ATOM: How it all began

Note about this blog. James White, ATOM Honorary President, was one of the founders of ATOM, and wrote this piece in April 2020 as part of a series of posts about ATOM - and memories from those involved in its setup - from some of those who founded the Festival seven years ago.


With its cancellation, we're publishing it now as part of an occasional series of posts whilst we reschedule events and plan future festivals. James was also interviewed as part of the Stories from Science 'podcast episode "Can A Science Festival Change the World".

Shortly after I retired my wife and I moved to Abingdon in 2008 and I was invited to become Chairman of a newly formed organisation called The Choose Abingdon Partnership (or ChAP for short). The membership was composed of representatives from the County Council. the Vale, and the Town Council as well as local businesses and community groups. I had had a career in business before moving but did not know Abingdon. This, I was told, would be a useful qualification because it meant that I could approach the role with an open mind.


The primary purpose of ChAP was to boost the town’s profile and enhance economic development. During my three year stint as Chairman a number of initiatives were undertaken including the establishment of new markets and fairs, but one of the main innovations was the creation of the ATOM Festival of Science and Technology. We felt that the town was in a unique position to do this because of it’s close proximity to the Rutherford Appleton Laboratories, the Culham Science Centre, Oxford University and the many high tech businesses in the region. I was a little surprised that something of this nature had not been done before but was delighted that the ChAP Board agreed that the idea should be pursued.


I had earlier visited the Cheltenham Science Festival and my initial ideas were inspired by what I saw there. I envisaged marquees in Abbey Meadows and car parking over the river on Rye Meadows with a ferry service to bring visitors over to the Festival site.  However, it was not long before these ideas were dropped for three reasons. Firstly the cost of marquee hire, secondly the pure logistics of getting everything needed on to the Abbey Meadows site and thirdly, and most significantly, the realisation that many suitable venues already existed within the town. These includes the excellent theatres at Abingdon School and St Helen and St Katharine, the Guildhall rooms and the Market Square.


I began by contacting various people within the organisations mentioned above to sound them out on the basic idea to see if they would support it. I then wrote a proposal to the ChAP Board which was approved. I was about to step down from my three year term as the chairman so was asked to then take up role of organising a science festival. This I was very happy to do.


I invited some members of the ChAP Board to join me on a working party to get things underway. These included my successor as ChAP Chairman, Bryan Brown and Iain Littlejohn, then a Town Councillor. Quite quickly other people were  invited to join the working party among them Professor Frank Close OBE and Alfons Weber both from the University, and Kasia Lewis from OIBC.


The name ATOM was selected not, as some have speculated, because the letters formed an acronym but simply because it sounded right for our location and it had both simplicity and clarity (Professor Close has written more about 'what's in a name' here). A local  design agency helped us by designing the logo which has worked well and is still used today.


Jim Al-Khalili at the inaugural ATOM Festival

The first ATOM Festival was in March 2014 and we were able to attract some star speakers. These included Jim Al-KhaliliJocelyn Bell-Burnell and Robin Ince. Most of the talks took place in the Amey theatre but some were held in the Guildhall and local hotels. The Market Square was filled with stalls arranged by University departments, local and national organisations all of which offered hands-on experiences with a particular appeal for children.


This first ATOM Festival proved to be popular so the 2015 festival followed a broadly similar pattern,  but with a larger programme and more star speakers. However, for the 2016 festival we tried a different approach.


Since the beginning we had had links with the Oxford Science Festival and at this time they had acquired a full time professional programme director and a coordinator. It seemed logical to put the two festivals together and create a new festival for Oxfordshire within which ATOM would retain it’s identity. Four members of the ATOM committee joined the board of trustees and the 2016 festival scheduled events in both Oxford and Abingdon, all organised by the new professional team in Oxford.


Unfortunately for various reasons the arrangement did not work out too well so ATOM withdrew from the partnershjp and was restructured as a completely independent organisation. Charitable status was obtained and several new members joined the committee. These included Jeremy Thomas, the coordinator of the Abingdon Science Partnership, Jenny Hughes, founder and Chief executive of Bright Sparks, and Mark Thornton, then the proprietor of Mostly Books. We also recruited Heather Brown who had been the Secretary of ChAP during my time as chairman, as the ATOM Festival Coordinator.


From this point on ATOM grew in scope and popularity and gained recognition both regionally and nationally. The list of sponsors expanded and new initiatives were introduced. One of these was the Family Science Fair held on the last Sunday of the Festival in the wonderful Yang Laboratory buildings of Abingdon School. 


One other feature of ATOM I should mention is the ATOM Society. This meets monthly and organises talks by scientists on a wide range of topics. The Society has very strong links with the Festival but is independent with it’s own committee, some of whom are also members of the Festival committee. Funding is through membership subscription.


After the 2018 Festival I decided that it was time for me to step aside from the chair and was delighted to hand the baton over to Mark Thornton. I was invited to become the Hon President and was honoured to accept the position. The 2019 Festival was the first one under Mark’s chairmanship and it proved to be popular and introduced several new features including a science comedy evening.


Sadly the 2020 ATOM Festival had to be cancelled due to the coronavirus but I am confident that it will return in 2021 and that it will continue to be a significant feature of the Abingdon cultural calendar for many years to come. 

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