Boffins (Geeks, Freaks & Eggheads)

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We’re looking forward to hearing from Quentin Cooper at the upcoming Family Show as he explores “why it is that for all they’ve done to radically change the world we live in, the popular image of scientists has hardly changed at all”. There are many scientist stereotypes; people that wear socks with their sandals, adults who can’t quite look you in the eye as they speak, brains the size of planets that are unable to function at the basic level needed to boil an egg, and so on.

But we have to be careful what we say here in Malvern because the town has an unusually high concentration of scientists for a rural settlement without a university. And it turns out that the word Boffin may well have originated from here!

If you check the Oxford English Dictionary, the derivation of the word is unknown but came into use around the time of the Second World War.  An example given is “the boffins at the Telecommunications Research Establishment” which is now the QinetiQ site in Great Malvern.  Consult Wikipedia and there is a citation of a pre-war use of the word; by J.R.R. Tolkien as a surname in The Hobbit.  Interestingly, Tolkien was a frequent visitor to Malvern, travelling up to the town from Oxford with fellow author C.S. Lewis. It is said that Middle Earth and The Shire were inspired by his walks on the Malvern Hills, just as the Victorian gas lamps that still operate today in and around Malvern inspired the opening scene in The Lion, The Witch and Wardrobe.

Quentin refers to boffins as Geeks, Freaks and Eggheads in the title of his talk. Another common term in modern parlance is Nerd. Consult Roget’s Thesaurus, and it also includes more complimentary terms such as Scientist, Technologist, Scholar, Expert, and Savant. Peter Roget published his collection of words well before the second world war in 1852, so in that first edition Boffin would not have been included. However, I think you might arguably now refer to Roget as a Boffin.  Roget died in 1869 and happens to be buried in West Malvern, so he remains in good company!

Adrian Burden, Festival Founder

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Calm before the storm

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As we approach the third annual edition of the Malvern Festival of Innovation, anyone who has organised an event will know that there is a nagging worry that no one will turn up. Today there are so many trade shows, public events and schools activities that standing out from the crowd is not easy. And since the Festival was founded in Great Malvern, we have noticed a growing number of innovation festivals vying for attention.

But we have something that we believe others lack; a simply stunning location in the heart of the United Kingdom where innovation has been a key part of the local culture and heritage for hundreds of years. The Malvern Hills must have inspired creative thought, technical inventiveness, and entrepreneurial opportunity since humans first stumbled upon them.

The iPhone may have been designed in Silicon Valley, but the liquid crystal display chemistry came from Malvern, as in fact did the architecture of an Integrated Circuit, and the approach of using a capacitive touch screen to access content. Scientists in the defence research facility in Malvern were also responsible for Radar, passive infra-red detectors that now protect homes from intruders, and numerous other technical wonders; many of which remain esoteric or top secret! Today we are a recognised national hub for cyber security.

But innovation is not just about science and technology. Innovation must include new ways of creating business, new approaches to teaching, and creative novel ways of improving health. Malvern has seen plenty of this innovation too; England’s oldest preparatory school, The Elms School, was established at the foot of the Malvern Hills and still educates today.  This development paved the way for a new way to teach school-aged children and is a sector that remains very strong in Malvern today. Malvern’s water is believed to be the first in the world to have been bottled commercially, and has since been drunk by royalty and continues to be bottled today from the original source.  This spring water also played a key role in Victorian health with the renowned water cure that went on to establish Malvern as a key tourist destination for those wishing to escape city pollution and have a breath of fresh air. Today about one and quarter million people visit the Malverns each year!

Thankfully there is plenty of fresh air in Malvern. We are currently taking deep breaths of it ahead of what will be a busy few weeks leading up to the next edition of the Festival. Luckily we know from past experience that plenty of people will turn up. But it would be super if you were one of them – see you there!

 Adrian Burden, Festival Founder