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Camp Energy at Cheltenham

The Survival of the Physicists

Jennifer Rohn 24 June 2006

Small footprints: two physicists (in green) speaking to festival-goers

Physics has a bit of an image problem; people think it doesn’t apply to everyday

Four campers slave over their equipment, sweating and trying to eke out a living in the blazing sunshine. Heat distorts the air and shimmers off the ground, tent nylon flaps in the stiff breeze, a meager supper bubbles on the makeshift cooker. The campers are dirty and hungry, and at high noon, it’s already been a long day.

Welcome to Camp Energy. The four campers – Michelle Cain, Anthea Cain, Andrea Taroni and Tom Whyntie – are British physics students, and they’re participating in an experiment (“Survival of the Physicists”) to exist for the five-day duration of the Cheltenham Science Festival using only energy that they have generated themselves.

The camp is nestled on the luxuriously green lawn next to the Town Hall building in Cheltenham Spa, an affluent town in the heart of Gloustershire UK, but the temptations of the building, its hot showers and power grid, are strictly off-limits. They can’t even power up the camp laptop they need to write their obligatory daily blog unless the electricity is self-generated. And as for food, they have to buy locally-grown, organic produce.

As if survival weren’t enough, the students have also been given daily science challenges to complete: to build a green radio; to make bio-diesel out of organic rape-seed oil; to beef up their electricity reserves by peddling on a stationary bicycle. One day when I check on their progress, there is a jaunty solar-powered fountain burbling away in a plastic tub on the grass; another day, the campers are wowing the crowd with their hot bath, fashioned from an old tub plumbed into a radiator heated by politically-correct charcoal and conducted by gravity (the water was 50 degrees Celsius when I was there, far too hot for bathing).

And oh yes, and they have to field questions from people of all ages as they wander through the camp ogling at everything. Just after England beats Paraguay in the World Cup, three amiable, drunken football fans attempt to flirt with two of the female physicists, who resolutely ignore their advances, keeping their attention on their solar-powered soldering iron. Eventually, Cheltenham’s finest have to move them along.

Fuelling the discussion Michelle Cain explains homemade biodiesel

“How long did it take to boil that egg?” I ask Michelle, after inspecting the massive ovens made out of bricks and tin foil and accidentally burning my finger on the pan.

“About an hour,” she confesses.

It’s not all MacGyver here at Camp Energy: the students have ‘GEM’ (the Green Energy Machine) at their disposal, a small van donated by the UK’s National Energy Foundation sporting a massive 350-watt wind turbine and an 850-watt photovoltaic array on its roof – and it’s been windy and sunny all week. Still, even the GEM takes forty-five minutes to make a cup of tea, and the students look tired and sunburned as they carry out their tasks.

The project was conceived by the Institute of Physics as a way to help the general public conceptualize the issue of ‘personal carbon footprints’. With such a graphic demonstration of how difficult it is to generate each watt, the project was bound to make the spectators think twice about the little ways they waste energy every day and new technology they might consider fitting into their own homes. Caitlin Watson, Project Manager at the IOP, said: “Physics has a bit of an image problem; people think it doesn’t apply to everyday life. We were hoping to change that impression.”

The water's fine Gravity draws cold water into a radiator heated by coppiced charcoal and fed into the bath.

When the camp disbanded at the end of the Festival, a briefing was held in the Town Hall. Quentin Cooper, the BBC Radio 4 presenter once described by Times as "the world's most enthusiastic man", quizzed the physicists ("So I presume cannibalism was out?") and moderated questions from the audience. The students got the most flack about their charcoal use: none of us seemed convinced that using pre-burnt wood could truly be considered green, even if it was effectively carbon neutral because the coppiced trees could be replaced.

Cooper asked each what the hardest part of the experience had been, and whether any of them had cheated. One woman said she nearly “died of hay fever” on the first day, and all complained of bad sunburns, as no green sun-block had been available. Two of the women had popped a furtive, non-green ibuprofen. The group also confessed to have enjoyed a pasta meal using off-limits ingredients. And all four had snuck at least one hot shower in the Town Hall, as it took all day for their solar showers to warm up and they couldn’t face a cold soak first thing.

But had the experience changed them? Anthea said she felt guilty going into the Town Hall to fetch cold water because she could sense all that fluorescent light burning down and wasting wattage. Michelle, who is already quite green because she lives on a houseboat with minimal electricity, is going to install a solar shower. Tom said he was feeling guilty about his upcoming stint at CERN, where its particle accelerators use an astonishing amount of energy. And all, who before hadn’t a clue how much energy various things used up, are now intimately aware of their own carbon footprints.

As Andrea wrote in her final blog entry: “All of this stuff we have been doing, give or take solar panels, involves basic physics and technology that our ancestors knew well. Whilst we have achieved incredible technological knowledge, we have perhaps lost touch with some wise old ways that have in the past been passed on from one generation to the next. We waste so much. I can’t help feeling that it is rampant consumerism that is fundamentally at odds with keeping our planet in ecological equilibrium.”