Facts, factoids and factlets

5 12 2016

When someone says “Did you know…” or “You’ll never guess what I learned today…” they are probably about to share a factoid with you. Or are they?

Well you’ll never guess what I learned today – it turns out factoids are not notable facts worth sharing. Despite what Steve Wright (in the afternoon) might have you believe factoids are not true facts at all. Factoids are pieces of untrue information that sound credible enough that a significant number of us believe them and share them even though they are actually nonsense. REF

A typical factoid might be that the Great Wall of China can be seen from space. It can’t. It might be very long but it’s never wide enough to be resolved without a powerful telescope. 

Another is that the thicker glass found at the bottom of old cathedral windows proves that glass is a liquid and flows. It doesn’t. If it did our museums would be filled old glass vessels that would all look saggy at the bottom and they aren’t. 

It is a FACT that liquids flow. There are no strong forces holding their molecules together. Their molecules can move freely past one another. That is why liquids can be poured, splashed around, and spilled.

It is a FACT that, like in a liquid, the atoms in glass are not arranged in any regular order. 

But it is also a FACT that, unlike in a liquid, the atoms in glass are all held together tightly by strong chemical bonds. Despite not sitting in a regular order they cannot move freely past each other. This is what makes glass rigid. It cannot flow at room temperature. 

So it is a FACTIOD to say glass flows like a liquid. It is wrong. 

But it is a FACTLET to say that old pieces of glass are not uniformly thick. Due to their production process some sections were thicker than others and it makes sense to put the thicker, stronger sections at the bottom. 

Now I know about the confusion in these terms I will henceforth refer to pieces of information with clear and accepted evidence FACTS. To pieces of oft repeated but untrue information as FACTOIDS. And to those undoubtably true and irresistible pieces of highly shareable information we should all include in our presentations as FACTLETS.

Did you know that it is a FACT that viscosity (the opposite of fluidity) is measured in poises?

It is a FACT that at room temperature, the viscosity of water is about 0.01 poise. Molasses has a viscosity of about 500 poises.


It is also a FACT that estimates of the viscosity of glass at room temperature run as high as  100,000,000,000,000,000,000 (10 to the 20th power) poises. LINK

I’ll leave you with one last FACT. The viscosity of metallic lead has been estimated to be about 100,000,000,000 (10 to the 11th power) poises. 

So the next time you find yourself in an old cathedral and someone tells you the incorrect FACTOID about the flowing glass you can hit right back with the entirely correct FACTLET that

the lead holding in the panes of glass is actually a billion times less viscous than the glass!

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Pecha kucha demos

9 08 2016

I was privileged to attend the BIG Event this year in Belfast and I enjoyed their cheekily titled “Best Demo Competition”. 

For those of you that haven’t seen the Best Demo Competition it’s cheekily titled because they don’t limit participation to those presenters who might be considered the best – this year there were novices and early career presenters alongside some demo wrangling stalwarts. They don’t expect the entrants to show a demo – this year just under half the contestants actually performed what might be considered a STEM demo, the rest were more science cabaret or science variety acts. And despite the fact no other events are programmed against it and there’s a trophy given out to the winner at the gala dinner described as “one of the least valuable yet most highly prized honours in UK science communication” there are no voting criteria and those attending the event are told not to take the competition bit seriously (LINK). 

(It really shouldn’t work but I’d recommend anyone go and see one if they can. As long as you don’t take the title at all seriously it is great fun.)

Entrants to the “Best Demo Competition” are given 3 minutes (or so – the winner went minutes over time… another example of how loosely BIG applies the term competition!) and this year most tried to put their demos into some sort of context. I think demo presentations should always have a story but I know this lead to some comments that the best demo competition was more of a best routine competition.

I thought more of a problem was this year most entrants chose to perform single concept-single demo presentations which I thought was a shame. 

Concepts explained with just one demo inevitably end up as being either show then tell or tell then show. Unless the presenter is happy to get on and get off fast there is always large amounts of speaking either before or after we see the demo. 

The time limit is a very good idea because it forces contestants to get on with it. I enjoy watching YouTube videos of the ASTEC Live Demo Hour but I think most of the performances could benefit from a stricter time limit.

The problem with the 3 minutes allotted to the “Best Demo Competition” in almost every case it is still far too long for the presentation of just one or two demos. 

The majority of contestants this year tried to fill or pad their demos with stage business to take up their allotted time. Unfortunately this padding more often than not distracted attention and focus from the demos rather than aid our understanding. I think this was what those people who were unhappy were unhappy with – story isn’t the problem, neither is a routine, but a weak story and/or overly long routine is. 

All but one of those who managed to perform more than one demo in their allotted time performed individual demos that were loosely themed to go together (eg: involving the same fruit or that looked like drinks) rather than scripted tightly to make a single concept-multiple demo presentation or what I would call a demo chain

The contestant I personally thought should have won performed three chained demos, way under time and didn’t resort to costume, dance or song to unnecessarily jazz up what she was trying to demonstrate. 

In her presentation we were shown two demos to explain the science she was trying to communicate (thermoclines). The first demo most of the audience would have been familiar with (see picture below) but the second was new, at least, to me.  Then we were shown a third big finale that combined the previous two demos and reinforced the science underpinning the presentation that I thought was excellent. 

