First responsibility

22 02 2017

I’m listening to a podcast that features a famous magician called David Hira.


I’ve spoken about giving away magic tricks on the blog before and David Hira touches on this subject. (He’s totally against it, like most magicians, by the way).

In that discussion however he says something that I thought you might find interesting. He said one of the reasons you never give the workings of a trick away is because:

The first responsibility of a magician is to fool their audience. People might say that it doesn’t matter if people know how a trick is done because it is all about your performance but that’s nonsense. The first responsibility of a magician is to fool their audience. 

The interviewer steps in at this point to speak about entertainment and David replies:

No your first responsibility is to fool them. If you can do a trick that fools people – that is entertainment in itself – but the fooling is your first responsibility.

We don’t need to get into a conversation about giving magic tricks away here but I’d love to know what you think the first responsibility of a science presenter is.

There are shows out there billed as “science shows” that contain precious little science. Some even take pride in that fact. I’ve argued with other esteemed presenters who’ve suggested that if your priority in a show is just to entertain then it doesn’t matter if there is little or no science in a presentation but I really disagree.


My answer to the question would be that if a presentation is billed as having anything to do with science, if you are selling your show with even the faintest promise that it is about science, then your first responsibility as a science presenter is to present science.

If you can present some science, if you can show a scientific principle in a way that your audience understands and in a context they can relate to, then that is entertaining enough in itself. Your first responsibility is to present science.

Drop me a line either in the comments or at my email. I’d love to know what you think.

Shows by bike

9 09 2014

Back before I bought a van I used to do all my shows on public transport.

I used to use a Brompton bicycle as the ultimate luggage trolley.

The small wheels mean surprisingly large suitcases can be rested on the rear rack and attached to the seatpost with bungees. Once on the bike you could push a heavy load with a single hand. Bike wheels are better than any trolley wheels for smooth, effortless rolling.

When getting onto trains either the whole lot could be wheeled on, or the case and the bike could be separated quickly and then carried on one in each hand.

But the best bit was getting to and from the stations. Once everything was secure you jump on the bike and cycle away. A luggage trolley you can ride at 20 miles an hour!

(In this setup I actually had a large object at the back cantilevered out with a piece of wood underneath the suitcase. Set up like this you have to remember not to lean back or the whole thing would inadvertently wheely…)

Adverts might follow this post. I have no control or interest in these.


19 07 2014

As a primary school teacher who visits more than 100 separate schools every year I totally understand the importance of safeguarding.

I am very happy to confirm my identity on arrival at your school. I am very happy to wear a visitors badge. I will not, however, show any evidence of a DBS (or CRB, PVG, etc) check.

Why not? The nature of the work I do means checks are not necessary because the work is not regulated. As a self-employed science show presenter there’s no way for me to get a check. In fact because my work is not regulated neither you nor I can even request the DBS make a check.

The vast majority of schools I visit realise this. The vast majority of schools are happy with a quick look at my ID. (In fact, a lot of schools consider even that unnecessary as they have invited me to attend, on a specific day, to do a specific job). Unfortunately, maybe 1 in 150 schools don’t understand what is required of them, both by law and by Ofsted, and insist I show some evidence of a check.



Ofsted could not be clearer on this issue. Google ‘CRB checks for visitors’ and you’ll find this:

DBS checks are not required for visitors. Visitors do not have unsupervised access to children.
Ofsted- Safeguarding Children

Further on in the same document it states:

Visitors who will only have contact with children on an ad hoc or irregular basis for short periods of time are not eligible for DBS checks and schools and colleges will not be entitled to request them.
Ofsted- Safeguarding Children
(ad hoc: created or done for a particular purpose as necessary)

So why do some schools think it’s necessary? Ofsted has the answer for this too- mythology:

Given the high priority afforded to the safety of children and young people and the considerable media interest in Ofsted’s role in protecting children, almost inevitably ‘scare stories’ emerge from time to time about the inspection of safeguarding.

