Sci Comm Story – When the back up plan fails…..

I think I should start off with a bit of background info about me.

I stumbled into my career path in science communication purely as a way to make ends meet, having spent the previous few months signing my name on a dotted line to receive a monthly allowance from the government. I had graduated in the summer of 2011 with a degree in Physics which had got me absolutely nowhere jobs wise, to the point where I had to accept roles in hockey coaching and stacking shelves at M&S to keep me occupied over the next 6 months. These temporary roles didn’t exactly justify the effort in getting my degree, and certainly gave me the feeling that I may have wasted the previous 4 years.

That was until I saw ‘science communicator’ positions advertised for the Edinburgh International Science Festival for their Easter festival in 2012.

The idea of science communication was completely new to me but having spent time coaching hockey and helping out youth groups such as beavers and cubs I thought I’d go for it, plus at least it was something to do with my science degree. Of course, I since now know that you don’t need a science degree to be a science communicator, and that festival opened my eyes to the wide variety of backgrounds that are involved in presenting science workshops and shows to family audiences.

I luckily did just enough in my interview to be offered a science communicator role and spent the two weeks of the festival running a workshop which allowed kids to programme lego mindstorm robots to follow black lines and carry out different tasks, and it was awesome! I was hooked, and fortunately more work followed with the Edinburgh Science Festival as I toured the country with a Paralympics Exhibition in the lead up to London 2012, before heading out to the Abu Dhabi Science Festival to train local students in science communication and run a workshop on photography. These 6 months were some of the best in my life so far as each job resulted in greater and greater experiences in places I never imagined myself going to at the time.

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The Ottobock ‘Passion for the Paralympics’ Exhibition 2012

However, there was a down side.

For all the travel to various places around the UK and UAE was awesome, there were periods of 2-3 weeks in between each event in which there was nothing to do, and this inactivity proved very frustrating. Any money I did save was immediately used up, and as someone who still lived at home with a large student overdraft it was clear I couldn’t carry on with the on off nature of the work. It was actually during this time I started up my own website to write about different science topics that caught my eye, and which has now developed into experiment videos and these sci com stories! I digress however. I needed something permanent, and ideally still in science communication.

After a botched attempt to live in America for 3 months (which is another story in itself!) I seized my opportunity and became a science communicator for Glasgow Science Centre. Here I could speak to the public about one of the many science exhibits in the science mall, lead on the floor workshops for kids, do a bit of science busking whenever there was an opportunity, and more importantly could do it 5 days out 7 with no official end date. However, a big part of me wanting to join GSC was to do more performance-based science communication rather than workshops, so after a few months I was starting to get a bit agitated. It was the beginning of the summer holidays when I joined so the two performance areas of the science centre – the science show theatre and the planetarium -already had enough presenters without a desperate need to train more. I would have to wait that bit longer for my chance.

There was a crumb offered however as lung dissections were introduced during that same summer. The first time I dissected a set of lungs I felt pretty squeamish but its freakish how quickly you get used to slicing up a set, and after a quick run through for the senior science communicators to prove my competency, I was ready to go. The dissections were held on the top floor of the science centre in an open planned area containing some tables and exhibits. As the event was drop in (i.e. you just turn up) there could be no predicting how many people would be in your audience. On a quiet day you could have only 10 visitors but on a busy day you could have easily 150 crammed into the space with every set of eyes focused on you slicing up the lungs. It was the latter that presented itself to me when it was time for my first dissection, and safe to say that was pretty intimidating, however I managed to get through it despite the realisation seconds before hand that I had never used a headset microphone before and didn’t know how far away from my mouth I should position it. In the end placing the mic as close as possible to my mouth was the wrong choice, which resulted in my nervous breathing echoing around the science centre when I didn’t speak. A quick lesson learned.

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One of the many dissections I did at GSC

After a month of doing dissections it was decided by the seniors that I would be a presenter in the Science Show Theatre. Apparently there was a big debate on where to actually place me, either in the SST or the Planetarium, and because of a couple of years at university where I studied astronomy the senior in charge of the Planetarium thought I’d be ideal in there. In the end though my desire to present science shows won through, and the planetarium would have to wait another year before it got me as a presenter, which I will tell a few stories about another time.

The first science show I was trained in was a show about digestion, ‘Blood, Bile and Body Bits’. On the day of my first show I was full of nervous energy and excitement. Its key to start a show well and GSC had a system where they would dim the lights and fade out the background music before putting on an adrenaline pumping track (‘Supermassive Black Hole’ by Muse was always popular) and a set of flashing disco lights as the presenter went down the stairs and onto the stage. Because I was already buzzing with excitement, when I descended those steps for the first time the new music resulted in me clapping my hands to the beat in a bid to get the whole audience to join in. No one clapped back.

A strong start then. I continued onto the stage and gave a loud ‘Hello!’ and then do no remember anything that happened in the next 30 minutes. It could have been the best show in the world, but more likely it would sit on the scale probably a lot nearer the worst. I have no recollection either way, apart from right at the end of my show explaining to the audience that it was my first show and thanking them for being a forgiving audience, which got a collective ‘awwww’ in response so make of that what you will.

