Can you name this sunflower?

You might remember this sunflower from the production diary. It’s suddenly rather important that I know exactly what it is, for labelling purposes.

Trouble is, the closest I come to botany is chopping plants up and cooking them. I did once meet somebody whose rather fabulous job was to identify daisies, but as dates go it wasn’t the most successful so – tragically – I no longer have her number.

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Why are science demonstrations important?

Science demonstrations are often criticised for their passive nature, their gratuitous exploitation and their limited ability to develop scientific knowledge and understanding. In some of today’s active-learning-obsessed classrooms, demonstrations are getting a bad reputation compared to their hands-on equivalents.

I’m passionate about the power of science demos in, and out, of the classroom. For me, demonstrations can be emotionally engaging science theatre. Their unique power lies, like theatre, in their impact on the communal emotional engagement and focus of the audience. Demonstrations have enormous potential to:

  • create and sustain interest
  • stimulate curiosity
  • communicate and share emotions
  • reveal phenomena by showing, not just telling
  • direct focus
  • develop scientific thinking skills, and
  • provoke further interaction, thought and discussion.

I’ve tried to capture a rationale for the benefits of science demonstrations in this paper written for science teachers, but much of this applies to the demos performed by science communicators too.

So why are science demonstrations important to you?


Robin Millar on Radio 4

Last week, Alom was on Inside Science – the new Radio 4 science strand, hosted by Adam Rutherford – talking about practical work. He wasn’t wildly happy with the way the piece turned out, but apparently the public response to the item was terrific. Which, you know, could be taken either way.

Anyway, this week the show has Robin Millar from the University of York speaking on the same subject. Before we headed to the US, we stopped off in York and interviewed Robin and his colleague Mary Whitehouse for the Demo Documentary – we’re very happy with the way that interview turned out, Robin and Mary are real gurus of this stuff.

If you’re in the UK you can do the ‘listen again’ thing: Inside Science, Thursday 12th September 2013.


Traditionally, video production is split into three phases, imaginatively called ‘pre-production,’ ‘production’ and … wait for it … ‘post-production.’ For a field which depends on imagination, film-making jargon can be spectacularly tedious, so we try to make ourselves feel more important by corrupting our own jargon. Thus, you’ll often hear the phases referred to as things like ‘prep,’ ‘shoot’ and ‘post,’ respectively.

So it comes to pass that I write a blog post titled ‘Post.’ Oh ho ho, how terribly droll.

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Demo: The Movie – Production Blog 11

Thought we’d wrapped shooting last night? Nope. It’s never that simple.

Day 11 – Saturday 24th August – San Francisco and home

We’d filmed every scene in the script, every bit of dialogue (well, apart from the bits we crossed out, rewrote, abandoned, or generally disregarded. Which is normal), but we’d known for a couple of weeks that we had a hole to fill: the odd schedule dipsy-doodle around Las Vegas, where we filmed the magicians, ditched my beloved Jeep thing, then flew to San Francisco in the nick of time to film at the Exploratorium had left us with a problem. In the grammar of the film, how had we travelled to San Francisco? It’s not an irrelevant problem, in that one of the stories the film tells is of Alom’s Summer holiday road trip. How does that resolve?

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Demo: The Movie – Production blog 10

Like the previous Monday, we’d schedule today as a day off. Also like the previous Monday: aye, right.

Day 10 – Friday 23rd August – San Francisco

We headed back to the Exploratorium to pick up all the shots we didn’t get the previous day. But I already showed you those yesterday, by accident. Oh, go on. One more:

Alom tickles a Mimosa plant in the Exploratorium
Alom tickles a Mimosa plant in the Exploratorium

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Demo: The Movie – Production blog 9

Our destination all along had been – and this isn’t really a spoiler, honest – the Exploratorium in San Francisco. My previous visit to the Western US had been effectively a pilgrimage to their original building, and this was my first glimpse of their new digs. I was excited.

Though first we had to convince the staff we weren’t going to burn the place down, or at least: if we did, that our insurance covered it. That was a bit nerve-wracking as the way location insurance is done differs somewhat between the US and Europe. We finally received the ‘You’re all good’ confirmation only when we were in Las Vegas, which was… a little close for comfort. But hey, as long as the camera gets to roll, that’s a win, right?

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Demo: The Movie – Production blog 8

I mentioned a couple of days ago that we didn’t shoot this film in order. Today was why.

The last time Alom or I set up a shoot like this we got to start phone calls with lines like, “Hello, my name’s Jonathan and I’m working on a documentary for the BBC, I wonder if…”. It’s remarkable how many doors those three magic letters open. Sure, some are slammed in your face too, but at least the person you’re contacting has some sort of mental model into which they can place you. No such luck when you’re working for a production company and charity few have heard of. Several people we really wanted to talk to said ‘No.’

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Demo: The Movie – Production Blog 7

Today was nuts. It went a little something like this:

Day 7 – Tuesday 20th August – Death Valley and Las Vegas

07:30 – Back at Rhyolite, re-shooting all the stuff we did the night before. It looked a little nicer this time around, and it wasn’t dark by the time we’d finished:

Alom backlit by the rising sun, Rhyolite
Alom backlit by the rising sun, Rhyolite

It still took a while, though, what with all the early flights heading out of LA steering right above us. Harrumph.

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