The key word for both inspectors and providers in the area of safeguarding is ‘reasonable’, and it is around the interpretation of ‘reasonable’ that a mythology has emerged. The record can be set straight. Ofsted does not require schools to build walls around play areas; it does not expect schools to seek Criminal Records Bureau checks on casual visitors to schools, including parents; it does not judge a school to be inadequate because of minor administrative errors, or because an inspector’s ID was not checked. Ofsted does not try to ‘catch schools out’.
Ofsted Safeguarding in schools- Best Practice

There is a misconception held by some schools that seeing evidence of a third party check (ie: one not taken out by themselves or their umbrella body) is a useful exercise. In fact, as it says on the Government’s DBS web page:

the decision made by a Chief Police Officer to disclose information on a CRB/DBS certificate was made based on the position for which the criminal record check was originally applied for; you cannot assume that no other intelligence would be disclosed for a different position.
Criminal records checks: Guidance for employers


the applicant’s criminal record or other relevant information may have changed since its issue.
Criminal records checks: Guidance for employers

What this means is that there is no point asking to see a visitor’s 3rd-party CRB/DBS certificate because you have no idea why that check had been issued in the first place. To put it bluntly, the fact someone can show you a certificate is meaningless if your organisation (or your umbrella organisation) hasn’t carried out the check.

But this is irrelevant. If someone like me is coming in to your school to do one or two days of shows for groups of children accompanied by their teacher there is absolutely no reason for you to see or me to produce evidence of a check:

the key criterion [for a check] is the opportunity for regular and unsupervised access to children.
Ofsted- Safeguarding Children

This is what is called a regulated activity. There is no way visiting a school to perform science shows could be considered a regulated activity. A regulated activity would be the unsupervised:

teaching, training or instruction of children, carried out by the same person frequently (once a week or more often), or on 4 or more days in a 30-day period, or overnight.
Regulated Activity in relation to Children: scope Factual note by HM Government

I am not a lawyer and this should be in no way taken as legal advice but I would invite other science presenters, teachers or senior managers in school to use this information freely.

It can be really awkward when people misguidedly ask for evidence of checks when I arrive at a school and it’s nicer if the issue is dealt with beforehand.

Due to the nature of what you have employed me to do I can’t provide you with a check and there is no need to do so. To repeat, Ofsted couldn’t be clearer on the matter:

Visitors who will only have contact with children on an ad hoc or irregular basis for short periods of time are not eligible for DBS checks and schools and colleges will not be entitled to request them.
Ofsted- Safeguarding Children


In July 2015 the UK government published “Keeping Children Safe in Education“. Here are the relevant sections from this document:

The DBS cannot provide barred list information on any individual, including volunteers, who are not engaging in regulated activity. [Section 67]

The definition of “regulated activity” has not changed and is the same as described above. As my work is neither regular nor unsupervised it is not considered regulated.

Further on in the document it confirms:

Schools and colleges may obtain an enhanced DBS certificate (not including barred list information), for volunteers who are not engaging in regulated activity, but have the opportunity to come into contact with children on a regular basis, e.g. supervised volunteers (see paragraph 88 for supervision). Employers are not legally permitted to request barred list information on a volunteer who, because they are supervised, is not in regulated activity. [85]

As the work a school asks me to do would never entail my coming into contact with children “on a regular basis” there is no requirement for the school to obtain a DBS certificate.

Finally it states:

Schools and colleges do not have the power to request DBS checks and barred list checks, or ask to see DBS certificates, for visitors. Headteachers and principals should use their professional judgment about the need to escort or supervise visitors. [95]

As a visitor to a school I am very happy to cooperate with any requirements the Headteacher or principle deems suitable regarding supervision.

I hope this article and the update is useful. Please feel free to copy and share this if you want.


