1 09 2014

I found a video on the Internet the other day of my old chemistry teacher doing a show at the Royal Institution. If the link doesn’t work search YouTube for ‘The Magic of Chemistry – with Andrew Szydlo’.

I remember fondly at the end of every school year when he would blow the remaining chemistry budget on spectacular versions of demos too dangerous to do in class. We used to crowd round the top of a disused outdoor swimming pool watching him perform these chemical spectaculars on the floor of the pool below. It was cool to stumble across a video of him on the Internet.

There is lots to like about this RI presentation. For instance I really like the way he starts with a personal story to draw us in and I like how he allows the demos to unfold as he is speaking.

There’s also lots about the presentation that I might do differently but I’m not going to pick a fight with one of my old school teachers here..!

Fast forward to 10:30 and you’ll see he has an interesting treatment of the iodine starch clock reaction.


A colourless liquid changes instantaneously to black apparently ‘because of musical energy played in the key of B minor’.

I think his spoof explanation is confusing for the audience, I wouldn’t present it like this but it’s what happens after the chemical change that I found the most fascinating.

The audience began to applaud.

Instead of acknowledging their applause Dr Szydlo says:

Please, please, no, children. I am not here for applause, do not applaud. I am merely here to explain to you the principles of science.


He seems to get genuinely flustered. It really surprised me to see him react that vociferously against a simple and heartfelt round of applause. He seems to be suggesting that the very act of the audience applauding will somehow cheapen the science that they are watching.

Sorry sir, this is where we will have to disagree.

The audience clapped here because he had hardly stopped to catch his own breath, let alone allow them to catch theirs, for almost 11 minutes; the demo was also genuinely worthy of a round of applause; and on top of that the chemical colour change happened instantaneously, instantaneous or percussive things often encourage applause.

Applause can be cheap and meaningless. It is far easier to get an audience to clap than to get them to laugh. The word claptrap, which we now take to mean nonsense, originally referred to a cheap, meaningless trick that a performer might use to trap his audience to clap.

But genuine, heartfelt and carefully planned applause points are really useful in a science presentation.

The audience in this video wanted to clap. They hadn’t been tricked into it. The applause was genuine, generous and heartfelt. By denying them the opportunity to clap I think he inadvertently comes across as slightly arrogant and even a bit rude.

Why do we clap?

Clapping as a way of expressing approval seems pretty universal across most cultures. Some have suggested that it is a way of virtually patting someone on the back.

Children who are excited sometimes can’t help themselves but clap. As adults we might have worked out rules as to when and where it’s appropriate to clap but clapping is still something expected every time you watch a show (compare classical concerts where you don’t clap between movements only at the end of the piece; opera where it is common to clap after a well-sung segment; and musical theatre where a show can’t be considered a great show without a ‘showstopper’).

Why is clapping important?

Clapping allows us to show our approval and to express our gratitude towards a performer. It also allows us a moment of relaxation, a chance to get our breath back and refocus for what’s to come next.

As performers we can use it to help our audience refocus. Encouraging an audience to clap at something (that is genuinely worthy of a round of applause) is a great way to bring a section in show to an end. It acts as a bookend.

A good round of applause also allows audience to have a cough, a wriggle in their seats or even exchange a few words with the person sat next to them without being rude and disturbing the rest of the performance.

It also gives you a chance to take a sip of water or ready yourself for what is to come next.

Clapping is something we traditionally do when bringing an audience member onto or letting them leave the stage. In both directions it is not just a polite thing to do but it can helpfully cover the dead time it takes the volunteer to get from their seat to the performance area.

On the way to the stage it can be used to encourage a hesitant volunteer who otherwise might refuse to come up. If you say Give them a round of applause as they come up on the stage… it is very hard for someone to refuse- it sounds like a done deal and they’ve no choice. I sometimes might say she looks nervous, if we gave her a round of applause she might come up and help… and again it’s really persuasive- the audience starts to clap and the volunteer doesn’t want to appear rude by letting them down and not coming up.

After a volunteer has helped it is normally essential to give them around of applause to thank them for their help up on stage.

A slow rhythmic handclap that builds up to something is an effective tool to focus the audience’s attention at a particular part of the stage at a particular time. It can also build tension and expectation.

And counterintuitively you can use noisy clapping to help you get a group of noisy children quiet.

One common teaching technique is to use a rhythmic handclap which the class then repeats back to you as a way of getting everyone’s attention.

And in a show situation if children have lost focus getting them to applaud gives them the permission to make noise and then suggests to them the expectation that they are going to be quiet afterwards. Young children in my shows sometimes lose focus when a rocket balloon has been flying around the stage. The laughter descends into chatter and rather than telling them to be quiet I might say let’s give the balloon around of applause. You might think this is a perfect example of claptrap but what happens is as the applause dies down the children naturally and instinctively return to being quiet.

As the presenter you can encourage a round of applause to thank those that have helped you put on your show. At the end of a run of shows it is considered polite to offer a round of applause to the technicians and the organising staff.

If you are in a noisy environment where you might have to get people to notice that your show has started a loud round of applause at the start of the show can be the perfect signal. We can copy street performers who get audiences to clap to encourage other people to come and see what’s going on.

People in a shared space who are making noise will often stop if they hear applause because they realise a show has started elsewhere.

Different environments, different styles of presentation, different ages in the audience will mean different amounts of applause but applause is a natural phenomena all the same.

Claptrap should be avoided, making an audience clap for something that doesn’t warrant it or when they don’t want to is a waste of time and good will. But if an audience wants to show their appreciation of what you’re doing by giving you a round of applause you should politely and humbly allow them to do so.

If we go back to Dr Szydlo’s RI talk at 25:00 mins he starts to do another explosive demonstration.

He squirts a small amount of petrol into a tin can which has a hole in its bottom.

Having warmed the petrol to allow it to vaporise he lights the bottom of the tin can and the lid goes flying up to the ceiling.

I urge you to watch this clip and see what happens.

The audience collectively cries out in surprise, they laugh because they’ve enjoyed it, and you can feel the release of the tension as they are finally allowed to express themselves. You can see them having a bit of a wiggle and they start to chat. A smattering of applause starts up but…

again the presenter squashes it.

It’s such a shame. The applause here is not a problem. It’s a natural thing the audience not just wants to do but needs to do as well.

The audience wants to let him know that they really liked the demo and what has gone before. And they need to have a wiggle and a bit of of tension release.

Unfortunately they’re not given the chance.

If you are of the opinion, like Dr Szydlo, that applause is never appropriate in a science demonstration watch this clip and tell me that it isn’t the perfect proof that actually applause is sometimes a necessary thing.

I’d argue applause doesn’t cheapen a science presentation, it can be a really useful tool and applause is a natural and necessary human reaction.




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