. Dr Trudi Edginton, Head of Department for Psychology from City, University of London and one of the Me, Human core team members, will join Professor Forrester on the Glastonbury science stall. 

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