This brings me to Petcha Kutcha

The Petcha Kutcha (PK) format was developed in 2003 to specifically deal with the problem of speakers talking at too few slides for far too long. It was originally conceived for architects but as they say in the PK FAQ we can all fall in the same trap:

Give a microphone and some images to an architect — or most creative people for that matter — and they’ll go on forever! 

The PK format is simple. Each speaker talks whilst 20 slides play in the background for 20 seconds each. This means you avoid the problem of too few slides – everyone has 20; and you limit the time anyone can speak – 6 mins and 40 secs. 

The time limit is part of our “Best Demo Competition” format. Could our presentations benefit from insisting on a certain number of demos as well?

I have been asked to take part in a PK event and instead of talking whilst 20 slides play for 20 seconds each I thought about trying to perform 20 demos instead. 

The only way this would be possible would be to chain my demos so each linked to the demo that came before and after and helped tell one consistent story. There would be no time to explain and perform even one unconnected demo in 20 seconds. What I envisage is a series of linked demos, most using the same equipment, that can be woven together in the way series of card tricks are woven together in a magician’s routine. 

Half the time I think about this 20 seconds seems impossibly fast but then 20 seconds for many PK speakers ends up seeming a very long time when they are on stage. This very talented PK speaker shows this perfectly at 1:50.

If my PK experiment presentation works, next year at the BIG Event I might suggest as session where we explore this further. Perhaps a strict 20 seconds per demo will prove unworkable and unnecessarily rigid but it should be easy to ask people to perform at least three chained demos in two minutes – my favourite “Best Demo Competition” entrant took this long to perform her three demos. 

I’m looking for inspiration towards the work of Steve Spangler who always manages to chain his science demos and magicians like this. 

I count 11 reveals of the same “Ambitous Card” in just 2:40 mins!

I’d be fascinated to hear from you if you’ve tried something like this yourself or if you’ve any footage of someone that has. And as usual I encourage people to post any comments. 

Too many stories

22 03 2016

In my last post I spoke about Lawrence Bragg who recommended presentations aim to get across just one main point. In the parlance of this blog we’d say a presentation should have one clear story

A few months ago I was performing a new show at a festival. I struggled at the start of the week and it wasn’t until two days in I realised why. My presentation had two stories instead of just one. 

I’d started out writing a show about one theme and then been totally smitten by another theme that emerged from my research. I tried to deal with the new theme within the context of the first and it was a mess. 

Just when I was making progress with my first theme I’d feel like I was ignoring the second so I’d jarringly switch to cover that. Then the same would happen in reverse. 

It was confusing for me and watching back a video I shot of the show on day two I could see it was confusing for the audience as well. 

The reason I’m not being more specific is that whilst my show was confused and confusing I fixed it by day three*. At the same event there was another show that had a worse problem. 

This was an established show by an experienced performer who has never asked for feedback so I’m not going to out them here but their show had three competing stories. 

It was really frustrating to watch as there was so much good about the show. The presenter should be applauded for trying to include story in their presentation. There was just too many stories competing with each other. 

Lawrence Bragg really was correct when he said there should ideally be just one. Too many stories can be as bad as none. 

* I fixed my presentation by splitting the show’s themes between two different age groups. I’d use the same equipment and mostly the same demos for two different age groups but use one story for the younger ones and the other for the older ones. 


Liquid nitrogen flowers

7 03 2016

This is another look at a piece of internet science communication. In the first we looked at a section from Cosmos.

This is a small piece of The Science Museum’s Energy Show which has been officially posted onto YouTube by Focus magazine. Even though it depicts the performers without an audience it is fair to assume the directors and producers of the show were happy not only with this piece but with it being seen widely as an advertisement for their production.


Whilst it can be unfair to take a video out of context, often we miss important information either before or after the selection, this video seems to show an entire section of a rehearsed and scripted show so it is fair to assume this is how it is presented live. I think it is fair to critique what they have chosen to put on YouTube as an advertisement of their show. I have received replies from The SM before about comments I’ve made about their productions and I’d be happy to hear from them again about this and print any comments they’d like to make. I’m sure everyone reading this realises this piece is critique written with the hope that it informs everybody working in our industry. I write this with the best possible intentions and congratulate The SM on their ambition with the show.

If the link doesn’t work search ‘Science Museum Energy Show Dunking Flowers in Liquid Nitrogen’ and you should find it.

Even though this video shows only a small part of presumably a larger piece it demonstrates the dangers of introducing dramatics and characterisation into a science presentation. In this video the ‘business’, or the incidental activity performed by an actor for dramatic effect, doesn’t just fail to reinforce the science message it actually distracts and misrepresents it.

This is a shame because with a few adjustments they could have retained all the drama but used it to reinforce the essential science message.

There is a good reason dipping a bunch flowers into liquid nitrogen has become a science presentation standard. Flowers are a great way to show how fast something can be frozen in this incredibly cold liquid. That is the whole point of the demo. The flowers freeze extremely fast. This treatment of that demo has lost sight of this (if the writers were ever aware of it).

To comprehend what is going on the audience’s attention needs to be drawn to the state of the flowers BEFORE they are dipped. They are soft, they are flexible, the petals and leaves are firmly attached to the stems. Once the audience’s attention has been drawn to these characteristics then the AFTER, the disintegration of the flowers, vividly highlights that they have undergone a radical and fast change. The liquid nitrogen has frozen them.

