Sci Comm Stories – Celeb Spotting


Due to the huge number of channels on TV, as well as the multiple social media platforms available, there are thousands of people that could be defined as a ‘celebrity’. Naturally this opinion changes from person to person as some folk don’t class reality TV stars as celebrities (for example) and others would say some people are just famous rather than a celebrity.

Now, in the many years I have been a science communicator I have comfortably spoken with at least 100,000 people, which admittedly is a wild estimate as I have no evidence to back it up with out having a clicker on me counting every single person I have spoken too, but we are definitely into six figures! These engagements have either been through exhibitions, festivals, workshops or shows and due to the sheer number of people involved the two bubbles of ‘celebrities’ and general public often cross one another, with the result being me meeting a huge variety of personalities, and even some well know faces.

I’ll come straight out with the one outstanding A lister I have crossed paths with which was James McAvoy, who visited Glasgow Science Centre in 2015. I was waiting at the entrance to the Science Show Theatre when he approached with his son wondering if he could come in and watch. The show had been booked and paid for by a school, so we didn’t openly offer it to the public, but if there was space and a member of the public wanted to come in then we would be more than happy to seat them at the back. It was one of those times when I had my customer orientated hat on and I was actually too focused on listening to McAvoys enquiry that I didn’t actually realise it was him at first, and he understandably had a baseball cap on as well to hide his face a bit more. It was only once he had taken his seat that it twigged with me, and I immediately entered the back booth to say to the other science communicator that was in the theatre that day that James McAvoy just walked in and will be watching the show. Understandably thinking I was taking the piss they had to peer through the back window to check, before turning back to me and saying ‘f*cking hell, James McAvoy is watching the show!’

James McAvoy as Professor Charles Xavier in the X-men franchise

This is obviously something that doesn’t happen every day, so I began my show with my usual gusto and gradually built up the audience by encouraging the right noises at the right time throughout the show. These would be things like cheering, clapping, stomping of feet, and (friendly) booing, and at one point I got the school class to do it all in one go generating a lot of excitement and noise. It was at this point that James McAvoy and his son got up and walked out the theatre, barely staying for 5 minutes!

Slightly puzzled, I carried on with the rest of the show and when I finished I walked back up the stairs to our back booth and asked the other science communicator why he left. It turned out that the school class where making so much noise cheering, clapping and stomping their feet that McAvoy junior got frightened and had to leave the theatre.

So I can say I once terrified James McAvoys son, which is something I’d hope very few people could say as well!

Other ‘celebs’ that visited the science centre were Gary Lewis, probably best known for being Billy Elliots angry Scottish dad, and Ben Miller, who is half of the comedy duo Armstrong & Miller and part of the Johnny English series of films.

But it was during the 2014 commonwealth games that the quantity of famous faces increased. For one thing, you would see loads of medalists about as the BBC studios where just across the road from the science centre and they had set up a fan zone in the area in between.

As part of the offer the science centre had brought in an exhibition called ‘In the Zone!’, which was developed and run by another science centre called AtBristol (Now called We the Curious). This was themed around a TV studio with the participants being the presenters of their own show as they went through 6 or 7 activities in about 15 minutes. These were based on sport, health and wellbeing and included challenges such as jumping as high as you can, handcycling for a full minute, and peaking with a 20m sprint through a finish line. Each activity was filmed meaning at the end each participant had a 7 part ‘show’ that they could access online and show others. It was free to take part so we were always busy, meaning that when you were in charge of one of the sections you were constantly talking to the public all the time with no time in between each group. You swapped activity every 30 minutes to keep your mind fresh but eventually you would need a break, which was a huge reason why the GSC staff enjoyed a shift in ‘In the Zone!’ because they were plenty!

In a normal shift at GSC you would get 40 minutes throughout the day, but at ‘In the Zone’ you got two breaks of 30 minutes AND an hour for lunch! This meant you could enjoy the sunshine, explore the rest of the fanzone and watch some of the actual commonwealth games rather than just talk about them. GSC actually argued against this, insisting that we only got our usual 40 minutes, but AtBristol didn’t back down and said it was important to have the extra breaks due to the intensity of the engagement. So it was an unusual situation where another company was actually looking out for our well being than our own employers!

On top of the ‘In the Zone!’ activities you would occasionally be allocated 30 minutes to go science busking with the crowds in the fanzone. You would head out with a partner and a bag full of small science activities and try and chat to as many people as possible. One of the activities involved a small ball with two smaller electrodes on either side, with the idea being that if you were to put a finger from each hand on each electrode then it would make a loud buzzing noise, as you were creating your own circuit using your own nervous system. The party trick though was to get more people involved by holding hands in a circle then have two people place a finger each on an electrode and create a large human circuit! You could get about 10 before the distance around the circle became too great and the buzzing would stop.

One day I managed to coax a family of about 8 into doing this very experiment and ended up joining in and holding hands with an absolutely giant of a man, who looked like he was in his 50s. He was wearing official Scotland training gear so I spent a moment trying to think if he was an athlete/coach, or just a really enthusiastic fan. And then it struck me, this man mountain was Gavin Hastings, the Scottish and British Lions rugby legend. And here was me holding his hand! Truly bizarre, and it did explain why he had such a firm grip!

Gavin Hastings in action for Scotland in the 90s

On another day during the Commonwealth Games the science centre had a royal visit. Princess Anne was invited to look through the latest exhibition gallery called Bodyworks, and a huge pathway was barriered off during the day so that she could get in an out without any fuss. I was doing some more science busking with a mum and her son when she arrived and started walking down this pathway. I asked the boy if he knew who she was and encouraged him to wave by waving myself in the direction of Princess Anne. The boy did not wave however, and left me awkwardly waving at Princess Anne when no one else was!

To her credit she did actually wave back! And now we are best buds as a result……

Now, working in science communication does give you the opportunity to meet some inspiring people in the field, particularly astronauts. GSC once managed to get Commander Chris Hadfield of ‘Space Oddity guitar player on the space station’ fame to host a large quiz event for them, and when the National Museum of Scotland hosted Tim Peakes space capsule I managed to chat with him for a few moments after he had officially opened the display.

Tim Peake at the launch of his capsule display at National Museum of Scotland

So if you ever want to increase you chances of bumping into a famous face then I recommend getting into public engagement.

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