All posts by Jonathan Sanderson

Science film-maker, writer, director and consultant.

Arduino: first steps

Pick a random stall at Maker Faire UK and there’s a fair chance it’ll have flashing LEDs. And where there’s a flashing LED, there’s usually a little blue circuitboard driving it. The blue board is the famous Arduino, a family of open-source microcontrollers designed to allow easy interaction between code you write and real-world sensors and actuators.

There’s a complex and ever-expanding ecosystem of Arduino-compatible boards and interface units, and to a novice it’s all a bit overwhelming. I am that novice. Indeed, the list of Arduino projects I’ve completed looks like this:

  1. [insert list of future projects here]

However, awareness of what’s possible expands one’s set of available tools, and Arduino feels like the sort of thing I might, at some point, find useful. So every now and then I tinker a little. My tentative, toe-in-the-water approach to Arduino goes like this:

Continue reading Arduino: first steps

Riding BigTrak

A Rebel X-wing pilot driving a giant BigTrak is the most 1979 thing I’ve ever seen.

On the face of it this isn’t a very ScienceDemo sort of thing to do, but (a.) no, it really is, and (b.) over the next few days I’ll be posting a few things which caught my eye at this weekend’s Maker Faire UK. It was a wonderful weekend full of charming, talented and whimsical people… and that was before the Hitchen Hackspace guys let me drive their giant BigTrak. I’m the one in the purple hoodie in the film, grinning from ear to ear.


What’s a ‘geek,’ anyway?

The STEM engagement world is terribly naïve when it talks about audiences. Still. After all this time. Here’s an example:

Felicia Day is an actor who runs a very successful YouTube channel, Geek and Sundry. Which is pretty cool, actually: one of their top shows is a tabletop gaming chat show hosted by Wil Wheaton, what’s not to love about that?

Here, Day riffs on their audience, and the nature of ‘geek.’ She notes of ‘geek’:

Continue reading What’s a ‘geek,’ anyway?

Explanation anxiety

Do you suffer from explanation anxiety?

Do you purposefully shy away from offering a full explanation of your demonstrations, concerned that you might mislead, miss out, or misplace? Are you tempted to leave the explanation until after the demonstration not because you think that would represent good pedagogy, but because you hope your audience will be so thrilled by the effect they’ll overlook any descriptive inadequacy on your part?

Don’t be ashamed! The first step in dealing with explanation anxiety is recognising that you have a problem. You’re amongst friends here. No braying students will laugh at your stumbles, no academic will pick holes in your mostly-right-but-a-bit-rusty-if-you-really-think-it-through models, no science communicator will roll their eyes and tell you they saw this done better at the Exploratorium.

Just honest, constructive peer criticism. Together, we can conquer your explanation anxiety, and help you become the demonstrator you always wanted to be!

— I’ve sat on this post for months, and have rewritten it several times. Ironically, I don’t think I’m explaining myself very well. Time to heed my own advice and publish first, think through completely second. All I know for sure is that when I’m writing, I feel a degree of tension building as I approach ‘the explanation.’

Is there such a thing as “Explanation anxiety”? Do you suffer from it? Comments below, please…

Domino Computer

Stand-up mathematician Matt Parker and a team of volunteers build a functioning calculator out of dominoes, because… er… well, because they worked out how they could.

This has been festering in my pile of ‘unfinished hobby projects’ for longer than I’d care to admit, but just before I gadded off on holiday last month Matt prodded me with a very pointy stick. I’m delighted the film is finally seeing the light of day.

The film follows the domino computer build weekend at Manchester Science Festival with all its up and downs, and while we did try to explain how it works… well, turns out that’s quite tricky with hundreds of people milling around and thousands of dominos ready to fall over at a moment’s notice. So you might also want to check out this Numberphile film in which Matt explains the circuit with a little more care:

The team have also put together some worksheets, and can provide schools’ workshops (and dominoes!):

Elin also has a great bunch of stills of the weekend over on Flickr. Here’s one now. Note the breaks in the circuit during building, so an accidental fall doesn’t destroy the whole thing. There was a heap of work and expertise involved in building this thing, it really was a remarkable effort.

Set up

Understanding the chain fountain

Our chum Steve Mould has had a bit of a hit over the last few years with his chain fountain demo:

There have been arm-waving explanations (some more convincing than others), but recently John Biggins and Mark Warner in Cambridge have published a much more complete description of what’s going on.

