TEDx Teddington: When demonstrations go wrong…

How cold is that? One of teh demonstrations which worked at TedX Teddington.

How cold is that? One of the demonstrations which worked at TEDx Teddington.

You may be familiar with TED talks – short talks with the general theme of ‘Ideas worth spreading’. Well the inspirational Ed Hui at Teddington School recently obtained a licence to organise an independent event along the same lines which he called TEDx Teddington. I was honoured to be asked to talk but as the event drew closer I began to dread it more and more .

It was scheduled two days after the latest presentation of Protons For Breakfast began – generally tiring enough in itself. But it also came at a time when I am under immense pressure to publish the result of my Boltzmann Constant experiments. Anyway, I was pushed for time. And stupidly I made the decision to try out two demonstration experiments which I had not done before. The experiments were complex and took two two full days to refine. My colleagues Gavin Sutton and Robin Underwood helped me and Gavin wrote software to make the thing look pretty slick. But there was no time to rehearse!

Testing the apparatus last thing on the day before the talk, it – literally – exploded. Mmmmm. The next morning I raced around getting replacement parts and began to put it all together. I re- tested it in the lab, taped all the electronics and oscilloscopes and laptops to two wooden boards, and moved the whole thing down to Teddington School at 4:00 p.m., in good time for a 7:00 p.m. start. Ahhhh. Time to relax.

At this point it became clear that things would not go smoothly.  First of all I was told that I couldn’t use the equipment at all because there was no black table available to put it on. I wondered what planet I had landed on! But after much fussing I was eventually allowed to use a white table. But there was no possibility for a rehearsal and no chance to even put the thing on stage before hand!

Then everything ran late, and being on at 10:00 p.m. I barely had time to set up before I was on. I had hoped to lead the audience through a sequence in which a physical phenomenon is first identified, then measured crudely, then studied in more detail, and then with precision, and then exploited, eventually resulting in a piece of technology which just works. But that is not how it happened!

First of all the video which I had shot showing the cloisters in Trinity College Cambridge where Newton first accurately measured the speed of sound sound didn’t work. Oh Well, I busked that misadventure by miming what happened.  Next with my son Christian’s help I sent sound pulses through two tubes, and saw the delay in one tube as liquid nitrogen was poured all over it! It worked! And at this point I had high hopes that the last demo would work, allowing me to leave the stage with my pride in tact. In fact it went horribly wrong!

What should have been a precision thermometer with 0.01 °C sensitivity shown fluctuations of 20 °C! I thought about trying to sort it out. But it was 10:30 p.m.and I was knackered, and I guessed most of the audience were too. I reckoned that on balance they would prefer my embarrassment to be over quickly rather than dragged out, so I just apologised and got off stage as quickly as I could.

And what have we learned? Firstly I have learned of the power of demonstrations over Power Point slides. When the first demonstration worked, I could sense people’s involvement. Secondly I have been reminded never ever to do demonstrations that have not been tried repeatedly before hand. But thirdly I learned that people quite enjoyed the fact it didn’t work – it just makes everyone else feel better! So my evening was not entirely wasted!

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2 Responses to “TEDx Teddington: When demonstrations go wrong…”

  1. teddnet Says:

    Don’t be utterly ridiculous.

    1. The audience was enthralled by the fact that a real scientist had brought his lab into TEDxTeddington.
    2. The first experiment was a complete triumph and would have been sufficient in itself. There was an audible gasp when they realised that the oscilloscope readout on screen was LIVE and not a powerpoint. The central point that cooling the air slows down the speed of sound passing through it was well and truly proven.
    3. The fact you tried the second experiment was a huge bonus, but after the first, the principle of the device was well understood.
    4. The fact that a single piece of apparatus let you down doesn’t detract from the enormous effort that clearly went into even trying.
    5. You showed the audience one of the two candidate thermometers that were built to be the most accurate in the world. It was like a coppery jewel.

    Don’t forget just how rare it is for the public to see real science actually happening, warts and all. It was a theme running through all the talks- the speakers all thinking they were somehow unworthy while the audience jaws were dropping to the floor. Nobody who spends their time passionately involved in what they do seems to have any idea how far they have gone beyond the experience of the layman, and how rare it is for the public to be allowed to share their ideas.

    The speakers who were not from Teddington School- you, Andrew Hanson also of NPL, as well as David Baillie the Frozen Planet film-maker, were the professional, world-class contributors that made the show the outstanding event that it was and we will forever be grateful.


  2. When demonstrations go wrong: video evidence « Protons for Breakfast Blog Says:

    […] mentioned the other day that I gave a talk at TEDx Teddington, and video evidence has now emerged. Happily the 16 minute […]

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