Are demos in decline?

As hands-on science communicators, we live and breathe our demos. We hone, improvise and improve them over years, even decades. Few things please us more than an evening in good company discussing and dissecting the demos that work and why. In our world, science communicators usually have a favourite demo or five.

I work with a lot of new science communicators. Many of them are top class new graduates with a science background, and I love to ask them ‘What’s your favourite demo?’. It’s fascinating to this jaded old sock. Gone, alas, are the days where every week brought an exciting new concept for me to play with. I can share this excitement vicariously, of course. I get to delight other people afresh, but I love the extra insight I get quizzing someone who’s new to this world. With bright eyes and keen minds what are they looking for in a good old-fashioned demonstration?

What I find interesting is that in the last few years not as many of our new recruits seem confident in their answers. I find myself giving hints as to what I mean by ‘demonstration’ – not an experiment, a practical nor a trick: a science demonstration.

Are they simply unfamiliar with this jargon or is something more sinister afoot?

Is the delight of the demonstration becoming a dark art, practiced more by a growing band of science communicators but less by teachers and lecturers? Perhaps demonstrations are seen as entertaining quirks in a social context, shared via Facebook and YouTube, and not as teaching tools in an academic world.

I may be reading too much into this, of course. My sample is small and could represent a gentle blip within the boundaries of standard deviation with no rhyme, reason nor correlation. I’d be interested to hear if others have noticed a trend.

13 thoughts on “Are demos in decline?”

  1. Very interesting post Elin! Particularly interesting as you are on the front lines of the sci com in your position; especially with the new masters course than Life run. You see not only the practical communication but the training and the next generation of communicators too.

    I have a very complicated relationship with demonstrations. That is to say that I hate many of them with a passion but also use them and love them.

    I hate them as they are often used incorrectly. Amazement can be a means to engagement but is not a substitute for it. Too often I see demonstrations used as a crutch by otherwise poor communicators to hold the audiences attention. For example I have seen elephants toothpaste hundreds of times, clips, live, shows and stalls. Right now, sitting here- I have utterly no idea what it was demonstrating. I can picture the reaction, I can see the amazement on peoples faces but I’m at a loss for the science and the take home message. Is it something around yeast producing gas? I don’t know. A demo should leave an impression, it should also leave an idea, an inspiration or ideally an explanation. The ubiquitous hydrogen balloon is another bug bear of mine. (Ironically as someone who works in hydrogen storage- it is also one I use.)

    I see shows that are based around demos and a tenuous narrative shoehorned in. I personally start with the science, the story or the theme. Once I have the tale I want to tell I work out how that can be done visually or a more tangible example produced and, yes, so that the audience don’t have to listen to 60 min monologue from me.

    I think we had a hay-day of demonstrations. Communicators in labcoats setting one fire after another then we began to refine it more. I don’t think the age of the demo is over, nor should it be but it is perhaps encouraging that some of the newer folk think science then think demo. Rather than start with spectacle and create an explanation.

    I am annoyed that this post seems like an attack on demonstrations and on people who use them, as you know me I think you will understand that it is not, you are wonderful, we know lots of people who are but demos are dangerous things, if not handled properly they destroy the very thing we hope to communicate and dress science into quasi-magic

  2. You are absolutely correct in differentiating practicals, experiments, tricks and finally demos. They are all distinct activities and the words need to used correctly when training new scicomms people.

    For me, the demo rules supreme… but it has to sit comfortably in the context of the theme being explored. I approach this along the same lines as Jamie by starting with the story or theme and building the demos into the session.

    If you’re feeling a little peckish for some new demos then my suggestion is going old school. I work forward from a founding principle and explore the routes forward through history. Much of what we’ve built our modern inventions on are based on homemade equipment. I built my own set of Faraday coils recently and I use them to demonstrate how we use the principle in brain stimulation.

    I don’t know about any trend. I’ve seen the same demo performed by a number of different people but everyone brings their own personality and story to it. Making a demo your own requires creativity and that diversity keeps things fresh. Take the ‘Bang Goes The Theory’ ethos in making it bigger, faster, etc and then consider the impact this has on how your demo can be performed and how the message can be affected by the medium of scaling something up or down.

    Jamie is right, there has been a lot of demonstrations and now is a period of refinement. In the same way we’ve not reached the height of our best science, I really don’t think we’ve seen our best demos yet.

  3. These comments seem to have neatly side-stepped the particular issue raised in the original post. Demos are often used badly, yes, and that’s one of the areas we want to explore with this site, but the point raised here is about whether the very term ‘demonstration’ is itself jargon. That is: in referring to ‘demos’ are science communicators unconsciously excluding newcomers to the field?

    Back when I was frequently recruiting TV researchers, ten or so years ago, I could certainly get away with springing ‘What’s your favourite demo?’ on most of the interview candidates. Elin’s suggesting that’s no longer the case, that the question prompts not a discussion about specific demos or their relative merits, but rather confusion and miscommunication.

    It’s wholly possible, for example, that in calling this site ‘ScienceDemo.org’ I completely fail to indicate what it’s about to a proportion of its potential audience. I’d love to get a handle on how large a proportion that might be. Though of course, if they don’t know what a ‘demo’ is they’re unlikely to be reading this thread in the first place. Huh. Drat.

