There is not science in everything – when science shows work

Divining with Mystery Invertigators
Water divining with the Mystery Investigators.

Saying there is science in everything should not be used as an excuse for a magic show.

A week of science activities thanks to the wonderful Ultimo Science Festival 2012 has provided much food for thought; not just about the science itself, but also about its presentation.

The danger in presenting science is that in a desperate attempt to make it cool you remove all meaning from what you’re seeing. And then you try to justify that by saying “there is science in everything” – so it is OK to present a couple of magic tricks without explanation and give kids some sherbet, because ‘there is science in everything’.

At first blush the idea that science is everywhere seems right. We use chemistry to generate energy as we use biology to push against physics and walk down the street. But think about it a bit more and the statement is so broad as to be absolutely meaningless. That’s not science that is everywhere, that’s the stuff that science is about observing and understanding.

Science is about acquiring knowledge through observation and experimentation. The fact that science has come up with an explanation for a phenomenon does not make that thing science – the phenomenon was always there. Science is the act of trying to understand it.

The scientific process was really driven home to us yesterday in a wonderful show put on by the Mystery Investigators at the Powerhouse Museum. In the course of the show, Dr Rachael Dunlop and Richard Saunders demonstrated the perfect double-blind test  to reach a conclusion that water divining does not work. This is real science in action. Use the divining rods when you walk past a visible bottle of water and the rods react. Hide the bottle and they react less. Make it so neither the testers nor the audience know where the bottle is and there’s no reaction at all. Phenomenon observed, tested and understood. Even better, the presenters did not force a position upon the audience, they let us reach our own conclusion from the observations. My only criticism is that they should have shouted out: this is science.

Van de Graaff generator
Hooked up to a Van de Graaff generator.

The contrast began with the hands-on science activities at the Powerhouse. On one level it was great that the kids got to be part of a Van de Graaff generator. However the fact that the people running it couldn’t even name the generator, let alone explain it, made it into a cute sideshow.

Really, though, it was a chemistry show that drove things home to us. The show was clearly designed to get kids interested in chemistry; but it was all about the show, not the science. So there was, for example, what could have been a very cool demonstration of a ‘magic jug’ using ph levels to create different coloured glasses of liquid. It’s a good magic trick; and if you present it without explanation it’s just that: magic. You might encourage the next generation of magicians that way but not scientists.

There is not science in everything; but you can apply the scientific method to everything, including kids science shows. Science is about understanding, hypothesising, learning how the world works. So my hypothesis after a week’s observation is: If you are using science to make a glitzy show, I’m afraid the fact you are a scientist doesn’t change the fact that you’re doing a glitzy show. If you’re showing how science works, if you are demonstrating principles that have been found to be true, if you are having your audience leave the room understanding the world somewhat better than when they entered – you’re in a show about science.

Overall it must be said the Ultimo Science Festival has been fantastic. The Sleek Geeks, The Surfing Scientist and the Mystery Investigators all showed how science works, fired up the imagination and entertained along the way. And even the bits that didn’t work so well provided food for thought and contrast: And let’s face it, in any good scientific experiment you need a control.

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