If it looks simple…

14 11 2012

When things look simple, as onlookers, we assume they are.

When a great footballer shimmies past another and leaves them for dead we are quick to praise their amazing natural talent. The truth is that footballer has probably worked on that move for months and waited for just the right occasion to unleash it. It wasn’t spontaneous at all. It was the result of hours and hours of hard work.

When a musician runs their fingers up and down a keyboard we marvel at the grace and the beauty. Because most of us haven’t played an instrument to the same ability we have no idea at all of the amount of gruelling repetitive practice that has gone into performing that skill. Most musicians would tell you that you could do what they do- as long as you are prepared to work for five hours a day for the next ten years.

Teller, the silent half of Penn&Teller, has written in this article about the psychology of magic. One of the ‘secrets’ he ‘reveals’ about how magicians go about their perfecting their art is this:

2. A great magician makes the secret a lot more trouble than the trick seems worth. The audience will be fooled by a trick if it involves more time, money and practice than any sane onlooker would be willing to invest.

He describes a way that he and Penn were able to produce hundreds of cockroaches from a seemingly empty hat. On screen it looked effortless and any sane onlooker would have thought ‘that must be magic’. No sane onlooker would never have guessed at the time, the effort and the sheer bloody-mindedness invested by P&T to devise and perfect that reveal. As Teller says about the amount of work it took:

 More trouble than the trick was worth? To you, probably. But not to magicians.

My first point is this: how many of us as science presenters truthfully puts even a fraction of the time and effort into our shows that a great sports person, an accomplished musician or a Las Vegas magician puts into what they do? We can all learn from these experts. There is no substitute for hard work.

My second point is this: just because a science presentation looks simple it doesn’t mean it is.

Few non-footballers or non-musicians would look at an expert and say ‘that looks simple, I could do that’ because we put their skill down to natural athleticism or musicianship.

However there many people who look at accomplished magicians and think they can emulate their achievements. And more and more people are seeing science being presented and assuming the same.

People learn magic secrets from a book or buy a trick from a shop and they think that makes them a magician. The truth is these people are no more magicians than someone who’s bought a football is a footballer. You have to put in the hours to become good. To make something look simple is really hard.

Novice science presenters must be careful they don’t assume a science presentation that is made to look simple is simple either. Buying a Van De Graaff generator or getting hold of a bucket of liquid nitrogen doesn’t make you any more a science presenter than buying a guitar makes you a rock star. A good science presentation is the result of hundreds of hours of research, tens of hours of practice and even then only it really shines once it has been performed perhaps twenty or thirty times.

It rarely happens but when I get the chance I always try to see shows more than once. Only then, even to an experienced performer like myself, do all the little ‘simple’ things reveal themselves to be much more that they first seemed. I also always try to speak to the presenter. It is fascinating to hear about all the effort that goes into what initially appears ‘simple’. (Don’t be shy about this, most presenters are really happy to talk about the complexities of what they do because it is wonderful to be able to reveal just how hard it was to get what they achieved look that simple.)

I also think about what I am doing as a science presenter. If I can’t see the complexity behind something I am doing then that’s a sign to me that I have almost certainly not given that part of what I am doing enough thought.

Just because it looks simple doesn’t mean it is.

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