Wonder Workers – an essay on the compatibility of science and magic

Isambard Kingdom Brunel, British engineer and wonder worker, had botched a children’s magic show. He had managed to swallow a gold half-sovereign coin and now it was firmly lodged in his windpipe. It threatened to choke him at any time. He confounded the medical community for several weeks. Shaking, slapping and a tracheotomy had failed. Eventually he was strapped to a rotating wooden board and spun upside down. With Brunel as a human centrifuge the coin finally made its exit.[1]

A few months later in July 1843 the nation was celebrating the successful launch of Brunel’s record breaking ship the SS Great Britain. At the Royal banquet, in front of Prince Albert, one American dignitary remarked: “Sir, let us leave magic to the nursery: give me the magic of the mechanical arts. Consider Sir, that science has but waved her wand over the iron mine, and that beautiful structure has started up ready to launch on the waves.[2] As the Industrial Revolution progressed, marvellous machines and new scientific discoveries were equipping humans with god-like powers. The supernatural was being squeezed and magicians who claimed otherworldly powers were losing out to technology in the public eye.

Has this childish magic been superseded by science? In this essay I’ll argue that magic and science have a symbiotic relationship. From Hero of Alexandria’s pneumatically operated temple doors[3] to modern day Augmented Reality and projection mapping. At the heart of great scientists, engineers, innovators and magicians is an incurable curiosity and a healthy dose of wonder. In conclusion I will explore where I believe 21st Century magic is going.

Brunel for me epitomises the pioneer engineer – he dreamt big; he took risks; he tried new things. Almost all his major projects were complex dances with the impossible. Whether they were transatlantic steamships, gravity defying bridges, dangerous tunnels or superfast railways. Amongst the spectacular successes there were commercial catastrophes. The SS Great Britain, a transatlantic steamship, is a great example of a project that all his critics said was impossible. Surely a coal carrying ship would be too heavy to float or would run out of steam halfway to America?  The solution was to build big. Really big. The larger the ship, the more fuel efficient it becomes. Building a floating giant would be challenging and risky. To add to this he also designed the ship to include an iron hull and propeller. At the time these were both emerging and contentious technologies. Brunel was always searching for, testing and adopting new ideas. He had a thorough knowledge of the past and respect for his craft, but had eyes on the future. Brunel may have been a poor coin conjurer but he had a magical mindset.

Blurring the lines

Across the English Channel in France another magician was at work. Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin (1805-1871) was an inventive clockmaker. His father-in-law was trained by master watchmaker Abraham Louis Breguet, the same man who Brunel was apprentice to during his teenage years. Robert-Houdin had a special fascination with electricity, which in the early 19th century had just started to be understood and harnessed. He is known today for his exquisite and highly collectible electric clocks.

In his early 20s, due to an accidental mail order mix up Robert-Houdin received a set of conjuring books rather than the precious clock books he’d ordered. A curious new interest was sparked. As the hobby grew he started utilising his mechanical skills to improve existing magic tricks, devise his own and create automatons with a magical twist. New technology put to work covertly. An audience can’t suspect something that they don’t know exists!

It is no surprise to me that someone who is fascinated by understanding and utilising mechanisms would be drawn towards magic. In one sense scientists and magicians are opposites. One takes mysteries and deconstructs. The other constructs mysteries. However, the thing that unites both is a love of wonder, serious play and asking that powerful question: “what if…?” A joy of being a scientist is not in the dissecting but in using discoveries to create and share possibilities. A joy of being a magician is to use impossibilities to inspire and create possibilities for audiences.

By his own account Robert-Houdin was a terrible performer at first; his nerves and a focus on complex method rather than streamlined effect.  Through persistence and practise the presentation improved. He is now remembered as ‘the father of modern conjuring’; partly due to his innovative tricks but mainly due to the change in performance style and venue. Robert-Houdin took magic from the streets to theatres and private homes; creating a lavish set and dressing impeccably.