  4. Sorry, I went off on a tangent. I thought Elin was saying that people were becoming unfamiliar with the concept rather than the the terminology.

    “Demo” is jargon, but not a particularly difficult one to crack. Sometimes I think even the term Science Communicator itself strays into jargon territory. I wonder what responses you would get if you asked passers by in the street “what is a science communicator likely to do?”

    I’d think most folk would catch on to what a “science demo” is but perhaps those new to the game just don’t have the familiarity with them to have a favorite as the bank of traditional ones widens and variations spin off in every direct.

    1. … and I followed your tangent, sorry. I agreed with Elin in suggesting that words demo, experiment, practical and trick may be used incorrectly to the confusion of new sic-comms people. Of all fields I would expect scientists to be able distinguish the correct terms when describing what they are doing at any one stage. It is an essential in all academic writing. If we complain about them getting their jargon confused then somebody hasn’t communicated it well in the first place.

      The original post also asked whether the ‘delight of the demonstration was becoming a dark art’, practiced by a few. Both Jamie and I offer the view that those who practice the demo with more serious intent understand the jargon clearly.

      I’d also follow on what Jamie wrote about the term ‘Science Communicators’. Only this week, I wrote the following for ‘Speaking of Science’ (due out on June 3rd), “I’m consciously trying to no longer refer to myself solely as a ‘science communicator’ as it has such a wide meaning, especially in the field of journalism. Yet communicate science is what I do, but primarily as performer of it.” It’s such a vague term that it would be like suggesting that everyone who works in banking understands Libor.

  5. There are many ways to develop ideas, offer inspiration, explanation and amazement, if you choose. I think that demos are a valid tool to help explore the world. What’s often underestimated in science communication is the production values needed to make it good.

    What we ideally want in our communicators is someone who has thought about the content of what they want to say. High production values do not mean that lots of money is thrown at props. What it means is the level of care taken:
    Is this what I want to say? Is this how I want to say it? Is this what my audience needs?

    Demos can sometimes help me say what I want to say in the way I want to say it. Just because a demo is entertaining doesn’t mean it is mere entertainment.

    This is all for another post, of course. We seem to have gone astray from the original thread, for which I’m genuinely curious – Has any one noticed a trend in understanding of what we mean by demonstration?

  6. I have noticed no changes in the use of this terminology, and we have a very youthful department. In fact our new school, yet to be built, will have separate teaching and ‘demonstration’ benches.

    Demonstrations are out of fashion themselves… From an observers point of view they are teacher led, and don’t allow all students to interact. That seems to be frowned upon these days. Maybe this is the reason the terminology is no longer a focus…

    1. Interesting, thanks Rich. That rings true, and the follow-on effect of students seeing fewer demonstrations in school would be the gentle drift Elin observes as a consumer of science graduates. As you point out, fewer demonstrations isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

      Hmm.

      1. Not that I don’t think demos are useful… But more emphasis needs to be placed on what students are doing… Interacting using whiteboards etc

  7. From the scientists point of view I think many people see ‘demos’ as those things they saw in undergrad classes that the lecturer brought in that rarely worked. As students most people have little or nothing to do with them, which might be why they stumble when you ask them for their favourite: they simply haven’t considered the question before as someone else always chose the demo in the past.

    So your question is probably a great one to first make them consider what they have seen, then analyse which ones they liked the best.

    This is just my theory… I could easily be wrong in my assumption and perhaps it is simply down to the ‘demo’ jargon…

    Later on in their science careers as researchers, if people have any experience in sci comm they might have cottoned onto the idea of using demos in their public or schools lectures (although this is rare in my field). That said many of them rarely step back to analyse why or how their demo is illustrating a point. Even lecturers can fall into the trap of just using the same demos that the previous lecturer used without thinking why!

    I get a lot of scientists coming to me with their ‘outreach’ idea along the lines of: “we have this piece of kit and I thought we could do this with it and it would be fun”. I am constantly asking them to step back and consider the question “Why?”. Is the only aim to have fun? Are they supposed to understand the demo? Is it meant to illustrate a particular point?

    That said, I’ve never tried the “what’s your favourite demo” question with my colleagues… I might try it and get back to you on that one!

    As a separate comment about people providing fresh new ideas – I also bemoan the lack of new demos… sometimes I really think I’ve seen it all. Please, someone start a “new demos Suzie and Elin have never seen before” page and I will be 100% delighted.

    I have a confession to make – I feel terribly guilty for having used the hydrogen balloon explosion as a stage effect. I think sometimes it’s OK to make a bang if it’s part of the theatre of the show… as long as that’s not your whole show!! At least we clearly explained the link (getting protons from Hydrogen gas in the LHC), that there were safety issues to consider, but exploding it was not the way to rip the atoms apart! It always niggled me though because it was the only frivolous demo in the show. 1 in 10 ‘aint too bad if it keeps the audience’s attention in my view.

  8. I’ve also noticed the phenomenon of people passing demos down the ‘generations’ without considering them. What is that?

    We use demos to get different responses. I’m not above the occasional attention grabber myself. It’s all about context. There are many ways to create impact, but if you use too much of the same type it will always get dull, which is why ‘flash bang’ shows that are all about the flashes and bangs can get dull quickly.

    I still find out about new demos every now and again, I’m not completely jaded yet.

    Do ask around about demos, I’d be interested to hear your colleagues’ views.

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