On 15th Oct I had the privilege to share my thoughts at TEDxBrum on the middle ground between Wow! and How? Watch the video here.
Albert Einstein’s contribution to science and society is huge. A revolutionary genius. A ‘stuck in the mud’ that held 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 where 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 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.
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:
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.