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. 


European peace visualised

6 06 2016

“If watching the news doesn’t make us feel hopeful about where we are heading watching the numbers might.”

My grandad was a product of his time. In the late 1980s as I was trying to find my adult political feet he was turning 70 and we would argue regularly about the issues of the day.  

We passionately disagreed about Margaret Thatcher and privatisations; Nelson Mandela and apartheid; and Alf Garnet and what one could acceptably say in public. 

So one Sunday after lunch when I asked what he thought about Europe (at the height of the ERM crisis) I was shocked at his reply:

The European Union is the best thing that’s happened to this country. 

I was a teenager looking for a good argument – I didn’t expect him to say that. 

His reasoning was simple:

My father fought in a world war. I fought in a world war. Because of the EU my children and my grandchildren haven’t had to. 

On 23rd June we will get to vote in the EU Referendum and I will be voting to keep the UK in. Whatever your opinion and voting intention I’d recommend watching this video. 

It is a powerful visualisation of the numbers of people who died in Europe and across the world in WW2. It belongs on this blog as a brilliantly simple piece of data visualisation. If it contributes some interesting information that might help you make up your mind about which way to vote all the better. 

[If you don’t have time for it all watch from 3:15 to 7:00 to see the staggering numbers of German and Russian military deaths or from 7:30 to 12:00 European civilian deaths.]

As we are shown and told in the video:

More people died in WW2 than in all the wars since despite the world’s population having increased threefold. 

The largest 44 economies of the world have not battled since WW2. And

Sometimes we need to reminded of the horrors of war to notice the peace that we now enjoy. 

I can’t guess how my grandad would have voted if he was still with us but I suspect, despite all the things we’d be still disagreeing about, we’d both agree to vote “In”. Whatever the faults of the EU it’s helped give us peace since WW2 and that’s a very good thing. 

Science nuggets

23 03 2016

My three evaluation questions are What’s the Story? Who’s the Audience? and Where’s the science?

Today I’d like to think a little about the third question. 

Every science demo we perform relies on or reveals an essential nugget (for want of a better term) of science. The way we explain that nugget of science depends on our Audience and the Story we have chosen to tell. Nevertheless each demo is still underpinned by a nugget of science and if we fail to get that across we might as well not bother with anything else. 

Take this classic demo.

You probably know what’s going to happen. The little ball is going to rocket up off bigger ball. It’s a spectacular self-working demo that requires cheap non-specialist equipment. No wonder it is such a popular choice for presenters. 

The demo is comprehensively described on the page where I took that picture from. What is the nugget of science in this demo?

Most times I see this performed the balls are dropped, the little ball shoots off, we are asked to marvel at what happened, often we are shown it happen again, then it is explained. 

But what’s the nugget?

It doesn’t matter who your Audience is or what your Story the nugget here is that 

the basketball doesn’t bounce as high with the tennis ball on top

If your presentation of this demo doesn’t get across this simple point that the basketball will bounce to one height by itself but a lower height with the tennis ball on top then you’ve missed the nugget. 

All the talk of conservation of energy and transfer of momentum will mean nothing if the different bounce heights haven’t been noticed. 

Once you’ve identified the nugget then then the best presentation of the demo should be clear. In this demo we need to show the balls dropped separately then together. 

This video does a very good job of explaining it. 

It should be clear from watching this video that explaining this demo takes time and you can cover many science topics with it. What they do well is show the nugget: the basketball doesn’t bounce as high with the tennis ball on top.  

This video gives another example to stress the point. Someone double bouncing someone on a trampoline will send the other person higher but they won’t go as high. 

We must search for the nugget in every demo we perform. Every demo has one single piece of scientific information in it that, however we choose to present it, must be got across. 

I’ve just had the pleasure of spending a week working with liquid nitrogen. The context for the show was space and I was able to use the LN2 to demonstrate alien atmospheres, the formation of clouds, changes of state, reversible and irreversible reactions, fractional distillation and water content in living cells but I was careful to not lose sight of LN2’s science nugget:

liquid nitrogen is the coldest substance you will ever encounter

If you are working with LN2 and your audience hasn’t grasped that liquid nitrogen is unbelievably cold then whatever else you’ve tried to get across won’t have been properly understood. 