Depending on the age and stage or your audience and the additional points you want to get across you can introduce other pieces of information. For example: flowers are made up of water that will freeze quickly at liquid nitrogen temperatures or flowers are made of cells that burst as the water inside them expands etc.

If we break their piece down:

8 secs: Why do they mention Halloween? If you wanted to draw attention to the fog it would be better to say: these are like the clouds your breath makes on a cold winter’s day. It performs the same job but accurately reflects what the audience can see AND what is actually happening, water droplets are being condensed out of relatively hotter air.

15 secs: Why enter into the fake dialogue? Is this from Star Wars? And what is it with that annoying noise the presenter makes? It took some digging around by this is the actual scene from The Empire Strikes Back this section seems to be referencing. (if the link doesn’t work search ‘Han Solo frozen in Carbonite’).

I’m sorry but for starters, and I hate to be the one to break it to you, Star Wars isn’t real…

Worse, Star Wars famously uses scientific terms incorrectly. Jedis use ‘the force’, Han Solo’s ship ‘made the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs’ (a unit of distance not time), and ‘Carbonite’ is actually an early explosive not something cold. This is not me being grumpy, these inaccurate uses of real scientific terms are genuinely confusing for kids.

Using the example of Han Solo being frozen as being similar to freezing flowers in liquid nitrogen is like saying the way Superman flies is similar to the way planes fly. Yes there is a link, but making the comparison doesn’t reinforce any science message. Han Solo is brought back to life and apart from temporary sight loss is none the worse for his experience. The flowers get destroyed.

In the time it takes the performer to act out her dialogue and gurgle as she slowly drops the flowers into the liquid nitrogen she could easily have said: these soft and flexible flowers are mostly made up of water, I wonder what will happen to them and all that water when it goes into the incredibly cold liquid? She would also have had time to rub the flowers against her cheek to show they were soft and flexible, she could also have hit them off something or maybe dropped them to show that flowers that haven’t been frozen in liquid nitrogen are not going to disintegrate.

If you have to keep the Star Wars reference then work out a way that we know that the flowers are meant to be Han Solo. In the clip this is not clear at all. And if the point is that the actress thinks the flowers will be preserved intact and unharmed like Han Solo we need this pointed out as well. I think the Star Wars business here is not a help but a hindrance and I’d suggest it was got rid of.


26 secs: “Why are Anna’s flowers on fire?!” If the actress is trying to freeze the flowers like Han Solo was frozen why would she suddenly be afraid that the flowers were on fire? Why isn’t she aware that there is no fire here?

And from a science content point of view why would you want to make a link between the water vapour fog we see and smoke? Why would you want to introduce and reinforce one of the most common misconceptions audiences can have about liquid nitrogen? People are familiar with fire, heat and smoke. When they see clouds of fog coming out of a bucket of liquid nitrogen they often think they are seeing ‘smoke’ and assume if there’s smoke there must be fire. One of the most important things to get across when working with liquid nitrogen is that this fog isn’t smoke, there isn’t any fire, it isn’t hot. In fact, it is totally not hot, it is a substance colder than the surface of the planet Neptune!

What is actually happening is that the room temperature flowers are being dipped into a liquid that boils at -196 degrees Celsius. This is like dipping a piece of hot iron which has been heated up to +196 degrees Celsius into really cold water. The ‘hot’ flowers make the incredibly cold liquid boil. Although it might look like ‘smoke’ the clouds that we see are totally different. A good way to make this point is to get the audience to notice that the clouds are falling to the ground not rising up like we’d expect smoke to do.

35 secs: “It’s water vapour. The liquid nitrogen is so cold that it is causing the atmosphere around it to condense.”

This show is advertised as being aimed at English Key Stage 1 and 2, that basically covers primary school. In that one sentence the following concepts are mentioned:

water– are the children aware of water existing in three states? are they aware there is water in the air around us? do they understand that the clear colourless liquid in the bucket isn’t just hot water? Do they know that we call water when it is a gas…

water vapour- is the cloud actually water vapour? No, the clouds we can see are actually water droplets suspended in the air. It would be better described as fog which begins to form when water vapour condenses into tiny liquid water droplets in the air.

atmosphere– are the children aware of this term? Do they understand they are surrounded by air and that air is also inside the bucket?

condense– are the children aware of this term? Do they understand that things can exist in different states of matter? That water in one form can be turned into water in another form?

Finally, the sentence “[It] is so cold that it is causing the atmosphere around it to condense” is wrong. It is not the atmosphere that is condensing, it is the water in the atmosphere that is condensing.

If you have chosen to prioritise the drama and characterisation over science content and you plan to get the science out of the way with a single sentence then I’d hope that you could make a better job of it than this. The language used here is not suitable for the audience, the explanation given is incorrect, and most importantly the science spoken doesn’t actually reference what is most important part of this demonstration anyway- that the flowers have been frozen!

44 secs: “I thought they were toast”. Just when the script has tried to dispel us of the heat/fire/smoke misconception for the sake of a silly throw-away line the concept of heat/fire/smoke is reintroduced. This is is totally counter productive.

