Sci Comm Stories – My most awkward 15 minutes in sci comm


So yesterday I had the mild embarrassment of saying the word ‘cock’ rather than ‘clock’ to a P7 class made up of 10 and 11 year olds. Safe to say it was not my finest moment, but these sort of slips are common for science communicators when delivering so many shows and activities, and eventually you are bound to say something not quite right or full of innuendo.

It got me thinking of other embarrassing or awkward situations I have experienced in my time in science communication, and it reminded me one outstanding moment which was probably the most awkward 15 minutes I have ever experienced in the field.

It was from the Edinburgh Science Festival in 2013. This was my second run as a science communicator at the festival and for the duration two week period the festival was running I was helping out at a drop in workshop all about tin box cameras and photography. The workshop itself consisted of 8 people sitting on stools, with spotlights shining on them and a row of tin box cameras placed on a shelf in front of each. The lead presenter would then give a quick introduction to photography before explaining that the participants had to hold a pose for a whole minute to allow us to get a clear image of them to take away. They would then hold this pose as the aperture of the tin box camera was opened before it was eventually closed once again at the end of the minute. The participants would then take their camera into a ‘dark room’ and develop their photograph using three different chemicals, after which they would then have a permanent memento of the festival.

At the time I actually wrote a blog about that festival and the photography workshop, which can be found here:

Anyway, the festival was just entering its second week, and for this particular workshop I happened to be the lead presenter. The next group of eight sat down on their seats and included two young girls no older than 13 or 14. I did my usual spiel encouraging different unique poses, for example peace signs or even collaborations if they were quick enough, then got ready to open the tin box cameras. I counted down from 3, during which everyone went into their poses, and then opened the cameras.

Once all the cameras were open I then looked back to see what poses they had come up with, only to see that one of the girls had decided to grab her ankles and stretch her legs as wide as possible…

Now I hope I don’t need to explain why this pose might be a little bit awkward and I made sure to spin around to avoid any unwarranted accusations. However, what made it even more awkward was the fact that the girls father had been watching her during the workshop up to that point, and as I spun around I was met with a piercing look that could have burned through my skull and pretty much said ‘what the fuck have you told my daughter to do?’!

Of course, I looked away from this gaze immediately to anywhere else in the room, only to look upon a group of fellow science communicators who had noticed everything that was going on and who were also giving me a look of ‘what the fuck have you told this girl to do’!

I shot back a look of ‘I have no idea what’s going on’ and then just stared at the clock, just begging for the seconds to tick faster!

Eventually the clock hit 58, 59 and finally 60, and I closed up all the cameras and the participants stopped their poses. Relief all round, however the story continues…

The participants collected their cameras, followed me into the dark room then each stood in front of a group of trays containing the chemicals needed to produce the photograph.

The process itself is actually quite interesting, when you place your photo in the developer solution the silver nitrate particles on the paper react and turn into solid silver. The more light that had hit the paper the more silver on show, resulting in a darker area at that point and essentially you were creating a metallic photograph.

Now this process gradually fades in and is a really cool thing to see, and you can’t help getting excited to see it. However this very same girl got extra excited at the sight of her photo revealing itself and proceeded yell ‘oh its coming……… oh it’s coming!……… OH IT’S COMING!’

At this point I am in tears in the corner of a dark room just trying not to giggle, struggling to comprehend what I have witnessed in the previous 10 minutes!

I somehow managed to get everyone to the point of ‘fixing’ their photo so that it not longer reacted to the light outside the dark room, and gradually they left to continue their enjoyment of the festival. Once they had all finished I walked out the dark room myself, to be met by a row of science communicators with arms crossed and feet tapping.

One of them simply went, ‘……..Well?’

So the lesson I learned that day was truly anything can happen when you deliver a show or workshop!


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