First responsibility

22 02 2017

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

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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.

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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.





Teller speaks about demo chains

2 02 2017

This video is worth watching because you get to see and hear Teller doing magic. 

In his talk Teller expertly demonstrates how magicians take advantage of how people begin to gain understanding as they see things being repeated. 

As he says in his introduction: In real life you see something repeated and you start to pick up a pattern. 

Teller doesn’t just tell us, of course, he demonstrates it. In a perfect example of Hook and Reveal we are shown the trick and then left desperate to know what is going on. He doesn’t leave us hanging for long, he moves straight into a Tell and Show explanation of what was he was actually doing with the coins perfectly illustrating the point he wants us to grasp. 

There’s a lot to enjoy about this short talk but the one takeaway I’d like to highlight is the power of the repetition. He doesn’t just reveal one coin and move onto another trick. He has built an entire piece around a simple idea. 

As the trick progresses Teller shows how at every reveal he manipulates what we think we’ve already learned so he can surprise us with the next twist. As science presenters we can use the same powerful technique to reinforce and explain rather than baffle our audiences. 

If he went straight to producing coins out of someone’s glasses the trick would be a very unsatisfactory trick. But because he builds a series of productions before we fully appreciate and enjoy what has just happened. 

When we present science if we link our demos, as we move through what I like to call a Demo Chain we can harness this same technique of repetition but instead of using it to fool your audience like a magician you use it to aid their comprehension. 

Follow the Demo Chain link or check out any of Steve Spangler’s work to see good examples. 





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. 





Keep to time

10 06 2016

An absolutely essential skill for every science presenter is the ability to keep to time. 

  
Often you will be sharing a stage with other presenters, or your audience will have another talk to get to, it is essential that you don’t overrun. 

A couple of minutes might seem like nothing to you, perhaps your audience was late arriving so you feel you have the right to go on a bit longer, but the sign of a professional presenter is one who selflessly gets the program back on track not selfishly compounds the problem. 

I think the best way to think of your overrun isn’t just as the time you go over but the time you go over multiplied by the number of people you’ve kept back. All of a sudden those 3mins you stole look more of a problem when you multiply them by 50 (or perhaps many more). 

At one British Science Festival event I was performing to groups of 300 (10 classes of 30). Another presenter in the session before me was presenting to just one class that were then sent on to me. He was mortified to learn that what he thought had been his harmless 5-10 minute overruns for 30 had actually been consistently delaying over 250 people in the next session. He had no idea where the group was going to next and he felt entitled to “steal back” the time as the audience was arriving late to him. To give him his due when he found out he fixed the problem but there should never have been a problem in the first place. However frustrating I found cutting my material, and however justified I might have felt to take extra time to compensate for what I’d lost, I never did. This was noticed by the organisers and the teachers who’d brought their children and made me look more not less professional. 

The first way to avoid overruns is to be absolutely sure what time your session must end. I will ask the organiser the time I have to finish and write that time in large figures on my notebook. I leave it open on my props table so when I inevitably forget I can glance down and check.  

Ensure the organiser has included the time the audience might need to get to their next appointment. Often “finish at 1pm” on further investigation actually means “finish at 12:50pm” because it will take that time to move the audience on. 

Be wary of clocks in your performance space. Often they will be many minutes out and it’s all too easy to go over because of it. When you ask what time you need to finish it’s a good idea to check everyone is working off the same time too. 

Be prepared to cut or stretch your material to deal with unexpected timing issues. There are always times when you might be delayed starting your presentation or there might be a delay (like a fire alarm) once you’ve started. 

At the most extreme you might have to drop a whole section. It’s easier to stretch. You can ask for questions at the end and no one really minds things ending a little early. If you’ve lost thine there are ways to speed things up:

For instance instead of doing three demos in a chain you might do just two. Instead of asking a question can just state the fact. And carrying out a demo by yourself instead of (announcing, selecting, moving, instructing, thanking and then re-moving) a volunteer can save many valuable minutes. 

Yes, you’ve compromised your material, but only you will be aware of the fact. Getting back on track and finishing on time is much more important. 

Speaking groups like Toastmasters quite rightly put great store on talking to time. They will use devices to help speakers know the time they have left. Sometimes you see such devices at political conferences. 

  

Tools like PClock can help with timekeeping. I have copies on both my iPhone and iPad and I’ll use them to help keep me on time.   

You can set the countdown in three sections. The colours change (and the device vibrates) to show you the section change. 

  
Here I can see I’ve got lots of time left. Even if I don’t read the figures I can see they’re green. At 10:00 they are programmed to go yellow. 

  
If they’ve gone red that means I’m into my last 5:00 and I’d better think about how I’m going to bring things to a halt. 

  
If I’m being honest normally I can just rely on my watch. I’d only use PClock myself if it was a new show or if time was extremely important (ie: I’ve got to finish to the second and I can’t go over or under).

Every now and again I’ll meet a presenter who goes on stage without any way to check the time. Sometimes they’ll even be proud of the fact they don’t even have a watch. Don’t be like them. It’s not big or clever. Going over is rude and selfish. Even if the organiser says nothing at the time it’s a sure fire way to not get booked again. 

If you really struggle I’ve seen presenters that wear devices like vibrating watches so they can’t miss their allotted stopping time. 

  

Sometimes if you are going over the organiser will make signs at you. If you see an organiser circling their pointed finger it means “wrap it up”. If you see hands in the shape of a T it means “time to stop, now”. 

  

TV has a series of signs used to communicate information. If you ever get the chance to appear on TV it is well worth making yourself aware of those. 

  
If you do you’ll avoid having to be cut off like I was at the end of this section of TV in Ireland. 


 





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. 

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Potpourri revisited

7 03 2016

A while back I wrote about what I like to call Potpourri Shows. A potpourri is an assembly of dried flowers and spices that smells good but it also refers to

  
a mixture or medley of things

Now that sounds good. We could maybe write a science show that was a selection, an assemblage, a melange even a miscellany of demos and concepts?

But hang on. Maybe if we did that our show could end up as more of a ragbaga hotchpotch and a mishmash than an attractive smorgasbord.

And as our job is to enlighten and inspire we certainly wouldn’t want to put on a jumble or, heaven forbid, a farrago

These last few weeks I’ve had the pleasure of seeing no less than four very competent performers present shows that fell well short of the standards they should and could be achieving because their chosen show titles were little more than potpourri camouflage.

You should be able to describe the story, the theme, the big underlying idea of your presentation in a single sentance. A potpourri show by definition will fail this test because by its very nature as it jumps from unrelated demo to unrelated demo it brings in far too many competing concepts. (However carefully its real nature has been disguised with a clever title that gives the impression of a theme like “Science Magic!” or “Chemical Chaos!”).

If you won’t take this advice on my say this is what Lawrence Bragg of the Royal Institution has to say on the matter:

How many main points can we hope to ‘get over’ in an hour? I think the answer should be one. If the average member of the audience can remember with interest and enthusiasm one main theme, the lecture has been a great success. 

  

Sir Lawrence Bragg (1891-1971) winner of a Nobel Prize at 25, Cavendish Professor of Experimental Physics at Cambridge and, most importantly in this context, Resident Professor at the Royal Institution for 13 years and the founder of the weekly ‘Schools Lectures’ for children. 

If just one main point was good enough for the man who presented his lectures to an estimated 100,000 children over the years at the RI then it should be good enough for us as well. 

Ditch the potpourri shows, find a compelling story to tell and take the time to tell that one story so we go away feeling your enthusiasm and excitement. 

  
It is all to easy to set out to make a delicious olla podrida but end up instead with a right gallimaufry. And no one wants that. 





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.