1 min: “I have cryogenically preserved your flowers in liquid nitrogen just like they did to Han Solo in The Empire Strikes Back“. What does croyogenically preserved mean? Is this something the children will be familiar with? And have you preserved them? We are about to see that you haven’t as they are going to get destroyed. Cryopreservation uses liquid nitrogen to flash freeze delicate biological tissues to avoid the freezing that destroys cells. As has been said already, the whole point of this demo is that the flowers are NOT preserved. The water in the cells is frozen and this is why they act so differently after they have been dipped in the cold liquid.

1 min 17: the flowers are destroyed by hitting them over someone’s head.

The video stops here. Perhaps the presenters go on to examine the pieces of flower that have fallen to the floor. Perhaps they go on to say- wow, that was unusual! why did that happen? and then do a series of other experiments to show why the flowers behaved so strangely after being dipped in the liquid nitrogen. Perhaps they found another bunch of flowers and repeated the demonstration drawing attention to the points I’ve made above. I haven’t seen the show so I don’t know.

What I would say is that even if all these points are addressed afterwards the writers have missed a trick here by setting up this piece in the way they have. And if they move onto something else entirely after the flowers are smashed on the actress’s head then it is a real shame because they have missed what I consider to be the most important part of a science presentation.

However theatrical you want to make a science-based presentation there has to be some genuine science content or you are mis-selling your product. All of the theatrics in your show should act to reinforce your key science messages certainly not distract or confuse the audience or worse mislead them. 


Sign language science

7 03 2016

At the Dunbar Science Festival this weekend I had the privilege to work with British Sign Language (BSL) interpreters and with the staff the Scottish Sensory Centre at the University of Edinburgh. 

Two student interpreters were tasked with interpreting my show and wanted to speak about the content beforehand. The conversation we had was fascinating. 

BSL is independent of spoken English. As we worked through what I planned to say it became obvious just how much potential there is for confusion in spoken English. 

I was presenting a show about forces, but not the force you’d find in a Star Wars movie, and I certainly wasn’t going to bring the forces from my army to force anyone to watch the show. 

Learning and using the BSL signs, developed at the Scottish Sensory Centre, not only removes the potential for confusion it makes the science easier to understand. 

Their team of scientists and linguists have spent a long time developing a series of BSL signs that don’t reflect spoken English (and all its potential for confusion) the signs work to explain as well as name the concept they refer to. 

Take mass and weight. These concepts are easily confused by users of spoken English. It would be so much easier if we taught everyone the terms using BSL…

Your mass never changes. You can think of mass as the amount of matter in an object. 

Your weight on the other hand will change depending on the amount of gravity you encounter. (On Earth you might weigh 12st, but on the moon you’d weigh about 2st and in deep space you’d be weightless.)

In BSL mass is signed like this. A stationary closed fist. Your mass doesn’t change. 

In BSL gravity is signed by pulling your open hand downwards towards your flat hand. This represents something not just being pulled by gravity but being pulled down towards the centre of the Earth. 


Can you see how much more useful information there is in the signs than the words? Can you guess what the sign for weight is going to be?

To sign weight you take mass (your closed fist) you then take gravity (your open hand held underneath) and you pull both your hands down. Just as the definition of weight is mass being effected by gravity the sign for weight is mass being effected by gravity. 

This is just one example of how the vocabulary they have developed is going to put anyone who knows the signs not just on a level playing field but at a distinct advantage. 

Here’s another great example. In BSL this is the sign for speed and this is the sign for velocity

Speed describes only how fast an object is moving, whereas velocity gives both how fast and in what direction the object is moving. In spoken English these are facts to be memorised and often confused. Using these carefully developed BSL signs this information has been built in. 

To know an object’s velocity you need to know where it started so you can tell its speed and its direction. So the sign for velocity looks like this:

That starting point finger doesn’t just make this a distinct sign from the sign for speed it also conveys the essential scientific difference between speed and velocity. 

Two of the people responsible for developing these signs, Audrey Cameron and Gary Quinn, also perform shows using BSL. This year they did a new show themed around geography that introduced us to signs for words like tornado

The presenters use BSL throughout the show. The voices you can hear are from two interpreters who are sitting in the front row speaking what they are signing for those of us unlucky enough not to know BSL. 

If you ever get a chance to see one of their shows I highly recommend it. 

It’s some science!

2 03 2016

You might want to sit down for this… It’s Not Rocket Science Episode 3 had some science! 

I know after Episode 1 and Episode 2 this might come as a shock. The self-professed “science-based entertainment show” hasn’t put science at the top of their agenda but this week we learned a little something about friction.

Romesh was to lie under a fridge suspended on a rope draped at right angles over a bar. The weight on the end of the rope was going to wrap around the bar. The friction of the rope wrapped around the bar was meant to stop the fridge before it crushed Romesh. 

This is a traditional demo called the capstan key. A falling object is saved as a smaller object causes the string it is suspended from to wrap around the experimenters finger. 

Kevin Fong explained to us that the more loops in the rope the more friction. This demo was effective because we saw the before and the after. Romesh could pull Kevin with no loops but not once three loops had been put in. 

Congratulations should go to all involved. This was a good explanation of friction. (If you are interested finding out more about the science this article is a good start.)