Compelling story telling

5 02 2014

4hrbodyI think a science presentation without a story to tell is a wasted opportunity. Every science presentation, however formal or informal, for whatever audience should have a story.

Once you’ve decided on a story how do you know if your story is any good? One thing to try is imagine you are pitching it to a TV company.

Would the TV company be interested in your show or would they just walk away? A really compelling story should have multiple companies fighting to sign your show.

Tim Ferriss is an author who has just blagged himself a TV show. His TV show was sold like this:

Name: The Tim Ferriss Experiment (TFX)
The premise: Shows viewers how to become superhuman though better tools and tricks, not better genetics.
Easily thought as: ‘Antony Bourdain meets Jason Bourne’ or ‘Jackass meets A Beautiful Mind‘.
Production company: Zero Point Zero the team behind Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations and Parts Unknown.
Spirit animal: Ocelot

Personally I don’t see the point in assigning an animal to each of my shows but the rest of the headings are useful. When I tried to fill out these headings for the shows that I offer it was very obvious that the shows I’m happiest with are the ones I would be happiest to sell to a TV company. The shows I am happiest with are the ones with the most compelling stories. Here’s one as an example:

Name: Bending it like Beckham
The premise: Some people think David Beckham isn’t very intelligent, this show will prove he is a scientific genius.
Easily thought as:Think of a Number meets Match of the Day‘ or ‘Mythbusters meets Gary Neville’s Sky Sports analysis’ .
Production company: Science Shows for Schools the company behind The REAL Science of the Circus and Galileo’s Greatest Mistake.
Spirit animal: rather not say

I’ve got a long tour coming up and I’ve added revisiting the TV company pitch to my list of things to do whilst I’m stuck in lonely hotels. I’m looking forward to tightening up the stories in my shows so I could pitch to a TV company. I’m sure that thinking of my shows like this will give me a good idea of which shows need work and which shows I am really happy with. Let me know in the comments if you think this is a useful tool for your shows.




How do people live like that?

26 03 2011

I’ve got one more week of National Science and Engineering Week Month to go. So far I’ve been in up and down the country twice, clocked up over 1500 miles in the van and seen close to 4000 kids, I’m fed up of hotels, my finance hasn’t seen me for more than 24hrs in the last 21 days and, to be honest, I’m looking forward to a rest.

Yesterday, in Cambridge, I was telling a teacher that I had to drive to Glasgow when I was finished at her school and she asked me why I’d want to live like that. The obvious answer was that this is a special time of year and you can’t complain about being busy etc. A better one is given by Jerry Seinfeld in his film The Comedian.

Ouch- the value of risk assessments

25 02 2011

Don’t moan about risk assessments. Risk assessments are very important because they stop things like this happening. ouch…

Via here and here.

Friday Phenomena

22 01 2011

If you are working as a science presenter then I’d definitely recommend you subscribe to BIG-CHAT and join BIG, the British Interactive Group. Once you’ve joined BIG-CHAT you can play Friday Phenomena.

Matt Bagley of Camouflaged Learning suggested the game. “I’d been toying with the idea of posting Friday Phenomena for weeks, and after slightly too many coffees I’ve decided just to go for it and hang the consequences.” The game is simple.

You get 50 words or less to answer/explain/define as eloquently and elegantly as possible a phenomena set by the previous week’s winner.

“The idea is that you are challenged to think within some serious constraints and everyone else gets to read a selection of attempts” explained Matt (pictured left in cartoon form).

The phenomena that have been set so far are Reusable Heat Packs and The Bernoulli Blower. This week the phenomena set is The Airzooka. If you want to play join up to BIG-CHAT and here are a list of the rules as they currently stand. NB: These are the rules as defined by posts to the list before 22/01/11. These rules are subject to change due to the wonderfully fickle and experimental nature of the BIG-CHAT mailing list.

Friday Phenomena Rules

1. The aim of Friday Phenomena is to encourage people think within constraints. As such no answer will be complete, no answer is ever perfect. Everyone on the list is welcome to try. Every submission will be valued and treated with respect.

