Making magic and mess at Edinburgh Science Festival

Lonely Planet Pathfinder Abigail King ( recently spent a weekend exploring one of Edinburgh’s many festivals. Here are her highlights, plus a few opinions from the mini attendees!

A young girl and adult guardian smile at the Edinburgh Science Festival
Isobel is all smiles at Edinburgh Science Festival © Abigail King

‘I wish science had been taught like this when I was at school.’

That’s what we heard time and again as we explored the extravaganza that is the Edinburgh Science Festival. Between exploding lentils and upcycled bracelets, whizzing hot-air balloons and lab-coated children in blood bars and snot-splat factories, boredom didn’t stand a chance.

As six-year-old Lauren said, ‘I like it because there is so much to do.’ With over 270 events held in 29 venues across the city, the biggest challenge was trying to keep up.

Outdoor educational installations at the Science Festival in Edinburgh
These old police shelters taught Abi all about Scottish inventions © Abigail King

1) Step inside a time machine

Once upon a time, these sky-blue boxes provided shelter for Scottish policemen. Now, they’re a refuge for brilliant Scottish ideas. Mixing Doctor Who whimsy with labelled relics, four pop-up booths became scientific time machines perched outdoors in the central Mound Precinct.

Petri dishes lay splattered with fake blood. Portraits and quill pens represented the Enlightenment. And everyday items, tagged with silver scripts, introduced famous Scottish inventions. Who could deny the changes in travel we’ve seen since the development of the steam engine (James Watt), the telephone (Alexander Graham Bell) or the flushing toilet (one Alexander Cumming)?

A child presents a craft made at Edinburgh's Science Festival
Lauren shows off her creation at the the Mini Maker Faire © Abigail King

2) Make things. Lots of things

Imagine, if you will, the biggest craft fair you can. Now imagine you (and the kids) can join in. That’s pretty much the set-up of the Mini-Maker Faire (, a maze of staircases, corridors and courtyards filled with people passionate about both science and the arts.

The upcycling zone saw children make bracelets from old tyres, furniture from plastic bottles and bicycles from bamboo. Elsewhere, academics created polyhedral pottery and enthusiasts fashioned wind chimes in the shape of pleasure-providing neurotransmitters.

The National Museum of Scotland hosts the Edinburgh Science Festival
When in the National Museum of Scotland, remember to look up © Abigail King

3) Enter another world

Hot-air balloons blaze up to the ceiling at the National Museum of Scotland and dinosaurs rattle their bones even when there isn’t a festival in town. But when there is, not an inch of the glassy, light-filled atrium is wasted.

Chubby pre-school hands simulated pixels by playing with coloured blocks, while tweens and teens took coding lessons and strapped on visors to step into a digital virtual world.

A Science Festival smiles at her education stand in Edinburgh
Science whizz Francesca explains chain reactions © Abigail King

4) Concoct a chemical splash

‘Shuffle along, shuffle along!’

The chemical Chain Reactor had no room for dawdlers.

‘That side of the line is ice cream and holidays,’ belted Francesca. ‘This side is homework, gruel and lots and lots of danger.’

And so began the 10-metre-long chain reaction of bubbles, explosions, Brownian motion, melting plastic, fluttering symbols and free-flowing facts about esters, acids and alkalis, all ending in a giant cymbal crash.

A child looks at a brain at Edinburgh Science Festival
Martha inspects a brain up close © Abigail King

5) Look inside a brain

Lisetta dealt cards, dodged flames and read minds. As part of the City Art Centre’s neuroscience project, she told tall tales from history, involving her ‘ex-boyfriend’, and landmark medical case study, Phineas Gage – and the metal rod lodged in his skull.

Magic mirrors and optical illusions explored the possibilities of the mind, while a black magician’s hat revealed slices through a real (non-human) brain.

Wide-eyed Martha stood transfixed by Lisetta’s display. Her favourite part?

‘The one with the number three,’ she told me. ‘Because that’s how old I am.’

Read all about visiting Edinburgh with kids and check out Abi’s round-up of unusual things to do in the Scottish capital.

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