In 1856 France had a problem. One of its overseas territories in Algeria was being drawn towards a revolt by the local tribal leaders. Robert-Houdin was tasked by the French government to make the civil war disappear. The French knew the local population were superstitious and the idea was to send a magician over to prove that French magic was superior. Robert-Houdin staged a series of shows for the locals. One of the illusions he presented was his creation: The Light and Heavy Chest. The strongest villager was brought up on stage to lift up a wooden box. No problem. Then he was supposedly hypnotised to drain him of his strength and then asked to lift the same box again. This time the box remained unmoved. The man struggled in vain, then in a shocking twist he yelped in pain and ran off the stage in fear. Performances like this and the infamous Bullet Catch left the villagers in no doubt about French power. The revolt died a quick death.[4]

The story is often portrayed as a triumph of rational thinking over irrational belief; of enlightenment versus superstition. In 1584 Reginald Scot wrote The Discoverie of Witchcraft, the first magic book, in an attempt to show that supposed supernatural acts weren’t the work of witches but natural phenomenon, medical conditions or deceptive charlatans. Victims of the witch trials suffered because they found themselves on the wrong side of ignorance.

The Algerians witnessed both a display of magic and the recently discovered power of electromagnetism from Robert-Houdin. The wooden box had an iron plate on the bottom which was then held to the stage floor with an electromagnet that was switched on and off. Later in the performance the unfortunate volunteer experienced an electric shock through the metal handles of the chest. His muscles reacted involuntarily and painfully. Robert-Houdin stood in the middle ground between science and magic. For me the story is an illustration of the blurred interface between science and magic. Science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke famously stated this in his 3rd law:

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”[5]

Science Wizards

The 19th century was awash with breathtaking new discoveries and inventors. The scientists and engineers behind them were national celebrities and held in high esteem. Public lecture demonstrations were the must see entertainment of the age. Science mixed with showmanship. They were so popular at the Royal Institution in London that the road outside, in order to regulate traffic, became the first official one way street in the UK. Inside the building along with offices, libraries and research labs, there is a lecture theatre with a large table where the science was centre stage.

As the 19th Century science started to be exploited commercially and as international travel became more accessible the World Expositions sprang up. Their display of technical innovations became a showcase for nations and companies. The first World Expo in 1851 was The Great Exhibition (or Crystal Palace Exhibition) in Hyde Park, London. It lasted for five and a half months. They proved extremely popular with the mix of attractions, shows, grandeur, boundary pushing and one-upmanship. Marvellous inventions were premiered like the telephone (Philadelphia 1876), Ferris wheel (Chicago 1893), diesel engine (Paris 1900), X-ray machine (New York 1901) and the household plug socket (St Louis 1904).

During the same year the natives in Algeria were being scared by Robert-Houdin, a boy named Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) was born. His expertise was in electrical engineering and he became the archetype mad scientist, inventor and futurist. In the fictional book (and film) The Prestige he was portrayed as the ‘science wizard’ behind the strange goings on; a phrase that evokes images of scientist, artist and mystic. The real life Tesla also embodied all three personas and played to it in public. He claimed to see with his mind’s eye and imagine the details of his inventions so clearly that he didn’t have to write anything down. At the World Expos he’d be on stage creating huge lightning bolts, influencing objects at a distance and electrifying his body so it glowed.[6] Here was a man who had tamed the beast of electricity. At the time the public had a healthy fear of this unknown novelty that acted like pure magic.[7] Like Tesla’s electricity, magnets are also magical. You only have to be holding two strong magnets in your hands to feel the force between them. There’s almost a supernatural quality to magnets; they’re a little scary and unworldly!

This new and ominous power was one of the reasons the public in the 19th Century were fascinated by science and those who could harness it. Whereas Robert-Houdin used new scientific discoveries to perform his magic, now magicians were struggling to keep up with the draw of science. Why would the public want to see a show that deceives when you can be wowed by the real thing?