I just wish the show didn’t think it had to hype everything to the point where things become unbelievable. If you set something up so that the audience can’t believe in the presentation then they won’t believe in the science either. 

I wonder how many people believed that friction explanation when they were simultaneously being asked to believe a presenter (who had just introduced the piece from the studio) was about to get killed?

The show is heavily influenced by Top Gear and Mythbusters

In Top Gear if someone was in mortal peril we actually saw them die. Of course, it was just a joke, they would then appear in the studio saying how terrible it was they’d died. Top Gear knew that we knew that they knew (!) you couldn’t actually put anyone, let alone someone off the TV, in mortal peril. One of the reasons Top Gear ran for so long was this respect it showed its audience. 

Mythbusters on the other hand took a different approach. They genuinely set something up that would put a person in mortal peril so instead of a normal person they’d use Buster, their mascot crash test dummy, as a stand in. Again this respect for the audience was a big reason for their success over many seasons. 

It’s Not Rocket Science is taking a third approach. They are seriously expecting us to believe they are putting the presenters in mortal peril. 

This week Romesh really really could have been crushed by a fridge. Last week him and Ben we’re really really going to be slammed into each other. In the first show Rachel was going to be really really burned to a crisp. 

From reading other on-line reviews and the Twitter feed I know I’m not the only one who wants to shout, “stop insulting my intelligence” at the TV. 

And as I’ve written before about another show that thought nothing of overhyping and then faking demos at least hide the safety wires if you want us to believe the presenter could really really die. 

Here’s the first shot without the weight that squashed the water melons- one line is attached to the fridge:

And here the second with the weight attached and Romesh underneath- there’s one line attached to the weight and one attached presumably to a bar that would swing the fridge away from him if anything went wrong:

No one can blame the producers for having to have a safety line but its presence totally ruins the demo. 

I’d much rather them present it like Top Gear would have by putting something valuable of Romesh’s under the fridge instead. Or like Mythbusters would have by putting Buster under something even more spectacular like a truck. Both treatments allow for all the jeopardy and reaction shots the producers needed and might give even better footage but crucially we wouldn’t be asked to believe something unbelievable as we are being told to believe in science. 

There’s such an opportunity being missed with this show. It really is a shame because all the elements are there. The presenters are great, the budget is huge. But I can’t watch any more of it I’m afraid. If it gets better drop me a line to tell me and I’ll try again. 

Teenage audiences

1 03 2016

I know there are people out there who have just had shivers go down their spine reading that title.

There’s a reason most organisations provide shows for P5-S2 (in Scotland) and Years 4-8 (in England). It’s hard to do shows about science for people younger than eight but it’s even harder to do science for teenagers. 

Once audiences hit thirteen and until they reach sixteen/seventeen they can be brutal. 

In this video Jimmy Fallon is talking to the writer and star of a new musical about politics and how they’ve got funding to do the show free for 20,000 teenagers. You can imagine the kids’ reactions when they’re told that’s the school trip. A musical, about politics, for an audience of teenagers…

At 1:30 they both talk about how amazing their first experiences of musical theatre was. You can hear their enthusiasm as they speak- but one went on to be a chat show host  and the other wrote his own musical! Of course, they both loved going to their first musicals. 

They are like us the first time we saw science. We felt for science the enthusiasm they felt for musicals- that’s why you’re reading this and I’m writing it!

But as we know not everyone is like us. Not everyone gets musicals just like not everyone gets science. As the writer explains:

Teenage audiences can’t lie. They’re the most incredible audiences we have and I remember being a teenager in an audience and if it was bad people would be like “whaaack”…

“This is whack. She doesn’t like him… Why are they singing..?”

I’ve done one performance that still haunts me. It was in America, before YouTube and camera phones so don’t think you can find it, thank heavens. It was a hastily organised show written for younger kids but somehow in one of the first performances I ended up in front of 1300 teenagers.  They spoke all the way through it, they turned their backs. It was terrible.

Since then I’ve seen presenters from some of the most respected SciCom organisations in the country fall prey to the same fate. Their teenage audiences have let them know in no uncertain terms what they thought of their shows. 

My show and all those others had something in common. The shows were substandard rubbish. The shows weren’t good enough to hold the attention, they weren’t good enough to deserve the attention, of the teenage audience. 

It is possible to do musicals and science for teenagers but the key factor is that your material has to be good. If you’ve got material that’s good those same teenagers will be the best audience you’ve ever had for the same reason they can be the worst. They can’t lie. 

I’ve love working with other presenters and I love to discuss stuff with them. I’m happy for people to totally disagree with almost anything I’ve got to say about science presenting except for one thing. 

However tough teenage audiences can be, if you got roasted it’s not their fault

Remember they can’t lie. It is your fault. It is my fault. Our material and the way we presented it just wasn’t good enough. 

We should never blame the audience before we’ve had a good long look at ourselves. Yes, some teenage audiences might sit quietly and let us do our thing but they are the exceptions. Like adults they’ve have learned to lie already. Adults will smile and endure our substandard shows and then probably tell us they loved it.

The others are just expressing what the rest are thinking. Teenagers can’t lie. 

Where’s the (rocket) science?

27 02 2016

Last week I bemoaned the lack of scientific content in ITV’s new “science-based entertainment” show. Episode 2 wasn’t any better I’m afraid. 

