Where’s the story? Dumb Chemistry

17 01 2011

Dr Andrea Sella is a chemist at UCL. He is a favourite at the Cheltenham Science Festival and he can also be seen in various TV programmes performing spectacular chemistry demonstrations in the role of the expert.

In addition to being a great chemist Andrea has also spoken eloquently in his blog about one of the three evaluation criteria that I apply to all my shows and those that I watch: where’s the story?

Have you ever seen a show that combined lots of seemingly unrelated demos and felt underwhelmed at the end? Not only have I sat through shows like this I also have to admit to performing shows like them as well. So had Andrea:

It was after giving a lecture… that an elderly colleague of mine came up to me and told me how much he had enjoyed it. But then he added “But there wasn’t much of a theme”. I was crushed.

Andrea had fallen into the trap that so many of us fall into. And it is totally understandable that it happens when faced with such a cool assortment of science experiments to dem0nstrate coupled with the desire to please an expectant audience.

Like so many other lectures I had given or seen before, I had chosen a title that was nothing more than an opportunity to throw together a number of chemical spectaculars, to wow the audience with some astonishing chemical tricks, guaranteed to give a result. And as I thought about it further, I asked myself what was the point? Was I just providing edutainment? Was this nothing more than chemical porn?

Why is it important to have a story? I’d say because it is a missed opportunity not to. People of all ages love big ideas just as much as they love big bangs. There is no reason not think of a wider context to anchor your science presentations. By linking a demo to a real world experience or by weaving your demos into a thread that progresses through your show you won’t be taking anything away from the audience experience but adding to it massively. As Andrea says, by adding that vital third ingredient, a story:

…we will finally use the fantastic toys that we have at our disposal as a means to draw audiences into the thought processes of chemistry we will take them deep into our subject and really show just how profoundly chemistry is woven into the fabric of our lives and culture.

I think all science presenters can learn from Andrea’s words, not just chemists, and if you want to read more his post can be found here.

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