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Editor-at-large Jeremy Smith

Oxford Literary Festival: Day Six

Find out how Jeremy Smith got on during the sixth day of Oxford Lit Fest - one of our official partners
Financial Times Weekend Oxford Literary Festival

"If you have 15 minutes to spare, there are worse ways to idle away this small fraction of your life."

During a talk witnessed between mouthfuls of M&S sandwiches and freshly brewed cappuccino, about 150 people wrapped up for the worst in wax jackets, scarves and pull-on waterproofs listened intently to a 15-minute presentation that may have included one or all of the following terms - Alpha particle, atom, atomic number, Beta particle, electron, fission, gamma ray, ion, isotope, neutrino, neutron, nucleus, photon, proton, radioactivity, meltdown, breed, chain reaction, critical mass, decay, Deuterium, element, giga, half-life, heavy water, Plutonium, Radium, stable, Uranium, fast-breeder, anti-matter...

And I believe there might have been others but I wasn't fast enough to write them down.

To be honest, 98 per cent of the talk's 900 seconds went straight over my head, but that didn't matter; I wasn't there to learn but to participate.

And that I did, along with everyone else, huddling to get out of the chilly drafts as one of the festival's most endearing events rolled out its quarter hour of learned exposition.





But that's really not the point as Professor Frank Close held proudly aloft a bunch of white and red grapes, presumably just been bought in Tesco, in his effort to simplify the wonders of the universe.

And according to the Lit Fest's bible-thick brochure, he was attempting to explain how 'nuclear physics has progressed since the discovery of the electron at the end of the 19th century and show how it brings the physics of the stars down to Earth...'.

I guess he probably did do that too, although I couldn't understand it and I don't think many in the audience did either (although I may be wrong - this is Oxford after all).

But it's frankly irrelevant since: the talk was free, it never was intended as a serious scholar's guide to nuclear fusion and its everyday applications, and this was just one of the very many brilliant "Very Short Introductions..." organised by bookseller Blackwell's and staged regularly throughout every day of the festival in their marquee beside the Bodleian, on a myriad of complex, weird, strange and seemingly obvious topics.

A firm favourite now with festival goers, these 'orange box' presentations are in many ways the jewel in the crown of the nine-day long event.

If you have 15 minutes to spare, there are, trust me, worse ways to idle away this very, very small fraction of your life.

Plus, best of all, they are specifically designed to be inclusive, graspable and easy on the brain.

I love them and always have, and by the looks on the faces of those who were clearly still wondering what grapes had to do with anything, I'd say it was pretty much a crowd pleaser.

- Jeremy Smith


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