I know reading this that probably sounds obvious to you. If you’ve managed to get your hands on a dewar of LN2 then your training will have stressed the extreme cold to you. Remember though the audience might not have seen LN2 before and even if they have it was probably at another science event where it’s properties might not have been properly explained. 

Just as with the ball on ball demo height difference you must cover the extreme cold of the LN2. How do you know if you’ve covered the nugget? Ask your audience. 

If I was being honest I’d say more than half, maybe even three quarters of the LN2 demos I’ve watched over the years haven’t stressed the extreme cold enough that the audience has grasped it. I always get someone in the audience of a LN2 show I’ve watched to tell me something about the LN2? Too often, even after prompting, they can’t tell me that it is incredibly cold. If someone in the audience of a show I’ve done can’t tell me I immediately review how I’ve explained it. 

Take the fizzy tablet dropped into a film canister demo. Here’s the wonderful Steve Spangler performing this demo. What’s the nugget?

Here the nugget is when the tablets get wet they fizz. He demonstrates this simply by putting a couple of tablets in a glass of water. 

It is too easy to assume that your audience will know what an Alca Seltzer tablet does and forget to stress this nugget. If you don’t show the tablets fizzing then everything that follows might be misunderstood. 

What you then do with the nugget is up to you. Acid plus base reactions, build up of pressure, solids and liquids taking up less space than gases, compressibility of gases, friction and seals can a be discussed but just as with the LN2 and the balls if you’ve not covered the nugget you’ve massively reduced your chances of your audience understanding anything of what you are doing. 

the basketball doesn’t bounce as high… the LN2 is extremely cold… the tablets will fizz when they get wet

Find your nuggets in all your demos. Take the time to cover them clearly. Only then go on to show or explain what you’d planned. 

There’s one more excellent example at the start of the Steve Spangler clip. He demonstrates the cornflour on a speaker. 

What’s the nugget with the speaker demo? The speaker is vibrating

Steve takes the time to show this using some ping pong balls. That bounce out of the speaker. 

It’s such an obvious and simple thing to show but in all the times you’ve seen this demo being performed ask yourself how many times have you seen a presenter take the time to show this absolutely vital piece of information? 

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. 


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. 

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. 

Volunteer theory 3

29 02 2016

Here are three examples where presenters are speaking about exponential growth. 

Richard Dawkins (speaking about population growth) and Chris Bishop (speaking about computer processing speed increases) use volunteers to carry out their demonstrations. David Suzuki (speaking about human impact on the atmosphere) chooses not to.

I find Suzuki’s explanation of exponential growth clearer than either Bishop’s or Dawkins’ and this is in part due to his choosing not to employ volunteers. 

As I explained in this post there is a cost to employing volunteers. It takes up valuable time, it relinquishes control and it can be a distraction. If volunteers are used effectively then those costs can be outweighed by the benefits but that means the volunteers must actually be useful, promote positive emotions and add drama. If their use accomplishes none of these objectives then it is better not to use them. 

If a volunteer isn’t performing at least one of these six reasons to use a volunteer (extra pair of hands, naive actor, promote empathy, to react, to increase jeopardy and/or provide a different voice) then they have no place up on stage with you but more importantly it is OK for you not to use them. 

My advice to both Bishop and Dawkins would be to just carry out the demos themselves. The benefits of using their volunteers is outweighed by the costs. Worse, the clarity of their descriptions of exponential growth suffer because of the volunteers. 

Richard Dawkins [watch from 6:30 mins] gets two volunteers to fold a large piece of paper.

He wants to show us the effects of doubling a bacteria population 50 times. His volunteers aren’t acting as an extra pair of hands, he could easily have done this himself; they are not acting a naive actors, there is no possibility for trickery and they are not asked to confirm anything; we don’t empathise positively with them, if anything I felt awkward and embarrassed with and for them as they were allowed to “fail”; they don’t react, we don’t see them struggle as their backs are to us; their use doesn’t increase jeopardy and they are not invited to speak so they can’t provide a different voice

Watch how Dawkins has to cut into his explanation at 8:25 to send them back. They are a distraction to him. And listen to how luke warm the applause is as they go back to their seats. They haven’t brought anything to this explanation. 

