RI: Re-Inventing itself

Alok Jha Hosts the Guardian Science Weekly podcast from the RI

The Royal Institution is arguably the home of ‘Science Communication‘. From 1965 onwards, the broadcasts of the Christmas Lectures gave eminent scientists several hours in which to explain their work and place it in a context that could be readily appreciated by younger people. This unique format has had an enduring impact on UK culture.

But in this modern age the RI has had a hard time re-inventing itself. Producing a series of 6 lectures once a year is not enough.  I am not sure it is quite there yet, but watching the podcast at the head of this article over at the RI Channel, I get the feeling it might be getting close.

I have written previously that if the RI were really committed to science communication it should leave its hyper-posh headquarters in the most exclusive part of London, and move to the Midlands. Maybe I spoke too soon. This kind of podcast brings a topicality and accessibility to modern science communication that television – with its obsessions with short punchy ‘packages’-  just can’t touch. And the location definitely adds a little something.

The features I liked were:

  • The relaxed and informal atmosphere: Alok Jha does a great job, acknowledging the posh surroundings, and then ignoring them.
  • Some great, simple, demonstrations and excellent conversation that brought the demonstrations alive.
  • I loved Anna Starkey’s ‘perception’ demonstrations (9 to 24 minutes) and Alom Shaha’s simple motor (24 to 30 minutes) – I have ordered the magnet already!
  • The self-consciousness, showed particularly by Alom, that science demonstrations need to be more than Scientertainment

The things I didn’t like were:

  • The random explosion using liquid nitrogen trapped in a bottle (47 to 49 minutes). This is a seriously dangerous demonstration and in this context is pointless.
  • The condescending attitude towards the ‘technician’ Andrew Marmery. There is a fair chance he was the most knowledgeable scientist in the room.
  • The fact that the combined intellects of the demonstrators could not explain why the bottle explodes (56 minutes to the end). It has nothing to do with the ‘critical’ temperature!

Watch the full video with related content here: http://richannel.org/alok-jha-guardian-science-weekly-live. And  while you are over there check out the back catalogue of Christmas lectures and the excellent ‘Tales from the Prep Room’.

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16 Responses to “RI: Re-Inventing itself”

  1. Alom Shaha Says:

    By the time the nitrogen demo was being “explained”, I felt that the show had become less about the demonstrations and more about the banter between the presenter and his guests – which, I suspect, may be exactly the kind of thing that the producers of the Science Weekly Podcast were aiming for. I’m sure, if we had been paying attention, at least one of us could have provided a better explanation for why the bottle exploded.

    But, here’s a thought – even if one of us had provided a crystal clear “explanation” of this particular demo, how many members of the public would really “understand” anything by it? There is a misconception held by many science communicators and teachers that if you can just explain a scientific idea clearly enough, people will understand it. My experience as a teacher tells me this is not the case. Clarity of explanation is not sufficient to ensure learning in all cases. I’m not sure how learning takes place, it remains largely a mystery to me, but I can tell you that it takes more than just telling people stuff – otherwise teaching and learning would be easy.

    As for the pointlessness of the nitrogen demo, well, that’s kind of the point I was trying to make – far too often, science demonstrations are done for the “wow” factor and that alone. And far too often, such spectacular demonstrations are accompanied by poor or incorrect explanations. Some might argue that “entertainment” in the name of science is itself a worthwhile goal, because it “inspires” or “enthuses” people, but, as I think you know, I generally (although not in all cases) tend to disagree with that view.

    At their best, science demonstrations can be hugely entertaining, but not necessarily educational. People who do science demonstration shows often make no effort to check whether their audiences have genuinely understood anything new – there is usually no requirement to do so and it would be very difficult to check an audience’s understanding in a meaningful way in the space of an hour-long show or whatever.

    There is a massive difference between doing a demonstration for the public in a “show” or lecture and doing a demonstration in class as a teacher – our students are assessed and we have some evidence of whether or not they have learned anything from our efforts.

  2. Alom Shaha Says:

    Have been prompted to write my own blog post on using science demonstrations in science teaching: http://alomshaha.com/2012/04/the-use-of-demonstrations-in-science-teaching.html

  3. alokjha Says:

    Michael,
    That’s for the post, some really useful notes in here that I’ll take back to the production guys.

    One thing though, I don’t agree that we were condescending in any way to Andy. I acknowledged more than once during the show that he was the reason that anything worked as well as it did with the demos and he got the most effusive thanks from me at the end. Without him, there would not have been a show at all and everyone in the production team well knew it.

