Posts Tagged ‘Alom Shaha’

Science Demonstrations: the art of seeing things differently.

April 6, 2014

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 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.



Library Anxiety

June 29, 2012
Didsbury Library

Didsbury Library in South Manchester. Not my favourite place.

I have just finished reading The Young Atheists Handbook by my friend Alom Shaha. The book interweaves Alom’s philosophical approach to life with his experiences as a child, an adolescent and an adult. And one of the most powerful influences in his early life, was his local library. He vividly describes how it formed a kind of portal into worlds very different from that in which he was growing up.

My wife feels the same way. As she recalls her childhood visits to the library she enters a kind of blissful reverie, and recounts how if she had understood that librarians were actually paid, she might well have chosen that as a career.

My sister and brother were both bibliophiles, and as children they worked their way through the library stock like gourmands at a never-ending buffet.

But not me. From the earliest age I remember libraries being places of fear and anxiety. Libraries were places of mysterious rules and codes which you might transgress by chance at any moment. They were places where you would be fined! In short, places it would be smart to avoid. At University I only entered the library because the single precious Commodore PET computer was kept in a small room in the basement.

I would like you to know that as an adult I have managed to overcome my anxiety and I can use libraries quite proficiently. And I generally find librarians to be extremely kind and helpful people. But I have never, ever, felt that I was welcome in a library.

This may be just me, and I may be unique in this anxiety. But I have often wondered whether anyone else had felt this way. Whether anyone else had -like me – been embarrassed to mention this in the face of the glorious tales of libraries told by the literati. Perhaps someone will let me know.

Faith in Science

September 4, 2010
The Orrery by Joseph Wright of Derby. 'Few of us know how to prove that the Earth orbits the Sun.' Photograph: The Gallery Collection/Corbis

The Orrery by Joseph Wright of Derby. 'Few of us know how to prove that the Earth orbits the Sun.' Photograph: The Gallery Collection/Corbis

Should we have faith in Science? A recent article in the Guardian by a friend of mine (Alom Shaha) suggests that ‘faith’ in science is really not appropriate.

Science has become the flavour of the month. Nowadays even comedians want to brag about their unfinished science PhDs. But is having people ‘feel’ that science is cool enough? Such a change in attitudes, though not unwelcome in itself, simply represents a shift in fashion. Alom quotes me in his article where he claims that Science is humanity’s greatest cultural achievement, and he and I both believe that as a culture we should be collectively and individually proud of Science. More importantly, Alom argues we should be collectively and individually more knowledgeable about it. In short, in addition to science ‘entertainment’ designed to make people ‘feel nice about science’, there should be an explicit media accent on science education I agree profoundly: and indeed that is the point of the Protons for Breakfast course. It’s not propaganda, it’s empowerment.

The latest instance science-flavoured stories in the media was the front page story in the Times last Thursday: “Hawking: God did not create Universe“. There is not time or space in this blog to address the issue of God: that is a big question But this newspaper story? I do have a little space and time for that: just enough to say that this is utter nonsense. Leaving aside any special knowledge Stephen Hawking might have on the subject of God, we come to the question of the origin of the Universe. Amazingly humanity has made progress on this question. Our progress has been driven through observational astronomy rather than cosmological speculation. The discovery and understanding of the microwave background radiation, for example, puts the idea of an explosion some 13 billion years ago on a sound footing. Estimates of the ratio of hydrogen to helium in the universe, tie up with our understanding of the nuclear process which must have taken place in the first moments of this explosion. We should be collectively proud of these achievements. But we should be collectively aware that many aspects of the explosion are not understood at all, most notably the supposed period of faster-than-light growth in which the Universe increased in size by a factor 10^78 i.e. a factor:

1000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000

for no reason that we understand. We can give names to the phenomena (inflation – which I think is rather understated given the colossal nature of the expansion!)  and explain that if this inflation did not occur then the universe would be observably different (the microwave background radiation would not be so uniform in different direction in the sky). We can even hypothesise about what might have caused it (an inflaton field). But in the end, we just don’t know. And we have to face the fact that we may never know. Or that there is some other aspect of this about which we are not aware.

The Hawking explanation for the origin of the Universe (and I use the word ‘explanation’ very cautiously) is that in fact there is not just one Universe which we don’t fully understand, there are apparently a stupendously large number of universes similar to ours, all unobservable from our own home universe. Forgive me, but someone who advocates that this is an ‘explanation’ of anything deserves sympathy rather than praise. The idea that this is on the front of a national newspaper should be a source of embarrassment for scientists.

Lev Landau, one of the great physicists of the twentieth century stated that ‘”Cosmologists are often in error but seldom in doubt.” I would go further. I think Cosmologists must be always in error, because I suspect there will always be things we don’t understand. But ultimately our understanding of the universe should not be a matter of faith, or fashion, and Stephen Hawking’s opinion on the matter is just irrelevant.

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