During this time there was another blurring between scientists and magicians; with both drawing inspiration from the other side. It was hard to tell who was who. Scientists and technology companies were using the imagery from magic in their public relations. Some like Joseph Vanek (1818-1889), a Hungarian Professor of Physics, took things further by incorporating magic into his science lectures and toured Europe and Asia with his wonder shows. Magicians found that they had to adapt their presentations. The traditional magician in pointy hat and occult symbols who taps into the supernatural realm is replaced with a scientist in the lab emitting lightning bolts. Show posters are an ideal visual way to observe how trends have evolved in magic. The superbly detailed (and massive) book “Magic. 1400s-1950s[8] highlights this change. Magicians like Robert-Houdin and his Scottish rival John Henry Anderson “The Wizard of the North” toured with elaborate shows that featured magic, science demonstrations and automatons. Individual illusions also had their presentations change to keep up with the times. Take for example Robert-Houdin’s suspension illusion. Initially he claimed the reason his assistant could remain suspended in the air was due to the property of the gas ether. Many years later the illusion had a theme of hypnotism (or mesmerism as it was called at the time, after the pioneer Franz Mesmer.)

Throw into the mix a new breed of quacks and advertisers who wanted to exploit the public’s ignorant fascination with their wonder cures and inventions. Walford Bodie (1869-1939) was a controversial showman and came close to his claim of being the ‘Most Remarkable Man on Earth’. His show was a mix of magic, science, hypnotism, healings and ‘mock’ electrocutions. He angered medical professionals by claiming to be a doctor, caused riots and was good friends with Harry Houdini (who in 1920 gifted him the original Electric Chair used at Sing Sing Prison). The overall effect for the public is that the exact source of their wonder is blurred; is it real or an illusion?

Evolving magic

The new science had forced magicians to evolve both in style and tricks. No longer did they have access to secret powers but instead were mere wonder workers. It was during this time in 1876 that Professor Hoffmann (Angelo Lewis (1839-1919)) dropped a bombshell. His first book ‘Modern Magic’ exposed the workings of magical effects to the general public. Anyone with an interest in understanding the stage tricks could now go to a bookshop and find out. Initially seen as a massive betrayal to the magic community it proved to be a catalyst for magicians to abandon old tricks and develop new, more baffling illusions. The golden age of stage magic had arrived with numerous illusionists touring the world with their wonders.

With performers vying for the top spots by claiming more outlandish feats and stealing each other’s secrets, it was hard to be distinctive. When the medium of moving pictures first appeared in the 1890s, enterprising magicians were quick to adopt using film in magic shows; quite often mixing live action and filmed sequences in the shows. They were also part of the first group to experiment with and develop film special effects. Two pioneer film wizards were Georges Méliès (1861-1938) the new owner of Robert-Houdin’s theatre and David Devant (1868-1941) the first president of The Magic Circle. For a few years there was a sweet spot where magicians held a secret that few others possessed. However, as the use of film as public entertainment grew it caused a huge blow to live entertainment. Theatres closed or were converted into cinemas. Magicians were badly affected as working venues dried up and because Hollywood special effects robbed them of the monopoly of their eye-popping illusions.

The sweet spot where magic and technology blur is often short lived since knowledge only goes one way. For a magician to inhabit this sweet spot they have to be constantly moving and evolving to stay ahead of the crowd. Currently we’re seeing an increasing number of magic shows incorporate Augmented Reality (where a film of the live stage action is digitally manipulated adding extra details), holograms (a modern day twist on Pepper’s Ghost) and projection mapping (surfaces are changed by having images projected onto them). Magicians like Marco Tempest, Xavier Mortimer and Jamie Allan are contemporary magicians exploring the use of this technology. The shows are a visual treat but the danger is magicians will be left behind again as the technology becomes more widespread and becomes the standard. We’re already seeing this now with wireless technology and phone apps. Mentalists who have relied on electronic help are now being accused of technological trickery and finding their £1,000+ investments available in a different guise at high street electronics stores for £25.

I feel, to combat the public’s suspicion of electronics, we will see magic return to a more organic and sleight of hand based art. Strange paraphernalia will be stripped away, the magic will be more pure and the magician more centre stage. In fact we’re already seeing a move in this direction. Recent series’ of Britain’s Got Talent have seen magicians progress from being a laughing stock to finalists. What put them there weren’t fancy trick boxes or gyrating dancers but a likeable person, telling a story, making a connection and sharing their wonder with the audience. Essentially breaking what in theatre is called the “4th wall” that divides performer and audience. New technology might give the performer a temporary edge but as ever, long-term survival is more about the magician than the magic.

