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.

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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

 

 

“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.

Wow! How? Now…

We often use the phrase ‘awe and wonder’. For me awe is that initial overwhelming response to something new, big, beautiful or surprising. It can be uncomfortable. It also is something we experience from the outside as an observer rather than a participant. There is a distance. A disconnect. Whether that’s looking through a telescope or walking inside a cathedral.

I want to take the journey further; from awe to wonder. Wonder is engagement, participation, play. Wonder is like Dr Who’s TARDIS. You step inside and the space magically becomes so much bigger. The horizon has shifted and there’s new territory to explore. The observer becomes an explorer.

So how practically has this changed my approach working within schools? Two main things:

Firstly, I’m putting a stronger emphasis on demonstrating everyday items behaving in strange ways. I could visit a school with flashy expensive science kit, but that won’t be any use once I’ve left the premises. I want to equip my audiences to go home and explore themselves. My early memories of science weren’t in school, they were in my back garden with objects like batteries, matches, film pots & kitchen chemicals and a magnifying glass. (Admittedly they did have a slightly pyrotechnical bent but when your dad is Head of Gas Explosions for HSE it’s in the blood.)

Secondly, I’ve started using a catch phrase in my shows: “Wow! How? Now…?” For me these are the three steps of the circular scientific method: Observation, Theory, Prediction. However, these words aren’t that inspiring. So I now talk about:

“Wow! That’s amazing.” when we observe a new or surprising phenomena.

“How does it work?” for coming up with theories. I create a dialogue where I ask my audience to tell me their theories.

“Now I wonder what if…?” for making a prediction when we make a change to the workings or look for some extra evidence.

Anti-gravity tin – a simple science demo

This will take 5 minutes to make with simple to find materials. You need the following:

  • A sweet or biscuit tin. Mine has a 23cm diameter and a depth of 7cm.
  • Rubber sheet
  • 20x Coins or washers. Alternatively use a metal weight.
  • Tape

Put the coins/washers into a stack and run some tape around the diameter to make a counter weight. Tape this stack of coins onto the inside edge of the sweet tin. (You may want to line the weight up with the seam of the tin to help identify it’s position when looking on the outside.) Now add the rubber sheet to the outside perimeter of the tin and tape it down. The rubber sheet provides grip for the tin when on the ramp. Your construction should look like the photo below.

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Place the “antigravity tin” on a ramp with the counter weight on the up hill side (see photo below). You will need to experiment to find the best incline. Let go of the tin and it should roll up hill giving the illusion of defying gravity. That is until the counter weight rolls around until it reaches the bottom of the tin.

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The added weight changes the centre of mass (COM) of the tin which would normally be at the centre of the cylindrical tin. The COM is now situated close to the extra weight on the edge of the tin. Gravity acts on the COM and pulls it downwards. In order for the COM to move downwards, the tin has to roll up hill. Physics and not magic.