“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).

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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.

5 ways to be funny when you’re not

This is a follow up post to I’m not funny enough. In this article I’m going to suggest a few ways to get laughs in a presentation/show without telling jokes.

  1. I’ve spent many years performing and teaching improvised comedy. Perhaps the main principle of good improv is “Yes and…” When an audience member or fellow performer makes a suggestion you don’t block it but immediately accept it and build on the idea. It’s a simple recipe but it really works. It creates a unique atmosphere of positivity, innovation and adventure. It also leads to humorous situations. As a presenter having a “yes and…” attitude is a good route to finding laughs. Heckles are often viewed as negative but on the whole they’re just an audience member wanting to contribute. So why not “yes and…” the helpful heckler.
  2. The other big principle I learnt through improv is that humour can be found inherently in the games or situations. My favourite improv game is called ‘Half life’. Two performers perform an improvised scene in a minute. They then have to recreate the same seen in 30 seconds. Then again in 15, 8, 4, 2 and 1 seconds. The more physical the scene, the funnier it gets. (And yes it does bug me that there’s a jump from 15 to 8 secs.) In one of my science magic shows I introduce a toy dog called the “dog of despair” – the premise being that whenever the dog is in view, audience volunteers fail to do the simplest of task. It’s a funny routine but the humour is in the created situation. Creating games with your audience (both implicit and explicit) is a great tool for laughs and fosters a playful spirit.
  3. As speakers we should also be good listeners. If you want to be funnier, let your audience teach you what’s funny and then build on that. Quite often what they find funny is not what you’d expect. If a joke or action bombs repeatedly – drop it. If you say or do something that gets a laugh – repeat and expand it next time. Keep repeating the process. I love the story of how early in Ken Dodd’s career he used to employ someone to sit in the stage wings to score each of his jokes in terms of audience laughter. Each night he’d review the scores and change his act accordingly. Ken is still going strong after all these years.
  4. Quite often in a show something will go wrong, you’ll say something by mistake or an audience member will make a comment and it will get a big laugh. Find a way to recreate these happy accidents. Don’t limit the occasion to a one off show. In one of my school science shows a chocolate tin rolls uphill and when I ask the pupils how they think it’s done there will often be a wag who says there’s a hamster inside. This used to happen a lot until I had the idea to stick a fake hamster in the tin, so later on in the routine I can reference the comment and reveal the stuffed toy inside. Big laugh. And in a show when no one says hamster I will simply orchestrate the situation by saying in the last show a kid said hamster. Then later show the hamster. Moderate laugh.
  5. A surprisingly simple way to get a laugh for hardly any effort at all is to use ‘call backs’ to an earlier event or reference an audience member who featured in the show. The audience will often reward you with laughter for having a basic memory. It makes the presentation seem paradoxically both well crafted and a unique happening.

I’m not funny enough

I had a dream of becoming a professional comedian. It was the combination of making an audience react so favourably to my genius juxtaposition of ideas and that I could earn a living with no gimmicks other than a spare t-shirt. Over many years that dream was crushed. Until I realised that I’m not funny enough.

I love comedy. Particularly the dry, dark and surreal kinds. With a dash of intelligent slapstick. Heroes include Emo Philips, Steven Wright, Andy Kaufman, Peter Cook, Monty Python, League of Gentlemen, Alan Partridge and Rowan Atkinson. I love the journey a skilful writer of comedy takes you on and the big surprise twist at the end. Good comedy for me isn’t predictable but in hindsight it is inevitable. Much like a good magic trick. I amassed a large library of comedy DVDs and read many books (theory and biographical). However, a passion for and knowledge of comedy is not enough.

Comedy requires an audience to find it funny. What I find funny doesn’t always reflect your tastes. You see there’s only going to be some overlap between our senses of humour. That immediately cuts down the laughs between us. (The successes of Michael McIntyre and Peter Kay partly lie in the shared everyday experiences.)

It gets worse. Just because I love a certain type of comedy doesn’t mean I’m any good at presenting it. My big problem is I can’t act. I can’t do characters. I can’t do accents.  My timing and delivery are generally poor. So much of the comedy I love watching is beyond my capabilities as a performer. It just falls flat with an audience. For so long I tried to be someone I wasn’t. The repeated failure can be soul destroying when it’s something you love and dream of doing.

There’s a lot to be said for the advice: just be yourself. The key for me in finding a way to make my audience laugh is to work in the overlap between:

  • What I find funny
  • What my audience finds funny
  • What I’m capable of performing

comedy

See this follow up post on 5 ways to be funny when you’re not.

Hexagonal – maths game

hex2I came across this simple maths game whilst looking at the kids pack they provide at Chiquitos restaurants. (They do a super breakfast including chilli black pudding. Yum!)

Two players take it in turns to colour in one of the dotted lines that links the corners of a hexagon. The loser is the player who creates a triangle in their colour. In the first picture you can see Blue goes first and loses by making a careless move.

There’s a blank game board at the bottom of the blog for you to download and print out. Although the board is easy to construct with pen and paper.

