One of the highlights of the last few weeks was attending the premiere of Demo: The Movie by Alom Shaha and Jonathan Sanderson.
Mingling with the gliterati of the science communication world, the event, the conversations, and the film all helped me to reflect on the purpose of science demonstrations.
To me the purpose of a demonstration is to highlight one aspect of the everyday world, and to allow us to look at it ‘differently’.
This is necessary because for most of us, for most of our lives, the world doesn’t seem mysterious: our world comprises familiar objects that behave in a familiar way.
So famously in 1848 Michael Faraday gave a series of six lectures about an object which must have been extremely familiar to his audience: a candle. And this ground-breaking lecture series is the starting point for Demo:The Movie.
From this point Alom, a teacher, travels from his classroom to San Francisco via the western deserts of the USA performing demonstrations and reflecting on the their role in teaching as he travels.
He concludes that performing a successful science demonstration is an art which incorporates elements of stage magic, understanding of teaching aims and objects, and that most difficult to pronounce word, pedagogy.
For me the most important point made in the film is the profound (and paradoxical) point that demonstrations are different from videos of demonstrations.
This point is made by showing a plastic bottle (which you previously saw Alom fill with air at the top of a mountain) has been crushed when he reaches Death Valley, exactly as viewers probably expected.
But Alom points out that seeing this on video, you have no idea whether this is the same bottle you saw filled earlier. Indeed, you have no idea whether that it was even ‘earlier’.
It is the power of seeing things for yourself which is personally challenging. In terms of my own favourite demonstration, anyone who has ever seen a sausage attracted to a balloon is in some way personally challenged to ask themselves’ What is going on?’.
I can strongly recommend this 30 minute epic to anyone who engages in science communication in any form, but most especially to teachers who might feel inclined to simply show a class a video of something happening instead of performing the demonstration themselves.
And if you want help on performing demonstrations and tips on ‘getting it right’ Jonathan and Alom have created a website Sciencedemo.org which has many videos showing you how not to use videos in class!
Finally, if you love the movie as much as I do, you can check out the bloopers movie/trailer below.