Starving for Wonder

If you mention the name Tesla today most people will think about the electric car company. The AC motor at the heart of the car is a direct descendant of Nikola Tesla’s invention back in 1882; and the name most associated with Tesla Cars is Elon Musk (1971- ). Musk is an inventor and engineer who shares a similar pioneer spirit with Brunel; albeit a much more commercially successful spirit! As the founder of the company that merged to become PayPal he has the resources to dream big. His most ambitious project is SpaceX which is a privately run company that has aims to revolutionise space travel and has Mars colonisation in its sights. Already the reusable Falcon 9 rocket project has done the unthinkable and landed vertically on the launch pad rather than resort to a parachute landing. He is often quoted as saying: “An engineer is the closest thing to a magician that exists in the real world.” A statement echoing the American dignitary’s speech at the launch of the SS Great Britain.

Have we surpassed the age of magic? I would argue that as a society we have largely lost the spirit of magic. As G K Chesterton said:

The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder.[9]

Technological advancements have been so huge that most people (and businesses) are unaware of what can be achieved. They exceed what most people can think or dream of. Trying to keep up is a daunting prospect. The sheer amount of knowledge is beyond the scope of a single human. Furthermore, we live busy, rushed lives. Everything is 24/7. We wake up and already our phones have amassed a string of notifications. Time cannot be wasted and yet the most meaningful and memorable times are when we slow down.

Perhaps now more than ever there is a place for wonder workers. To grab our attention; to overcome bad assumptions; to perform the impossible; to take us to new territories; to show us new things; to fuel our dreams. Magicians are seen as entertainers but I feel we should aspire to being more than just that. I like to think of myself as a “Curator of Wonder” – someone who searches, filters and shares marvels in the hope it will spark curiosity in the audience to embark on their own journey of discovery. To create a memorable moment that will propel them forward. I’m going to leave the last words with David Copperfield – a modern day Brunel in his drive for the impossible:

My job is to make people dream. Of course, there’s a lot of technical stuff behind the scenes and a lot of hard work behind it, but I get to watch people see the result of that hard work and feel that wonder and feel that discovery, all the time.”

 

References

[1] Found in the biographical accounts by Brunel’s son (who by some accounts was the child in the story) and granddaughter. “The Life of Isambard Kingdom Brunel: Civil Engineer” by Isambard Brunel Jr (1870) and “The Brunel’s: Father and Son” by Celia Brunel Noble (1938)

[2] The Illustrated London News. July 29, 1843.

[3] The book “Magic: Stage illusions, special effects and trick photography” compiled by Albert A. Hopkins contains various descriptions of early science based illusions.

[4] For a more detailed description see “Illustrated history of magic” by Milbourne Christopher.

[5] Found in his essay “Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination”, featured in Profiles of the Future (Revised 1973 edition).

[6] The book “Wonder Shows: Performing Science, Magic, and Religion in America” by Fred Nadis provides an excellent account of this period of history.

[7] A fact that was exploited by Thomas Edison – inventor of the first commercial light bulb and proponent of DC (direct current) electricity. Tesla had briefly worked for Edison but left to develop his own projects like an AC (alternating current) motor and generator that solved a massive technical difficulty with AC. Edison wanted to discredit the rival AC system and he fuelled the public’s fears by sponsoring the execution of criminals by AC electrocutions.

[8] Written by Noel Daniel, Mike Caveney, Ricky Jay, and Jim Steinmeyer.Published by Taschen.

[9] Tremendous Trifles (1909) – G K Chesterton

 

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A mad scientist

Albert Einstein’s contribution to science and society is huge. A revolutionary genius. A stuck in the mud holding paradigm shifting science back. A political meddler. His influence continues today and in one area it repulses me. He has become the archetype mad scientist. Crazy hair, thick glasses, foreign accent and lab coat – even though two of those are untrue. If you get a kid to draw a picture of a scientist they will mostly likely draw a mad scientist. I’ve lost track of how many schools I’ve visited having a science day were kids and staff alike are dressed as mad scientists or characters from TV’s The Big Bang Theory. I’m the only normal looking person in the room.

