Tag Archives: engineering

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.


Chain Reaction: Cambridge

I’m a bit of a fan of the Cambridge Science Centre, and of the people behind it. A year ago I trekked down from Newcastle to help them fix things up just before they opened. So by ‘fan’ I mean ‘groupie.’

Hence, my favourite parts of this film are Chris Lennard saying ‘Heath-Robinson‘ rather than ‘Rube Goldberg‘ (quite right too), and the brief glimpse at the end of the inimitable Dave Ansell leaning in to blow out a candle. Lovely people all.

My biggest problem with Heath Robinson machines is that they’re impossible to photograph unless they’re designed specifically for the camera. And the only people to have done that, really, are the folks behind the magnificent Japanese children’s series Pitagora Suichi, whose mechanisms are unbelievably smart:

(check this playlist for a bunch more from the same source.)

Maker Faire UK

One reason for this site’s very existence is to try to connect the worlds of teaching and science communication. They have different needs and objectives, and they’ll use demos in different ways, but they’ll be the same demos.

So, teachers – here’s something from the world beyond the school lab, Maker Faire UK:

Maker Faire is very much its own brand of lunacy, but it captures something that for a specific type of geek is spectacularly good for the soul. And it turns out that type of geek is everywhere, in every field. The range of disciplines and the way they weave together (sometimes literally) is staggering. This year’s was the biggest UK Faire yet, with 10,000 visitors over the weekend.

I’m a huge fan of Maker Faire, and the softly-spoken, quietly-enthusiastic Dale Dougherty is a wonderful host.

Ben Craven’s arch demo

Science communication legend Ben Craven was in London over the weekend, giving me the chance to grab a quick bite with him while he waited for his train at King’s Cross. It also gave him time to show me a surprising demo related to his love of arches and for me to try out filming on my new iPhone 5. The picture quality is way better than my crappy old iPhone 3GS but the sound is problematic for doing something like this. Might need to invest in a lavalier mic of some sort…

[Oh, I see: requisitioning equipment via the blog. That’s your game, is it? Tsk. – Ed.]

Imploding Can

The imploding can demo is an old classic, often done with an old square-sided oil tin though I’m personally rather partial to the Coke can version. This, however, is something else. Commentary around the web suggests the method used here is to steam-clean the tank then seal the valves while it’s still full of steam. Which sounds plausible, and it’s not ridiculous to suspect this has been done as part of an industrial safety course.

Years ago I remember talking to David Jones about trying this – he’d long fancied having a go with a petrol tanker lorry. Even for TV the costs had looked prohibitive, and I never did find him an end-of-life tanker to play with. There’s also the minor issue of disposal to consider. But at least we can now be reasonably confident we could have made it work.

One concern, though: I’m not 100% convinced by the video. It’s from an interlaced source so it’s hard to tell for sure, but frame-by-framing the implosion makes it look to me like it’s been sped up somewhat. That said, the movement of the bogies looks appropriate. Ah, YouTube, you do so tease us with your ripped-off sources and your dodgy recompression.

Demos as political theatre

I’ve finally caught up with the BBC’s Challenger dramatisation of Richard Feyman’s last great adventure, which features this famous and terrific piece of science theatre. It’s sometimes referred to as an ‘experiment,’ which of course it wasn’t, really – the outcome was known and expected, and hence it’s a demonstration.

For our purposes, what it does rather neatly is illustrate the power of showing rather than merely telling, and remind us that such power is not limited to the realm of education. Challenger is plotted somewhere between a tense political stand-off and an engineering whodunnit, with Feynman’s famous O-ring demo as the climax. That a demonstration can serve such a rôle in a movie is something from which we should take heart. Sure, the circumstances were extreme, but if you ever find yourself doubting that demos can be dramatic: well, there’s a demo as the key moment in a drama. Appropriately enough for Feynman: QED.

Challenger is viewable on iPlayer for a few more days, and will doubtless be kicking around on torrent sites for a while longer, or if you’re not in the UK.