Don’t try this at home…

23 02 2017

I can’t think of many more redundant things to say as a science presenter than “don’t try this at home” [DTTAH].

Replication of potentially dangerous demos is a genuine issue in our work and it’s not enough for us to try and hide behind DTTAH statements. We need to do much more. 

Jonathan Sanderson and I were speaking about this a few years back and he really opened my eyes. 

He told me to imagine a demo with a 1 in a 1000 chance of going wrong and then think of different people doing it. The perception of those 1 in a 1000 odds changes quickly. 

Imagine a lecturer showing a demo  (that the audience couldn’t recreate), once every other year, for the department open day. A 1 in a 1000 risk sounds pretty acceptable. 

Now imagine a science presenter repeating that same (unrecreatable) demo but doing it 3 times a day, 100 times per year. All of a sudden that 1 in a 1000 risk sounds a lot less inviting and that’s just risk for the presenter. 

Now imagine the demo is done the same number of times but in doing the demo the presenter gives out enough information for kids in the audience to replicate it. Let’s say 10 kids in every show try it just once.

Can you see how that perfectly reasonable risk for the lecturer becomes a totally unacceptable risk for the science presenter showing kids how it’s done?

Jonathan takes it further because he makes TV programmes. Imagine that demo done just once on TV but shown to 250,000 kids. Your 1 in a 1000 chance of going wrong demo would now be making the headlines on the 6pm news!

Jonathan and I spoke before YouTube exploded in popularity. Today I’ve been watching and annotating a video of a show that is on YouTube for the world to see. I’m not going to out the presenter here but I am going to send them a link to this post. I’m only 14 mins into the 48 min lecture but they’ve made 5 DTTAH announcements whilst showing and explaining 3 or 4 demos that are a replication concern.

Let’s be honest. If you are reading this blog you have always had a curious and creative personality. When you heard DTTAH as a kid I bet what you really heard was “listen closely because I’m going to show you how to do something that’s cool and probably dangerous” [LCBIGTSYHTDSTCAPD]. 

LCBIGTSYHTDSTCAPD is a not a message we want the kids to go away with. So far the YouTube video has only got a few hundred hits but that’s not to say it mightn’t go viral. So what do we do?

The key to keeping our audience safe (keeping yourself safe has been covered in other posts) is to only give out enough information so the science nugget can be explained. Let’s take the flaming bubbles ignited on the hand demo. 


(This is a random google image, it’s not the presenter I was watching although this is a demo he does in his show.)

Depending on why and for who you are doing this demo your nugget will be different. Perhaps you are showing that heat rises, or that water insulates you from heat, or that some gasses are flammable but some are not, in none of these situations do you need to tell your audience what your gas is or where they can get it – so don’t. 

Cover up and disguise the gas canister. Refer to the gas as a “special gas I have bought from my laboratory”. Do whatever you need to do so that a member of your audience won’t be able to work out how to repeat it without working unreasonably hard. 

And if your science nugget relies on revealing what the fuel is then don’t put it on your hand, put it on a flameproof container and make sure you show that you’ve taken proper PPE precautions. 

Replicability should be part of the risk assessment process for every demo we do. It isn’t hard to make simple changes that will make a big difference in our shows. 

Relying on a DTTAH warning which actually only serves to prick up young ears to something they really shouldn’t be being invited to replicate because it’s genuinely dangerous isn’t good enough. 

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