But we’re not like this. The mad scientist stereotype is harmful to the profession. Scientists become both a social joke and elite superhumans at the same time. So why are we propagating this when we want to enthuse the pupils in the subject?

A magical mindset

A common model for how science works is that we observe something, think about how it works which then leads to a testable prediction. If the prediction proves correct the theory stands and if it doesn’t the theory is modified before retesting. Iterate until the theory is a good model for reality – a map of the world to help us navigate. All very methodical, clinical and, dare I say it, boring.

obsthepred.jpg

Science does not work this way. Science is messy. Scientists are messy. History is littered with new discoveries that have come from surprises, accidents and mistakes. Untested theories accepted for centuries. Theories and predictions popping up before the experiments are there to back them up. New discoveries coming from theoreticians playing with neat maths concepts. Discoveries from asking the powerful question I wonder what if…? And then going out to look to see if this predictive what if is to be seen.

We do science students a disservice by only teaching the methodical approach starting with observation. Innovation comes from being observant, being playful and asking questions. Not necessarily in that order. Innovation comes from making mistakes, going off piste and being bold. Innovation isn’t always smooth and progressive. It’s both tediously slow and breathtakingly fast. Marathons and sprints. Endurance and adventure.

We do science students a disservice by teaching a certain, safe and static science. At the core of the scientific method is an adventure fuelled by curiosity and a willingness to adapt, evolve and improve. To be innovative you need to be comfortable with mystery and risk. On the front line there isn’t certainty. And on the front line you’re sticking your neck out. Publish a new paradigm shifting idea and your name is on the paper for the world to see. If you’re correct then you’re a genius. If not, you’re a crank. The difference between a Nobel Prize and unemployment is experimental data.

We do science students a disservice by teaching them THE answer rather than the questions and the questioning attitude. A powerful question is worth more than a thousand answers. Science isn’t a Rubik’s cube that can be neatly solved. There are multiple configurations and angles it can be viewed from. This isn’t nauseating post-modernism but at science’s core – the dual reality springing from both quantum mechanics and relativity killed off the predictable clockwork universe. There can be multiple solutions or descriptions that are all correct. By giving an answer too quickly we stifle creative thinking and offer students fast food snacks rather than a wholesome feast.

We do science students a disservice by teaching an emotionless humanless science. Yes we need intellectual rigour but that doesn’t have to be at the expense of the joy and awe (and sometimes repulsion) of new discovery. Science is a story of people discovering things. Story is powerful for both engagement and memory. By eliminating the human element we lose these benefits. On the flip side there is a danger of promoting some scientists into demigods that no student can ever aspire to be like.

In my work I want to promote a mindset that embraces:

  • Mystery
  • Surprise
  • Wonder
  • Play
  • Risk
  • Questions

 

 

Magical inspirations

In a previous blog post I wrote about my magical history. During this time I had a number of magical inspirations. Mainly magicians I’d seen live or on TV. In recent years magic has seen an explosion of interest with many new performers appearing. Whilst I was growing up, TV magic was very rare. What was shown was usually of a much higher calibre than what we see today. With a bit of clever editing and CGI a mediocre magician can be made to look like a miracle worker. I could rant about this but instead I want to focus on some of my heroes in magic when I was a teenager…

 

David Copperfield

There’s a reason why he is one of the highest earning entertainers of all time. My first exposure to DC was his 15 year anniversary TV show. He would take an illusion, supercharge it, add multiple layers of deception and perform it with flawless elegance. In that one hour TV special there were so many jaw dropping illusions: Flying, Buzz saw, Metamorphosis, Walking through the Great wall of China. Watching DC is like watching the Matrix film for the first time. Nothing is real and anything can happen. And it is all done with panache.