I’m not going to go on and on. We’ll just look at one piece to show the perils of ignoring the science in a science demo. This is a lesson we can all learn from. 

The big set piece this week was a giant-sized version of the bowling ball conservation of momentum demo.   

The idea is simple. In the traditional presentation of this demo an experimenter stands with his back to a wall. He cannot move any further back even if he wanted to. A bowling ball, suspended from the ceiling on a wire, is held against the tip of his nose and allowed to swing away from him. 

The ball swings away then starts to swing back… It’s going very fast… It’s getting closer and closer… Oh, no, he’s going to get squashed… He is trying to squirm back but the wall is in the way… Oh, the humanity!

Then the ball stops (literally) millimetres away from his nose. We all laugh in relief and explore the science. 

I set up and performed this demo for the BBC show Bang Goes the Theory Live when we were in Blackpool performing in the shadow of the Pepsi Max Big One roller coaster at the Pleasure Beach.

I didn’t put up a backboard or do it against a wall each of the TV presenters had to come up on stage hold the ball to their noses and not flinch as the ball came back towards them. I set it up that way because they all understood the science. It was a test of their confidence and courage. 

The science is simple. Drop a ball onto the floor and however bouncy the ball and hard the floor the ball cannot bounce to the same height it was dropped from and it certainly can’t go any higher

This goes the same for a ball that is rolled down the inside wall of a bowl. It cannot reach a higher point on the opposite wall and it certainly won’t reach a higher level than it was let go from when it returns

I used it in Blackpool to show why a roller coaster is towed up to its highest point at the start and then released. Despite all the ups and downs, accelerations and decelerations, and in this case a loop, the car never returns to the same height or goes higher.  

And it’s the same for our bowling ball. As long as the ball isn’t pulled back further than the tip of the experimenter’s nose, it can’t reach a higher point on its return so it can’t smash into the experimenter’s face. Knowing that, however, doesn’t make it any less scary or nerve-wracking for the person in the way or dramatic for us to watch. 

How you explain the science depends on your audience and your aim in doing the demo. One way might be to say energy cannot be created or destroyed. Our balls start with a certain amount of energy. As a bouncy ball bounces or a bowling ball swings friction and air resistance mean some energy is transformed from gravitational potential and kinetic to heat and sound so the balls can’t reach the same height or speed again. You might just say this is why you need to be pushed on a swing

How you explain it doesn’t matter but how you demonstrate it is very important. 

If you don’t show the before, where the object is released from, the after, where it ends up, is meaningless. 

Say you released the bowling ball on the opposite side to the experimenter, so instead of swinging away and then back it just swings towards the experimenter, this is not the same demonstration. This isn’t science this is just trusting someone not to have pulled it back too far or hoping they don’t give it a shove. 

It’s no longer about the experimenter putting their life in the hands of science it’s really just an exercise in measuring how far something is going to swing and putting your target just out of reach. You don’t need to reference the laws of Conservation of Energy you just need a long tape measure.  

And surely no one would do this as you lose all the drama and jeopardy of the before (as the ball is shown right up against the experimenter’s nose, you can actually see it touch his nose, the experimenter can feel it’s cold surface and smell it it’s so close) which makes the after (seeing it stop millimetres from his face) so tense and thrilling. “I don’t need a tape measure,” the experimenter can boldly say before they release the ball, “I trust science!”

And yet that’s exactly what they did on this weeks episode…

In both the small scale “science explanation” with Kevin Fong where they used a bowling ball and in the giant-sized human carrying version they pulled the balls back and just swung them across at the “unlucky” presenter who was apparently “in mortal danger” and “who really, really could die“. Yeah right. 

Instead of spending all that time building false jeopardy it could have been so much more dramatic if they’d respected the whole point of the demo- the science. 

Imagine the presenter in the human-sized ball being winched towards his colleague instead of away. Imagine the drama as they are shown close enough to touch,  close enough to share a last few drama-packed, whispered words “I can’t believe we are doing this! No one has even measured this! This could be fatal” etc before the ball is released. 

The ball swings away then starts to swing back… It’s going very fast… It’s getting closer and closer… Oh, no, he’s going to get squashed… He is trying to squirm back but the wall is in the way… Oh, the humanity!

But no. We saw this. The ball swung across once and stopped well short.   All the dramatic music and pieces to camera couldn’t mask the overwhelming sense of “so what?”.

Last week the science was ditched in favour of drama and hype. This week they went a step further, they ended up ditching the drama and hype because they ignored the science. 

The lesson we can all take away from this is simple: in a well thought out science-based demo the science isn’t something to gloss over, or worse ignore totally, the science is key. The science doesn’t make a demo boring the science makes the demo

Or, in your hunt for drama and entertainment in your science-based show, don’t throw the baby out with the bath water as my old Nan would have said. 

It’s Not (Rocket) Science!

22 02 2016

I’ve just finished watching ITV’s new show It’s Not Rocket Science

I was excited to see science making it to the big time. We’ve had singing (X-Factor), we’ve had dancing (Strictly…), we’ve even had winter sports (The Jump) but this is the first time that I can think science has taken centre stage. Unfortunately in this first episode science wasn’t allowed to take centre stage. Disappointingly for me the science wasn’t really allowed anywhere near the programme at all. 

