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.

The Orange Cut

I first read about this way to sculpt an orange in The Art of Astonishment (vol 1) by the magician Paul Harris. However the diagrams in the book are wrong.

The cuts are much simpler than portrayed in the book. See the diagram for what you’re aiming to achieve with the

First draw an equator around the orange. I’ve found a biro works well. Then draw 8 equally spaced vertical lines alternating above and below the equator. See the second photo. The lines stop about 2cm from the poles.

Now make a cut through the peel on each of the vertical lines. Then make two parallel cuts (to the left and right) of those vertical lines. This creates two strips of peel that are about 0.5 cm thick. You’ve now made 24 cuts. 

This is the slightly tricky bit… from the top extend one of the righthand cuts in an arc to the lefthand cut of the next bank of 3 cuts in the same hemisphere. Now extend the central cut in an arc to the next central cut. You’ll create a loop 0.5 cm wide. Repeat this process 4 times on the top hemisphere and it will look like photo 3.

Now turn the orange upside down and repeat the cuts for the other hemisphere. Photo 4.

The final cuts are along the equator but these are deep so they divide the orange into 2 hemispheres. Don’t cut through the strips. Then gently pull the two halves apart. It helps to pull the cut loops away from the orange before separating. You’ll end up with something looking like first photo at the top of this post.


Cartesian Diver with a twist

I love the “Cartesian Diver” experiment (see here for how to make it). My one issue is that the presenter needs to hold the bottle to cause the effect. If the “submarine” is well balanced only a moderate amount of squeezing is needed but still there’s some tell tale signs of muscles contracting – it just doesn’t look natural!

On the hunt for a way to present the effect remotely I had the idea of using a blood pressure cuff to squeeze the bottle. I removed the pressure gauge and just directly linked the ‘squeeze bulb’ to the cuff. It now means you can stand a distance away and move the submarine. It’s also brilliant for young children or those with a physical disability who don’t have the hand strength to squeeze the bottle tight enough themselves. I can also see this being turned into an exhibition at a science centre.

Levitating Balloon

Perfectly balanced helium balloon + electrostatic attraction = Levitation

This effect was noticed accidentally. We’d come back from a meal out with a give away balloon. The balloon wasn’t designed for helium and so there was a slow leak through the rubber. It wasn’t long before the balloon started to lose it’s buoyancy. For a few minutes the balloon was in the sweet spot of hovering mid air – neither going up nor down. At this stage the effect of electrostatic attraction was quite noticeable.

Tips for setting up a laptop for presentations

I’ve watched too many presenters struggle to connect their laptops to a venues AV system or embarrass themselves with laptop failures. Here’s some steps and setups I use to try to avoid this. Let me know if I’ve missed something, you disagree or what I’ve said doesn’t make sense!

  1. Always make sure your laptop is connected to a mains electricity supply or is fully charged.
  2. Don’t place your laptop next to or below any containers with liquids. One accident will ruin everything.
  3. Have a memory stick with a backup of the presentation. Save the files with the fonts embedded and with the individual video clips.
  4. I have a dedicated laptop for presenting and minimise the amount of programmes installed on it. I still use Windows XP as it’s so reliable compared to later versions. plus any files I create are more likely to be compatible with other systems.
  5. Make your laptop desktop look presentable. Think about the background. Why not use a custom logo or a simple plain background. If you’re cloning the screen to the projector don’t have a mass of Icons or shortcuts.
  6. Use “presenter mode”. Means you can navigate slides easier, see the time, view upcoming slides, read notes etc.
  7. Set your laptops volume to 2/3rds. That way the venue’s speaker volume can be set to this value and you then have the option midway through a presentation to increase or decrease the volume (I use my remote to do this) rather than rely on a non-existent sound technician.
  8. Turn off “system sounds”. Like startup, shutdown and system beeps (ie. plugging in a memory stick). Really annoying to hear that over a venue’s PA system.
  9. Turn off any auto updates.
  10. Never rely on having internet access to show content. Have hard copies of any files/videos on the laptop.
  11. Don’t have it connected to the internet during a presentation as that will slow things down or start unwanted installations.
  12. Make sure the screensaver won’t override your presentation software.
  13. For some time I struggled to connect my laptop to projectors over some CAT-5 systems – the laptop wouldn’t recognise a connection. Eventually I discovered an internal setting in my laptop’s configuration. There was a choice to auto-detect a VGA connection (the default) or to leave the VGA socket switched on permanently. By switching to the latter it solved this problem.

In a previous post I outlined the tech gear I carry with me. See

My presenter tech bag

photo 4(2)I carry this tech bag with me every time I give a presentation. It has saved me countless times of having the embarrassment of not being able to connect my laptop to the venue’s AV system (see a later blog post of setting up your laptop for presentations). Plus as a professional speaker I think it’s my responsibility to be as fully equipped as possible.

Currently the clear zip bag and contents weigh 800g and are no bigger than an A4 piece of paper and the thickness of 3cm. My philosophy is to be over prepared so the majority of the items rarely get used. But 1 time in a 100 they save the day.

photo 1(8)

The second photo contains:

  • 1.5m long VGA cable (male to male). A standard cable to connect a laptop to projector.
  • Female to Female VGA connector. This comes in handy when I want to extend the cable or if I need to convert my male ended cable to have a female end.
  • Remote control receiver and transmitter. I use a small Keyspan device that is ultra reliable, small enough to comfortably hold without being obvious and has a volume control including mute. Never buy Infra red remote controls as they work on line of sight. RF remotes are the way to go.
  • Spare batteries for the remote control.
  • USB extension cable (male to female). This is handy in very large venues where the laptop is connected at the back of the room. The cable can be connected to the remote receiver and then used to raise the receiver up higher to increase reception. In some presentations I use a webcam to act as a visualiser and so the USB extension can be used to increase the webcam’s range of movement.
  • USB Memory stick with the presentations stored in case of laptop failure.
  • A caretakers or cleaners key to switch lights on. This came about from a recent event where the theatre venue’s tech guy hadn’t arrived, the theatre was in darkness and I needed to setup. To operate the lights you needed one of these keys – so I had to wait. So after the event I went online and purchased a key for that rare occasion to repeat itself.

photo 3(3)Photo 3 contains the connectors and cables for sound. I use the headphone out socket from my laptop. The first two items are essential.

  • 3.5mm male jack to 3.5mm male jack cable.
  • 3.5mm male jack to phono cable.
  • Ground loop isolator. With some audio systems there is a really annoying hiss in the system when a laptop is connected. The ground loop isolator helps reduce this significantly.
  • 3.5 female jack to 3.5 female jack connector. Useful to extend cables.
  • The other connectors and mini cable are useful when connecting up the ground loop isolator, using a DI box or for strange sound desk inputs.

photo 2(8)Photo 4 contains items I don’t normally carry as the majority of my venues (ie. schools) have a fixed AV system. When working in a theatre I will often take the following:

  • DI box. Ideal for sending audio over long distances and reducing electrical pick up noise.
  • XLR cable.
  • XLR (male and female) to jack converters.

In addition to the above I will, if the venue requires, bring my own Projector and lapel radio mic system.