He then goes on to tell us that the paper, folded 50 times, would be some fantastical thickness but he doesn’t make use of the paper he’s just asked them to fold for him. You can see it sitting to his right:

So what was the point of using the volunteers? There wasn’t one. 

Just because folding paper is something you can ask a child to do and you think science presentations should have volunteers that isn’t sufficient justification to get volunteer children to fold the paper! It’s OK just to do it yourself as you explain its significance to your argument. 

I’ve written about Chris Bishop using his volunteer already so I won’t repeat myself again. Some people commented after that post that “people still like to get involved” and “offering that opportunity to a volunteer was generous” and I’d agree (and thank them for their comments) but that’s not enough of a reason to justify the cost of using any volunteer let alone this one. 

The time spent selecting, moving and instructing the volunteer, the loss of control as everyone clamours to get picked and the crashing disappointment they then feel having not been picked and the distraction as we are being encouraged to look at a volunteer as well as the balls isn’t outweighed by this volunteer’s presence. 

Worse, as with the Dawkins example, the actual explanation of what exponential growth is gets relegated when that should actually be the whole point of both demos. 

Compare that to David Suzuki’s explanation. The time it takes to select a volunteer is better used defining exponential growth:

anything growing steadily is called exponential growth and anything growing exponentially has a predictable doubling time.

Then instead of carrying out a physical demo we are asked to imagine a test tube filled with food for bacteria. 

The test tube and the food is our planet and the bacteria are us. I’m going to add one bacteria which will divide every minute. That’s exponential growth. 

At that point a single light is illuminated behind him. 

This is his demo and it’s going to go on behind him as he speaks. Mirroring what he explains verbally that one light becomes two, then it becomes four, then eight. We can see the number of lights growing exponentially. 

At the beginning there is 1 cell, after one minute there are 2, two minutes there are 4, three minutes there are 8, that’s exponential growth and at sixty minutes the test tube is completely filled with bacteria. 

He could have got two volunteers out of the audience to successively switch on double the previous number of lights (like Dawkins), he could have got a volunteer to come out and press a big red button to start the lights off (like Bishop) but he knows there’s no point. 

Not only could he do it himself (the volunteers wouldn’t be useful) the time is better spent making the best possible explanation he can that has the most impact. He doesn’t even draw our attention to the fact that the demo has started. 

So when is the test tube half full? he casually asks. 

I’ll give you a moment to think. Don’t scroll down until you have an answer…

And, of course, the answer is at 59 minutes. At 59 minutes it’s half full but at 60 minutes it’s completely full. So at 58 minutes it’s twenty five percent full, at 57 minutes twelve and a half percent full. 

This blew my mind. Forget paper folding or ping pong balls, with just some multiplying background lights and no volunteers to distract us we given the opportunity to get the reason why growth being exponential is so important. It is the amazing rate of change. 

You might have assumed (like I did even having watched Bishop and Dawkins multiple times) that the tube would be half full half way through the hour. But:

at 55 minutes of a 60 minute cycle the test tube is just three percent full. 


And look at all those lights. 

Suzuki is stressing exponential growth because of human impact on atmospheric pollution, Dawkins because of the survival of only the fittest and Bishop about Moore’s law and growth of computer processing power. 

They are all trying to get across the same point but Suzuki doesn’t risk muddying his message by using volunteers where they are not needed. As such his explanation is so much clearer and has a greater impact.  

The message of this post is very important. If you can’t think of a reason (beyond “wouldn’t it be nice…” or “isn’t that what we have to do..?”) to use a volunteer or if using a volunteer will cost more than it will bring in benefits then it’s OK to not use them. 

Using volunteers can be hugely effective but only if you follow the six reasons, to ensure they at least serve a useful purpose, and that they hopefully also promote positive emotions and add to the drama. 

Be like Suzuki. Have confidence that what you are saying or what you are showing is impactful enough. Don’t be like Bishop and Dawkins and fall into the trap of using volunteers where they aren’t helpful. It’s not good for your argument and it’s not fair to the volunteers.