2. The phenomena will be set by the previous week’s winner and posted to a thread on BIG-CHAT called Friday Phenomena

3. Attempts to describe the phenomena should be eloquent, elegant and be achieved in 50 words or less.

4. The winner is chosen by the setter of the phenomena- their decision is final- they can chose to offer a prize for that week if they want to.

To maintain everyone’s sanity, good will and to make the thread flow as smoothly as possible all you need to do is submit your 50 word or less answer. Please DO NOT preface your attempt with preambles or attempts to contextualise. The whole point of the game is that you only have 50 words. The thread should read as a list of submissions that can be read one after the other.

Any discussion about the content of a submission or the scientific value of a submission should be posted to a separate thread. Please DO NOT fill up the Friday Phenomena thread with comments of your own about what someone else has written. If someone has submitted something that you don’t agree with all you need to do is send in your own attempt. People reading down the list of submissions will see there is a discrepancy and can follow that up if they chose. If you really want to you can post your comment to a separate thread.

Good luck and have fun!

Previous winners

Reusable Heat Packs

Below their freezing point substances can remain liquid. Although they would rather be big crystals than liquids, they would rather be liquid than minute crystals. The clicker exposes some relatively large crystals that were trapped in its crack. These start to grow releasing lots of latent heat until everything crystalises.

Written by Dave Ansell, chosen by Matt Bagley.

The Bernoulli Blower

Some air bounces off the ball and stops it falling but most wraps itself around the ball and then continues upwards. Like water curving off the back of a spoon when the ball moves left air being deflected left forces it back towards the centre and vice versa.

Written by James Soper, chosen by Dave Ansell.



Smoke hitting a wall of still air will spread outwards and back on itself. Smoke rings are stable because the friction within the ring is much smaller than that between the outside and the surrounding medium. Non-smokers can try tapping their cheeks on a cold day while saying ‘Oh!’.

Written by Dr Mark Lewney, chosen by James Soper



Casimir Sphere

The ball, the bar and the plate have nothing all around them. However, nothingness is relative and there’s less nothing between the ball and the plate than elsewhere. The more nothing on one side of the ball pushes more than the less nothing on the other side closing the gap.

Written by Chris Robbins, chosen by Mark Lewney


Why does a gas get  hotter when you compress it and colder when you expand it?

Gases are essentially very friendly. When you squeeze it into a smaller space it gets hotter because it’s closer to its own kind and therefore happy. Unfortunately when it expands into a larger space it gets colder because it’s unhappy; don’t worry, it always looks on the bright side.

Written by Helen Reardon, chosen by Chris Robbins


What is the difference between global warming and climate change?

The average temperature of our planet is increasing. We call this “Global Warming”. However, weather is complicated! This warming messes up the weather systems; rather than everywhere just getting a bit warmer, local weather will change in different ways (hotter/colder, wetter/drier, etc). This is called Climate Change.

Written by Jenny Shipway, chosen by Helen Reardon



Should I work for free?

18 01 2011

Here is a handy wallchart to help you decide whether you should do that job for free. Every freelance will be approached at some point by some organisation asking for something for nothing. It could be the school that your child attends or it could be a TV company developing a show. This has been produced for designers but it works for science presenters just as well.

The full size version can be found here. I’d like to point out the flow if you head directly north from the centre starting point.

Should I work for free? > is it for a legitimate business? > Yes > did they promise you exposure or a good “portfolio piece”? > Yes > Then the answer is no, this is the most toxic line of bullshit anyone will ever feed you.

If a job is worth doing then it is worth getting paid for. Unless its for your Mum, in which case, you owe her.