 

Penn & Teller

Channel 4 was the perfect channel to create a gloriously irreverent magic show that didn’t conform to the clichés and cheese of conventional magic. Penn & Teller were the perfect performers. Provocative, profound and bloody good. As a teenager this combination had a huge appeal and influence. From dropping rabbits into wood chippers to set pieces involving an array of animal traps, the magic bore no resemblance to a traditional show. Which was no bad thing. It helped shape my view of what was possible – not in terms of magic but in terms of performance. If I had to choose a favourite effect it would be Teller’s Shadows illusion.

 

Paul Zenon

When David Blaine first appeared on TV with his Street Magic he created a sensation. The magic wasn’t anything new, the performance was dire and yet what made the show was the focus on the audience’s reactions. There was the entertainment. There was captured on the screen moments of astonishment and wonder. Minds racing to try and figure out what an earth their eyes had just seen.

How could the format be improved? Simple. Swap bland Blaine for the extremely funny British magician Paul Zenon and have him perform tricks and pranks on the public. My favourite trick was a variation on ‘Ring flight’ where a spectator’s ring is vanished in the magician’s hands and appears in an impossible location. Paul appeared to mess the trick up spectacularly – he dropped the spectator’s ring down a storm drain. The reactions of the spectator were priceless. And then Paul reveals the ring has indeed appeared safely in an impossible location.

 

Kevin James

I first saw Kevin James at the Blackpool Magic Convention. It was late on Friday night and the audience’s attention was dropping. Out comes Kevin. He’s funny. He performs some super visual and original pieces of magic. Suddenly the audience was wide awake. My favourite from that night was when he visibly caused a playing card to melt inside an inflated balloon. Every magician in the room gasped. The next night during the gala show he presented a piece of magic he is famous for. Starting with a small napkin, he shreds it and drops it into a glass of water. Picking up the tissue in his hand it’s now a slushy mess. And then the magic happens. Dry confetti appears from his hand, flying high into the air, covering the stage. It looks like a snowstorm. Then the theatre erupts, it’s now snowing inside the auditorium. The audience in the stalls are getting covered in snow. Magic.

 

Lance Burton

If you only ever watch one manipulation act, Lance Burton’s dove act is the one to watch. Candles, silks, doves and cards appear in his hands effortlessly. All superbly choreographed and set to classical music. A lifetime of work went into 3 mins of pure magic.

 

Stuff the White Rabbit

If I had to choose my favourite TV magic programme it would be Stuff the White Rabbit. The idea was simple: get the world’s funniest and talented close up magicians, put them in front of an audience and film the results. The programme introduced the UK to David Williamson, Rene Lavand, Tom Mullica and The Amazing Jonathan. And gave a showcase to John Lenahan and Jerry Sadowitz. The quality of the magic was exceptional. Sadly the BBC have never released the series for wider viewing.

 

My magical journey

At the age of ten I used my pocket money to buy a few magic sets and books from local toyshops. I showed my friends the tricks. They weren’t that good. They weren’t that impressed. Standard story for a lot of fledgling magicians. My interest lay dormant for a few years and was rekindled when I was 14 and I became obsessed with Harry Houdini and escapology. Not many teenagers get a Strait Jacket for Christmas!

Escapology is a mix of knowledge of how locks work, skill in picking them, physical strength and deception. Most escapologists are also accomplished magicians.

It didn’t take me too long to figure out that for an escape to be effective the audience needs to be convinced that the performer is thoroughly restrained. Escapes are rather dull which is why they’re often presented with added peril and drama. Escape before you drown. Escape before a heavy weight drops on your head. Escape before you’re burnt alive. Escape before… Again for an escape to be effective the audience has to be convinced the peril is real. Unless the performer has a death wish, the danger is carefully managed. Faked usually.  It might sound strange for a magician to say this but the lack of authenticity and the 1-dimensional melodrama caused me to lose interest in escapology. Magic has many more dimensions and is much more honest about being dishonest.

I loved the thinking behind magic; particularly those tricks with a clever mathematical method (card tricks are great for this). I loved learning about magical theory and the psychology that makes the tricks effective. I loved the rich history of magic and learning about past masters. I loved making props with mini arts and crafts sessions. And I enjoyed the challenge of learning sleight of hand and improving my dexterity.