    Also, at the risk of over-explaining, the stuff at the end was meant to be more about the banter than the science. The audience (during and after) seemed to enjoy it, at least…

    Best wishes,
    Alok

  4. alokjha Says:

    Michael,
    Thank’s for the post, some really useful notes in here that I’ll take back to the production guys.

    One thing though, I don’t agree that we were condescending in any way to Andy. I acknowledged more than once during the show that he was the reason that anything worked as well as it did with the demos and he got the most effusive thanks from me at the end. Without him, there would not have been a show at all and everyone in the production team well knew it.

    Also, at the risk of over-explaining, the stuff at the end was meant to be more about the banter than the science, a slightly messy way to end the programme that fitted into the style of the podcast we produce. The audience (during and after) seemed to enjoy it, at least…

    Best wishes,
    Alok

    • protonsforbreakfast Says:

      Alok

      Sorry for the delay in replying: Work really gets in the way!

      Maybe ‘condescending’ is the wrong word. Mmmm. I don’t know what the right word is, but in this context – an evening focussed on demonstrations – I would have thought that the person who put these things together might have merited a larger fraction of the podcast. And it was not particularly you but in fact the entire RI culture. I really respect people who know how to ‘actually do things’. IMHO it is a lack of respect for this basic ability which is close to the heart of many our national problems.

      Anyway: Thanks for a nice show.

      Michael

      • demostorm Says:

        At one point the Guardian folks intended to pre-record some inserts, and if memory serves Andy was to be involved there. The cold realities of getting the show done curtailed that plan, in the end. Editorial happens.

        While this wasn’t my show it’s nevertheless hard for me to be objective: I was slightly involved, and obviously I filmed the version you’ve seen. I suspect the attitude to the demos comes across rather differently on the audio-only podcast, which is the primary product the Science Weekly team were producing.

        However, I’d agree to an extent: I think the demonstrations don’t fit entirely naturally in a show that’s usually discussion and news. Or at least, there’s an unevenness between the demos, in how they sit in the show. I don’t think ‘condescending’ is the right word, but I do think we could do a better job on another occasion. Fingers crossed we can make those occasions happen, I think everyone involved would like to have another crack at it.

        Thanks for the review and criticism, Michael. Science communication needs more comment like this, and I’m honoured to have played a small part in making something worthy of criticism. This post has sparked a useful discussion, both here and on BIG-Chat. As a community, we’re not very used to taking critical comment, but we’ll only get better if we’re exposed to more of it.

  5. Rob Cawston Says:

    Hi,

    One of the things we’ve tried to achieve with the Ri Channel is build in the ability to hang additional resources off the videos to add further information, context and explanation.

    See: http://richannel.org/alok-jha-guardian-science-weekly-live

    The last demo in the podcast is a case in point, although I have found it difficult to find another video recreating the experiment that adds anything valuable. Steve Spangler recreates it on the Ellen Show but that leans more towards entertainment than information or explanation: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JsnjvFy7aw8.

    Best,

    Rob

    • protonsforbreakfast Says:

      Rob

      The Steve Spengler demo is indeed entertainment – but he does it very sweetly.

      Incidentally I too live the way the videos at the RI Channel hang related information off the video – it is very nicely done – you must have a web genius in house!

      All the best

      M

  6. Ian Russell Says:

    Alom, I passionately agree with everything you said about explanations. I actually reckon that a really good demo, or interactive exhibit, IS in a sense itself a kind of explanation. And I would also emphasise that these things facilitate far MORE than just cognitive, ‘knowledge-and-understanding’ learning. They empower audiences with the confidence to experiment, observe and think for themselves. They infect people with that contagious delight in phenomena on which the entire future of science depends.

    Surely a clever, authoritative explanation can actually be unhelpful if it leaves people thinking, “Wow. I’ll never be as clever as him. HOW many degrees has he got?” So it occurred to me that, actually, the ‘best’ explanation was Adam Rutherford’s. Even though – BECAUSE – it was stupidly, outrageously, obviously WRONG.

    Everyone hearing Adam’s explanation immediately began thinking, “That’s not right. Even I can do better than that. Surely it must have happened because…”

    The video podcast illustrates what we all trade here: a potent, mysterious, alchemical mix that seeks to balance expert knowledge, confessed ignorance, gentle humour, respect for the audience, mystery, wonder, warm humanity and, especially, humility.

    (I also posted these comments in response to Alom’s message on the BIG-Chat email forum.)