The show was billed as “a science-based entertainment show” in the schedules and at the start of this week’s episode Ben Miller explained the show was “an entertainment show that looks at the world through a pair of science-shaped glasses”. 

Does the fact that it is an entertainment show mean it can be almost devoid of scientific content? I don’t think so.

I was hoping for another show like  Penn and Teller’s magic vehicle Fool Us. That show manages to satisfy both the general public looking for entertainment as well as people with a niche interest in the subject.

Their show celebrates magic and all its idiosyncrasies. It’s Not Rocket Science is not as confident. Rather than celebrating the science it tried to hide it. 

The show started with a race between a Red Arrows jet and the UK’s fastest sprinter over 100m. We then saw Rachel Riley zip line through a wall of fire. Romesh Ranganathan tested gadgets in school. We had some ‘news’ and messed about with a rugby player. Ben Miller took Joey Essex to a race track to drive a car using brainwaves before we ended with a studio-based liquid nitrogen piece. 

It sounded great on paper, it was certainly entertaining, but beyond the big budget gloss there wasn’t  any substance.

Take the Red Arrows piece.

We begin with brooding music, Top Gear-style “hero shots” of the plane and sprinter together with dramatic voiced-over factoids (“this isn’t any jet, it’s a such-and-such jet, it can fly at x mph… this isn’t any runner, this is the only British runner to go under 10 seconds for the 100m etc”). 

 Cool, I thought as I watched, those factoids really mean nothing out of context but it is exciting and it looks beautiful. What science are we going to explore with this?

The competition is set up. “It’s not something anyone’s tried before…” says the pilot dramatically to camera. “I’ve raced Usain Bolt”, says the sprinter, “but this is my toughest opponent yet.” 

Ok, so far so hyped, but it’s ITV, we can forgive them that. When do we get some science?

Ben Miller gets briefed before getting in the plane (eh?!). He’s told about how dangerous this could be, how the ejector seat could rocket him out of the plane, he’s apparently really scared and, even though this is his boyhood dream, asks “is it too late to back out?”

Ooh, jeopardy, I’m on the edge of my seat. Before the race starts, though, can we please have some science?

Now here’s the race. [voice over] “The Red Arrow has the higher top speed, the runner has the quicker acceleration. Both want to win.”

Ready, steady, go! There are numerous shots all beautifully set up to show the sprinter and the plane moving side by side and… the plane just gets to the 100m line first.   

 Right, that was undoubtably cool, you’ve definitely got my attention, but what’s it got to do with science?

Cut to reality TV-style reaction pieces. Everyone has to tell us how they felt and how it was the most amazing experience of their lives eg: Ben Miller: “I felt so emotional…”

Good God. Ok. We get it. It’s an entertainment show but you said it was science-based. Please, please can we have some science? 

Cut to the studio and a discussion about what we’ve seen on the video. 

 Now do we get the science? Nope. Just some banter and joshing between the presenters about how amazing the video was and how Ben Miller wasn’t sick. 

There was basically no science content at all. 

They mentioned the words “acceleration” and “speed” in the voice over but that was it. We didn’t need anything too hard, we didn’t need equations, but we got nothing. There was no explanation of what we were seeing beyond the superficial. 

In the studio discussion the Red Arrows pilot gave us a hint of what we could have been covering as he told us “we did some maths and realised how close it could be” but this was totally ignored by the panel (or any further discussion was deftly edited out).

And that set the pattern for the whole show. Loads of hype, beautiful TV eye candy, but very little, if no, science.

In the next section Rachel Riley was apparently in danger of being burnt to a crisp as she flew down a zip wire through a wall of fire. 

“It could be fatal” she told us. No it couldn’t, Rachel. Anyone who’s passed their finger through a candle flame knows as long as you go fast enough you won’t get burned. It’s the difference between radiation and convection. You can’t get your finger very close to the top of a flame without getting burned but you can get your finger within millimetres of the side and suffer no ill-effects.  Kevin Fong, no less, ex NASA and fresh from this year’s RI Christmas Lectures was wheeled in to give us his special science explanation before Rachel took to the zip line. “Step into my office and let me show you how science is going to save you.” Kevin said. Here’s what we are told:

It’s all about this thing we call specific heat capacity and that’s the energy it takes to warm water up… Of all the objects that we have in the house water takes the most energy to heat up… 

[This is demoed with some bread. Regular bread blasted by two blowtorches for 10 seconds chars but bread sprayed with water doesn’t.] This is all about taking the energy that could damage you and make it do something else.

Well yes, sort of, but the science that’s going to save her is the speed and the angle she’s going to fly through the flames, isn’t it? If she was stopped in the flames and held steady for 10 seconds like the toast under the blowtorch I don’t think a spray of water would help her much. 

How long she could last before getting burned *with a spray of water* and *without a spray of water* would actually be a science experiment… but that’s not what this show was about. 

We cut to more brooding music, dramatic camera shots and statements about how scary it’s going to be. “This is by far the most dangerous thing I’ve ever done. But there’s no turning back now”, Rachel said. 

She set off. It looked great but we never saw her go through the flames at full speed. Only in slomo. Hmm…

Now you could argue that this was just a dramatic choice but it also handily hid how little time she spent in the flames. It also made it look like the water was the thing that saved her. The way this was edited misrepresented or at least massively oversimplified what was going on. 