For a shy teenager, close up magic is an excellent hobby to have. You can carry around with you a pack of cards and a few small magic props. Then perform impromptu tricks in school corridors and at family gatherings. A great confidence booster and an introduction to communication.

I spent more time during my A-levels doing magic than studying. At university magic started opening doors to events. I was asked to perform at balls and parties. At first for a free ticket and then for money. My very first paid gig got me £15. I was ecstatic. Towards the end of my time at university I joined an improv comedy group and started performing magic at cabaret events. This led onto writing and performing solo fringe theatre shows. A fusion of magic, multimedia and comedy. I wanted to be a professional comedian but I wasn’t funny enough. (see this article I wrote about my experience)

For the last 7 years I’ve been mainly working in schools presenting science magic shows with the aim to use magic to grab the pupils’ attention and use it to teach the wonder of science. And once in awhile I also do a card trick.

“It doesn’t always work because it’s Science!”

I recently heard a science presenter use that phrase on stage. It made me cringe. They were using the excuse to hide a combination of incompetence, lack of preparation and broken props. However, the message the audience received is that science is complicated, unpredictable and unreliable. That the public can’t trust science and therefore can’t trust scientists. This isn’t a helpful message to be propagating. Especially from someone whose aim is to promote science in a positive light.

It’s important to make a distinction between science and the demonstration of scientific phenomena.

Science isn’t neat. In a research lab, experiments don’t always work. There are a number of reasons for this. Often it’s down to human error and faulty equipment. Another major cause is that it can be pretty hard to isolate an experiment down to just one variable. Usually there are competing factors that skew the results. My old optics lab at Durham University was carefully air conditioned, drafts were excluded and the laser bench was resting on a cushion of air to damp out ground vibrations. We had a nightmare trying to reduce electrical noise from the lights, mains supply and the lift at the end of the corridor.

As science communicators we carefully select or devise a demo that illustrates a point or principle. A well designed demo will aim to isolate the variables. In reality though we’re often hiding or compensating for multiple factors. There’s an illusion of simplicity because we’re aiming for clarity of effect rather than completeness. Sometimes this illusion is shattered and the demo fails. When it fails, let’s not blame science but rather the demonstration (or demonstrator).

Frogs, Fridays and (Ig)Nobel prizes

A couple of weeks ago I revisited the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, UK. They currently have a temporary exhibit on the discovery, science and applications of Graphene. It’s a remarkable material but what struck me were the stories behind the discovery. They illustrate the playfulness and cross pollination of science research.

I’m going to vastly simplify the discovery. Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov found they could create single atom thick sheets of carbon by using Scotch tape to peel off carbon layers from a thin layer of Graphite. Repeating this process multiple times resulted in Graphene. A simple start and yet this led to the scientists receiving Nobel prizes for their work.

A few things struck me:

  • Using Scotch tape was inspired by a technique to prepare microscope samples in another field of research. We’re in an age of specialisation where we rapidly narrow our fields of study. Our educational path is defined by dropping subjects and not picking up new ones. This means we miss out learning from other branches and subjects.  I believe the greatest inventors are those who are polymaths. And the most exciting discoveries are being made in the intersection between subjects; for example biophysics. Curiosity doesn’t like living in a box. Wonder rapidly gets bored of the same diet.
  • The research that led to Graphene came out of a lab policy called 10% Friday. 90% of a researcher’s time was spent on their appointed area of research (whether that’s dictated by the lab group’s leader or a specific research grant). However, on Friday afternoons the scientists could pursue any area of research that appealed to them. Organisations like Google have similar schemes of work. 10% Friday is playful risk taking. No agenda other than to explore and if you find something interesting (and even better still, commercial) that’s great. Plus there are the added benefits of having a workforce that are enthused, motivated and learning.
  • For a number of years in my superhero science show I talk about levitating frogs in a powerful magnetic field. The guy who first did it received an Ignobel prize for the work (the prize recognises quirky and ‘pointless’ research activities). It was a surprise to me to find out the same guy a number of years later would receive a Nobel prize for Graphene. However, it’s no surprise that a researcher who is playful and curious in their work would go on to find out fascinating things.