    • protonsforbreakfast Says:

      Ian

      1. I am >honoured< that you would post a reply on my blog.
      2. Your reply reminds me just how profound and humbling the phenomenon 'learning' is.
      3. Science Communicators are people who are supposed to create occasions on which this mysterious process takes place. This burden feels too heavy! I feel as though I am trying to conjure ancient spirits because my frail and stupid form couldn't possibly create such a profound change in another human being – changing their insights by my incantations and paraphernalia!
      4. As I write this I am recalling moments recently where 'something has clicked' and I am recalling that feeling of elation and empowerment. This whole business is really very 'zen'!

      All the best

      Michael

  7. Rob Cawston Says:

    We have hired in external web genii – these guys who are brilliant – http://www.bureau-va.com/

  8. Ben Craven Says:

    Alom Shaha wrote:
    “But, here’s a thought – even if one of us had provided a crystal clear
    “explanation” of this particular demo, how many members of the public would
    really “understand” anything by it? There is a misconception held by many
    science communicators and teachers that if you can just explain a scientific
    idea clearly enough, people will understand it. My experience as a teacher
    tells me this is not the case. Clarity of explanation is not sufficient to
    ensure learning in all cases. I’m not sure how learning takes place, it
    remains largely a mystery to me, but I can tell you that it takes more than
    just telling people stuff – otherwise teaching and learning would be easy.”

    This is so interesting. I think I’ve held the misconception that Alom describes all my life, but what he says immediately seems right. In my mind I feel like a cartoon character suspended in mid-air, about to fall, after the thing they were standing on has been whipped away. It’s very exciting!

    Here is a couple of thoughts:

    1. Our aim seems to be to foster “understanding”. But what does it mean to “understand” something? I’ve been thinking about this for years and I’ve never come up with a satisfactory answer. The best I can come up with usually goes something like this:

    You understand X when
    a) you’re so familiar with X that you’ve stopped worrying about it
    b) your knowledge of X is such that you can do things with that knowledge in circumstances other than those in which you first understood it.

    So, I feel that I understand (something about) gravity because I am so familiar with the fact that things fall to the ground when you drop them that it no longer concerns or surprises me, and because I am confident (and correct) that even though I’ve never dropped a mongoose before, if I did drop a mongoose, it would fall to the ground.

    If familiarity is so important, how can any explanation that lasts a few seconds or minutes possibly work? I’d conjecture that *if* an explanation works (big if), it’s by showing you that something that you thought was unfamiliar is in fact identical or closely related to something that is already familiar. If I’m perplexed when I let go of a platypus and it falls to the ground, you can say to me “Everything else falls to the ground when you drop it – the platypus is just the same”, and then I feel that I understand.

    This suggests that explaining something without knowing where the explainee is starting from is a waste of time (which is what James Soper was saying).

    2. Perhaps Alom is wrong about explanations. Maybe explanations *can* work, but only tiny little ones. We all accept that the rate at which we can rote learn stuff is limited. Maybe the rate at which we can make connections between new ideas and familiar ideas is limited also. In which case, an explanation that has too many steps in it is bound to fail, no matter how individually clear those steps may be. How many steps is too many? It could be a very small number, even as low as one.

    Ben Craven

    • protonsforbreakfast Says:

      Ben

      Thanks for your thoughtful reply

      1. I don’t think Alom’s misconception is a misconception at all. It is just an inappropriate conception for some people.
      2. I think your use of the word ‘familiar’ is key.
      3. If something is ‘foreign’ or ‘new’ our first desire may be to ‘play with it’ – to become familiar with it. Or it may be that we are suspicious of it until we become familiar with it. Whatever our reaction to a new thing, the first step to incorporating it into our ‘world view’ is to become familiar with it.
      4. Much of the ‘informal’ learning that we do as science communicators is really an encouragement to people to become familiar with something which seem foreign or in someway intimidating. Once it becomes familiar people are able to make sense of it in terms that have meaning to them.

      All the best

      M

  9. Jason Phipps (@jasotweet) Says:

    Michael,

    I was the Guardian producer on the show and I wanted to echo and agree with Alok’s response and ad this view with regard to the liquid nitrogen exploding demo at the end, it was a kind of joke, a tongue and cheek reference to exactly the kind of ‘sciencetainment’ you and Alom are sceptical about. Also when I said I wanted to go out with a bang, I meant it! Thanks so much for the feedback, really useful.

  10. The Alom Shaha Motor « Protons for Breakfast Blog Says:

    […] Alom went to great pains to first talk about the demonstration and get people to think what was going to happen and make a testable prediction. I will not subject you to that. Instead I invite you to watch and […]

  11. The Use of Demonstrations in Science Teaching | Alom Shaha Says:

    […] friend and former teacher Dr Michael de Podesta has written a kind of review of the podcast which prompted me to put up this blog post in which I want to share some notes I […]

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