And guess what? After that we got yet more slow motion footage and dramatic reaction pieces to camera- but no more science.

I could carry on but I don’t think you need to hear in detail about how Ben Miller steered the car using what could have been a Wii controller strapped to his head and Joey Essex apparently controlled the speed of the car with “beta brain waves”. Of course, we were not told how this process worked but I’ve played with one of these and it looked very similar… 

Star Wars Force Training Game

The show ended with three bog standard liquid nitrogen demos one of which I covered being performed much better in my last post all of which were generic, unimaginative and not done particularly well. 

We were quickly told about liquid nitrogen then a bunch of roses was whacked half-frozen off Joey’s head and the flesh of a pretty squidgy looking banana, you guessed it, was used to hit a nail into a board.

These were not allowed to get cold properly and the presenter didn’t stress enough the before (soft, flexible, room temperature petals and banana) compared to the after (cold, brittle and frozen petals and banana) so the whole point of those demos, the science, the extreme temperature of the LN2, got lost.  

And I think this typified the attitude to science in the whole show. The science effect and the scientific explanation of one of the most mind-blowing substances on Earth, liquid nitrogen, wasn’t considered spectacular or interesting enough to  be centre stage (or even to rehearse properly or reshoot when the flowers hardly crumbled and the banana started to splatter instead of shatter). Instead, we were encouraged to laugh with Ben Miller at a stupid celebrity. Celebrities are obviously entertaining but not science. 

Their final demo was the liquid nitrogen cloud. I’d have hoped such a big budget show would have done more than just copy a demo they’ve seen on YouTube.

Here is Steve Spangler’s version with kids…   

and his version on the Ellen Show.    

 Here is the same demo on the Jimmy Fallon show:   

 Here it is on a Japanese kids show:

And here it is done by Jonathon Ross and Brian Cox:   

The way It’s Not Rocket Science did the demo was identical:  
 But nt only wasn’t it any different to all those others there wasn’t any science explanation to justify the effect. 

As he performed the demo Ben Miller told us: “I’m going to heat up the nitrogen with hot water… look we’ve made a cloud!” That was it. 

In an hour long science-based entertainment show, even if it is an entertainment show first and foremost surely we could have had a tiny bit more of explanation?

What is a cloud? What was that cloud? Why did it go so high? Why did it fall down to the ground unlike clouds in the sky? What do people use LN2 for? etc

Both of the Steve Spangler examples are performed more dramatically than the one in this show and I would argue they are both are more satisfying as well because we learn something alongside getting to marvel at something spectacular.

This sums up where I think It’s Not Rocket Science went wrong. Taking out the science from a show advertised as being (however entertainingly) about science doesn’t make the show more accessible it renders the whole exercise pointless. 

People tuning in for entertainment will turn over to alternative shows that aren’t shackled by having to pretend there’s a scientific reason behind it all and people tuning in to see some science will give up as the show really has none. 

I hope the next shows are treated differently, I hope the presenters who were all very good and all have impressive science and maths credentials, are allowed to explore just a little beyond the superficial. 

I don’t think adding some explanations will turn people off. I think those wanting entertainment will find it makes the stunts more, not less, interesting and those tuning in for science will not stick with the show for long if there continues to be so little for them. 

Questions 3: formative questions

15 12 2015

If you teach children for a year or more you know (educationally) where they’ve been, where they are and where you are trying to get them. As science presenters we have no idea. You can ask the adults in the room but I find the adults often understate what the children have already covered (to make the children look good) or overstate it (to make themselves look good). 

The best way is to ask the children and you can do that with the use of careful questioning- by asking formative questions at the start of a show. 

There are two types of assessment- formative and summative

Summative assessment sums up what people have learned. Exams, projects and essays are all examples. It is normally high stakes and occurs at the end of a block of teaching. 

Formative assessment exists to help form the teaching and learning. It is often informal, low stakes and designed to establish a benchmark of knowledge that can then be built on. 

At the start of most of my shows I include formative questions to assess what the children have already covered. All of my shows have been written to suit multiple age groups and there is normally a presentation half a Keystage up or down I can switch to. I will ask questions at the start of a show to assess if I need to take the presentation up or down one of these levels. After all there’s no point teaching stuff they’ve just covered or teaching stuff they need a bit more experience to cover. 

Care must be taken that to get an accurate idea of the whole group’s ability when asking formative questions. If you just take answers from one or two keen students you can’t then assume everyone knows what they do. Conversely if a group of 15 year olds stare blankly back at you (or more likely their shoes) when you ask they might just be feeling ‘too cool for school’ and not willing to answer rather than unable to answer. 

Formative questions can be used to find out how cooperative and enthusiastic a group is going to be. You can ask questions to help you as the presenter form an idea about the audience. Children scared to answer simple questions at the start of a show might indicate that you need to build up trust between you and them further before you start the show in earnest. Again conversley if your question is met with searing disdain and aggressive sniping then you know your audience needs a bit of managing if the session is to be a success. 

Questions are powerful tools in the science presenters armoury when used with thought and purpose. Asking formative questions, if you are able to adapt your material, will allow you to tailor your presentations and increase your effectiveness.