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Blood Bile and Body Bits Science Show – Glasgow Science Centre 2013

‘Blood, Bile…..’ wasn’t around for long though. After a couple of weeks I was trained in a brand new show for GSC called ‘Water, Water Everywhere!’. This contained far more exciting demonstrations, including hydrogen balloons, water pistols, and climaxing with a liquid nitrogen explosion. That last experiment is actually the cause of what this story has being leading up to.

How it works is you pour a small amount of liquid nitrogen into a 500ml bottle, seal it with the bottle cap, throw it in a barrel, and pour tonnes of ping pong balls over it. The room temperature boils the liquid nitrogen turning it into a gas, and because there is nowhere for this gas to escape the pressure in the bottle builds up to such an extent that the bottle explodes and throws the ping pong balls in all directions.

Now this large explosion is pretty daunting when you first perform the experiment as you do not know when it is going to go off, and if you happen to be holding the bottle at that precise time then you would most likely end up fracturing your hand, which I can imagine isn’t very pleasant!

As a consequence of this possible danger your natural reaction is then to try and twist the bottle cap on as quickly as possible before throwing it into the barrel and getting the hell out of there as your colleague pours ping pong balls on top. You wear blast shields over your face and everything!

In the rush though sometimes the cap wasn’t fully sealed and the nitrogen gas would hiss out of the bottle. There would be no explosion, which was a big disappointment for the presenter and more importantly the audience.*

Another thing we would encourage our audience in the science show theatre to do is to give us the right noises and reactions at the right time. For example, if they really enjoyed an experiment they would be encouraged to cheer, whoop, clap and stomp their feet, and conversely if something went wrong then they we encouraged to do a friendly comedy boo. It wasn’t directed at the presenter however but to the science communicator assisting the show in the back booth, whose job was to change the powerpoint slides as well as control the music and lights, and who the audience were told had ‘set up’ all the experiments as well. Of course, the actual show presenter would also set up the experiments beforehand but it was a good tactic to deflect attention away from any experiment that went wrong and give the presenter time to clear up and move on to the next segment.

Which brings us finally to the main part of this story.

It must have been about my 10th show in the SST, and I was presenting ‘Water, Water Everywhere!’ to a full house of primary school classes, which was around 121 pupils and teachers. The show had gone well with all experiments going to plan, and the audience and myself enjoying what was going on. Then we came to the final experiment, the liquid nitrogen explosion. I carefully poured the liquid nitrogen into the bottle and moved over to the barrel with my colleague, who had come down from the back booth to assist. I quickly twisted the bottle cap on, placed it into the barrel and stepped away as my colleague poured the bucket of ping pong balls into the barrel, and then we waited.

It was always a strange feeling as everyone in the theatre (audience and presenters alike) are focused on this barrel in complete silence, all equally unsure if something will happen or not. After about a minute the dreaded high-pitched hissing was heard, so I collected a large heavy duty sheet to place over the barrel in case of an unexpected late explosion, and the boos from the audience rang out!

It was ok though, I could take it the ‘abuse’ as I had a back up plan. There would always be a Hydrogen balloon spare just in case the liquid nitrogen geyser did not work, just so that you would still finish the show with a bang and the audience still leaves happy. It works simply by lighting a candle on the end of a stick, bringing it towards the balloon and bursting it in a large flaming explosion. By the time I finished at GSC I must have done this experiment about 600 – 700 times without fail. Except for this one time.

I still do not know how it happened, but somehow in the process of lighting the candle and bringing it towards the floating balloon the candle extinguished. The candle was still hot though, hot enough to pop the balloon but not enough to explode the hydrogen! So instead of a large explosion with fire and noise, the audience got a small pop like you would see with any  other balloon.

I stood there dumbstruck, and after a few seconds the boos returned! These weren’t the friendly boos of before however, there was a rage behind it at two experiments which promised large explosions producing absolutely nothing, and I crumbled. I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t know what to say. In the end I sheepishly went ‘Errm sorry…………..errrm hope you enjoyed the rest of the show……….errm enjoy your day…..bye……’, and then watched 121 disappointed people file back out of the theatre.

It actually took me a few weeks before I could do another show due to that fear of something going wrong again, however the experience taught me an important lesson in presenting that I will share with you now.

Things go wrong. There is nothing you can do about it. Make sure you have a back up plan, but that could go wrong too. And if it does, embrace it. Steer into the skid. Take ownership of the situation. Make a joke. Slag yourself off. And 99% of the time your audiences love to see things go wrong anyway.

It been about 5 years since that show, and I’ve not heard of anyone else messing up a hydrogen balloon. The below video shows how ‘easy’ it is…….

*A couple years after I joined GSC, a new presenter in the theatre managed to miss the barrel completely during a training session resulting in this explosive device just lying on the floor ready to go off any second. I quickly suggested to everyone in the room that we all get to the back of the theatre as soon as possible…….

 

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