Now, the video at the head of this post makes me wince a little, partly because I’m a snobby film-maker but also because the section from about 3:10 (about centripetal force) could, I think, be clearer. It’s not explicit, for example, that in the steady state the chain velocity must be the same all along the chain: that’s why the ‘ball being thrown straight upwards’ analogy works. It’s not that the ball is stationary at the top (if the ball’s path is arced like the chain’s, the ball isn’t stationary), it’s that the ball’s speed changes during its flight. The chain can’t do that.

There are several similar conceptual jumps which make sense only once you’ve understood the process, not whilst you’re in the process of understanding – a common mistake in academic scicomms, if I’m being snarky. You can see the result of these skipped steps in the comments thread at YouTube, which pretty much mirrors what I’d expect. That is: people tripping over precisely the parts the film covers poorly.

However, the torque argument for a force component from the beaker is lovely. The macaroni-on-a-string demo isn’t properly convincing as shown, but it does offer the beginnings of something terrific.

So, critical me thinks there’s better scicomms still to be done around this, but what delights me about the whole episode is that ‘proper’ physics is being done from a scicomms curiosity. It’s also a remainder that often science communicators stop just before the science gets properly interesting: we chicken out at the arm-waving stage rather than aiming for the greater satisfaction that comes from deeper understanding.

Bravo, Steve et al. There are precious few stories like this.

The Rutherford School Physics Partnership has a PDF of more chain problems, if you want to roll your sleeves up and get stuck in.

DEMO: The Movie – User’s manual

It’s all well and good that we made a film, but what are you supposed to do with it?

Take a look at the discussion notes compiled by Alom and Mary Whitehouse at the University of York (PDF link). That document also includes a bunch of references (the film isn’t just us making stuff up you know, there’s research and everything!) along with Alom’s practical tips for performing demos.

DEMO is really intended to be watched in your own time, as a pick-me-up when the day-to-day grind has dulled your enthusiasm, or to reinforce and help clarify how you think about demonstrations. It’s a bit long, perhaps, to watch in a staff meeting or training course, though we’re already hearing reports of it being used that way.

With Alom’s previous film Why is Science Important? one thing that proved useful was having the film chunked up into individual scenes. DEMO has so many forward- and back-references we’re not sure that would be appropriate, however if you’d really like a specific scene pulled out, drop us a note in the comments here and we’ll see what we can do.

Alternatively, you can dissect the film yourself on YouTube. If you’re signed in, below the film you’ll see a button labelled ‘Remix this video!’. By the magic of Creative Commons licenses, pressing that button will pull the film into YouTube’s editor, allowing you to chop it up to your heart’s content. All we’d ask is that you include a link back to in your film and its description, so people can find the full story.

DEMO: The trailer

Alom and I made a movie, as the regular reader here might have worked out.

On Monday March 10th we’re having premiere events in London and York. The London one is invited guests only, sorry – but you can still get into the York screening at the National STEM Centre (free popcorn!). The movie will be online around the same time.

If you can’t make it to York… enjoy the trailer, and we hope you’ll find the film itself useful.

If the moon were 1 pixel…

I’m not often a huge fan of computer-based demonstrations: if you’re going to show the reality of something, show it for real. However, when the thing you’re trying to show is abstract – like, for example, the immense scale of the solar system – then screen-based demos can make a lot of sense.

Take this fabulous side-scrolling solar system diagram, for example. It starts from the premise of the moon being 1 pixel high, and scales the rest of the solar system accordingly. Be warned: there’s a lot of scrolling involved.

lot of scrolling.

The journey’s kept amusing by odd little snippets spaced between the planets in neptune-sized text, and the minimal design is particularly lovely. Hey, if you’re going to use a screen-based demo, use a good one.

(via everyone, but particularly Metafilter, where the comments thread also points to the impressive-looking Universe Sandbox. “Collide galaxies for fun.”)

Electromagnetic induction

Thanks to one of the IOP’s twitter streams for reminding Alom and I of this film, which we’d rather forgotten about. Unlike many of our other demo videos, it wasn’t made for the IOP/National STEM Centre, nor for Get Set Demonstrate. Rather, we threw it together to enter a slightly weird competition. We held out little hope of winning, but the prize fund was considerably larger than any demo filming budget we’ve ever secured, so we had the (odd?) thought of using the winnings to fund the project we actually wanted to do.

Happily, our friends Andrew and Sharmila Hanson won, and did fabulous things with the cash, so we’re hardly complaining. (Oh, and: belated happy birthday, Andrew!).

Our EM induction film, meanwhile, ended up being loaned to the National STEM Centre so it could sit alongside the films we did make for them. The YouTube version above is still higher-quality, if you want to download it.

Funny how things turn out, sometimes. Also: I’ve just received a text from Alom complaining about how rough he looked three years ago. Tee-hee.