Further investigations and variations

  • Is it better to go first or second?
  • What is the maximum number of moves that a solo player can make before they lose?
  • Explore using different shapes to create new boards

hex1

Foreign lands

When I was a teenager my family went to Paris for the weekend. We were proper tourists doing all the usual sightseeing; a boat trip down the Seine, climbing the Eiffel Tower and marvelling at the dangerous driving around the Arc de Triomphe. My grasp of the French language is tres terrible and my knowledge of the culture & history is basic at best. I came away from the trip with some good memories of landmarks but no depth of understanding the city. The richness and subtleties eluded me.

Science for many people is a foreign land. To get the full picture you need to understand the thinking, history and language. And if a person is not mathematically fluent then the richness of the subject will be sadly missed and the opportunity to fully participate will be lacking. The beauty and the beast of science is that it’s based on maths.  Maths for so many is a memory of fear and failure. It can become an exclusive members club for those that can.

As a science communicator I want to open up new wonderful lands for my audiences to explore. So much of what ‘sci comm’currently offers can be seen as open top bus tour of the key landmarks presented with a barrage of facts and quirky trivia. With the audience hopping on and off at will because there’s no connection or destination to aim for. We see this with the “whizz bang” shows filled with explosions and other wow demos. At the end of an entertaining hour of flashes & bangs we’ve learnt nothing of note and have no desire or tools to explore further.

The challenge is to equip the audience with knowledge, skills and tools BUT most importantly a desire to become explorers.

I became a scientist when as a curious child I started to do mini experiments around the house and garden, not when I graduated from university.

Magnets are magical

[First draft – comments welcomed]

In one of my school shows I ask my audience to tell me their ideas for how my magic tricks are achieved. Invariably I’ll get the answer of “magnets”; regardless of how practical their use would be.  Primary school pupils have a fixation with them. Part of this is because of their limited knowledge of scientific principles and also that the magnet solution is more tangible than momentum, conservation of energy, buoyancy etc. However I think the main reason for this fixation is that magnets are magical.

Whilst I was still active in physics research I worked in two different fields. The first was in superconductivity. The Meissner effect that leads to magnetic levitation being one of strangest phenomena in physics.   During that time I had the privilege to spend two weeks running experiments at the European High Field Magnetic Laboratory in Grenoble. Working with a 30 Tesla monster magnet comes with a few dangers. Tools will literally be pulled out of your hands even from a couple of metres away and if you forget to remove your wallet before entering the lab (like me on the last day) you can have your credit cards wiped. There’s almost a supernatural quality to magnets; they’re a little scary and unworldly. You only have to be holding two strong magnets in your hands to feel the force between them. I find the repulsive force of two opposite magnetic poles to be weirder than the attractive force – like there’s an entity in the ether between them. And like my credit cards found out, a magnetic encounter can leave behind a nasty footprint.

I later switched from condensed matter to atomic physics research. My Ph.D at Durham University was on using pulsed magnetic fields to manipulate laser cooled atom clouds. I was effectively designing the magnetic equivalent of an optical lens. (If you want to join an exclusive club of readers, here’s a link to my thesis LINK.) Even though I worked with the mathematical equations that describe both the magnetic field and how matter interacts with the field, there was a disconnect between the maths and the intuitive understanding of how magnets work. A common question from children is “how do magnets work?” and truthfully it’s one of the areas in science I struggle to explain even though I became a Dr from making and using them.

Gravity is a fairly easy concept to grasp: ‘things attract’. Simples. Initially it’s: ‘things fall down’ but as science schooling progresses the pupils will learn the bigger picture that all objects have a gravitational attraction (usually from studying the solar system). And when much later they start putting equations to the forces, the mathematics makes intuitive sense. Heavier objects have a larger pull. Closer objects have a larger pull. There’s not much more you need to know until you get to the extremes and have to start making corrections for General Relativity.

The classical equation for the force between two magnetic poles has essentially the same form as the gravitational (and electrostatic) equation. However, the understanding is far from straight forward. I think the main reason for this is the wide range of magnets, magnetic phenomena and that not all materials are affected. It’s not universal like gravity or based on a few simple rules like electrostatics. Furthermore, the strength of the magnetic force dominates most other forces. Magnets are both mysterious and complicated.  So when my audience are trying to form an understanding of a strange trick, I think magnets are a natural (or should I say supernatural) explanation.

 

Epilogue

One of my favourite stories from magic history is the time the magician Eugene Robert-Houdin was sent by the French government to help quash a revolt in Algeria. The local tribes were superstitious and he used magic tricks to convince the locals that French magic was stronger than their own witchcraft. The fearful Algerians soon quietened down in the face of French ‘superiority’. One of the tricks Robert-Houdin used was called The Light and Heavy Chest. He’d get a small child to lift a wooden box to prove how light it was. Then he’d summon the strongest man in the village. After the man had gone through a mock hypnosis he found he was unable to shift the box that minutes earlier a boy had moved. Unbeknownst to the strong man he was the victim of a metal plate in the bottom of the box and an electromagnet concealed in the floor. Magnets are magical.