Selling shows (and cat food)

17 01 2011

A friend who I studied psychology with went on to do a PhD in animal behaviour. She was supervised by a woman who made a famous cat food manufacturer a lot of money by applying a principle that is just as valid for freelance science communicators as it is for pet food companies:

cats eat the food but they don’t buy the food

Previous scientific investigations had focused on the cats. What this woman did differently was to focus on the owners. She asked owners what they thought cats did when they’d had a good meal. Give yourself a moment to imagine a satisfied cat… what is it doing? If you are imagining a cat licking its lips and rubbing its mouth with its paw then you are thinking like most of her respondents.

The only problem with this image is that it has nothing to do with what a cat considers is a good meal. All it means is the cat has got food stuck on his face. So what did the pet food company do with this information? Correct. They made all their food stickier. More importantly they sold a huge amount more cat food to gullible owners in the process.

How does this relate to selling science shows? Well it highlights two principles that can be applied to the marketing of every job you do:

1. the people you have written the show for aren’t the people who are paying for the show


2. the reason you think you’ve been booked to perform the show probably isn’t the reason you’ve actually been booked

Just because your show is going to be seen by children in schools don’t imagine that children are the only people you are going to need to consider. A teacher who has searched out your website is going to want to see evidence that you going to be educationally relevant not just so her class benefits but so she can then sell the idea to the Head who holds the purse strings. Festival organisers might love the idea of your show and they know that if it was performed at their festival it would go down a storm with the paying public but they will never book you if they won’t be able to persuade a sponsor to stump up the cash.

And there are literally hundreds of reasons people book you to perform a science show on top of what you actually perform. For schools it might be to bookend a topic, to tick a box on a planning sheet, because there is budget to spend or because the school can’t afford a trip. For festivals it might be because you are undercharging, it might be because you were first in an alphabetical search return, it might be so that you can wow the press with a staged set piece or because you can keep a hundred children of wildly differing ages quiet for an hour.

I’m not saying what you present isn’t important, of course, it is. But to be successful you should think about a lot more than just what you are presenting and instead of naively assuming the science is all try to exploit the other opportunities that are out there.


What should a freelance charge?

16 01 2011

When you are starting out as a freelance the hardest thing is dealing with the administration, and the hardest part of the administration is the finances. If you’ve been on a salary as a science communicator and now you want to go it alone how much should you charge?

The formula is very simple and it is based on what you want be earning every year and how many jobs you think you’ll be able to do.

Add your anticipated expenses to the salary you think you should be earning, divide it by the days you can charge for and then that will give you your daily rate. I guarantee the first time you do this your eyes will water but there is no point working for nothing. Your business needs to be sustainable to survive and by charging less than a sustainable amount you are only making it harder for others to succeed.

Look at your competitors both in the science communication industry but also across other competing industries (Theatre in Education companies, Science Centres, Outdoor Centres, etc). I bet they are charging a lot more than your figure. Any organisation will have to charge more than an individual as they will have extra staff and buildings to charge for on top of the expenses you will have.

Don’t overestimate the number of days you can work. If your work is going to be mostly in schools remember that there are only 195 school days in any one school year. If you take out those times at the start and the end of terms when schools rarely book external visitors you are looking at perhaps as few as 150 potential days you could work. When you acknowledge that you will be lucky in the first few years to reach 75% capacity then that number reduces even further. If you have to collect props or consumables and then travel to and from a job that might stop you from working on the days either side of a job. This then means a job that you imagine will take one day suddenly becomes three.

And don’t underestimate the costs that you’ll have either. Be honest and realistic with what you’ll actually be spending to do the work.

The Federation of Small Business advises:

“The goal of the business is to make a profit and you have to keep that in mind when setting your prices. If you can’t beat certain competitors on price then quality of service and the personal touch to your clients will often make the difference.”

More information about being a freelance can be found at Freelance UK. Here you will find answers to questions often asked by those wanting to start out including: Is Freelancing the job for me?

If you’ve got any advice about what to charge or issues those new to the industry might face post them in the comments and we’ll explore them in later postings.