European Researchers' Night and the Brains of Brainiac

27 September 2009

Interview with 

Dr Paula Martin, Durham University and John Tickle, Braniac


Researchers Revealed


Ben - To find out more about European Researcher's Night, I spoke to Dr. Paula Martin from Durham University.  She has worked tirelessly for months to bring Researchers Revealed together.  She has beResearchers Revealeden organizing guests, researchers and the fantastic venue for the opportunity to take research out to the public.  Along with Jon Tickle, who was a one-time Big Brother contestant and now presenter on anarchic science TV show Brainiac, I caught her in a quiet moment between shepherding school children around and setting up the stage.  And I just wanted to find out how Durham University first got involved...

Paula -   Researchers' Night has been happening across Europe for the past five years now and we have a lot of people who work for Durham University who have worked in European institutions previously and have been involved in the event in other countries and came to us and said, "Why is this not happening in the UK?"  And so, we went ahead and got involved and now, it's happening here in the UK.  We're the first university to be involved and we're delighted to be a part of it.

Ben -   And you've put a European theme on the evening as well.

Paula -   Yes.  So this evening there'll be cities across 30 countries in Europe, all running similar sorts of events, opening their doors and encouraging members of the public to come along and find out more about the research that's going on in their local area.  So we've got a big group of researchers from Durham University coming along to talk about the research that they do and also their personal interests and really anything that they're passionate about.  And so, we have people who are going to be talking about astronomy and earth sciences and archaeology and social sciences, and art and music and sports and just a whole range of things.  They're so excited about the chance to come out and talk to people about the stuff that they really do love doing.

Ben -   Our regular listeners will be familiar with Dave Ansell's Kitchen Science.  He's on stage doing, perhaps the slightly more dangerous stuff that you wouldn't recommend people to do at home.  Who else do we have lined up?

Paula -   So we also have Helen Storey who is a fashion designer, who has done a variety of collaborations with scientists to develop the art and fashion that she's interested in.  And then, we'll be rounding off the evening with a comedy set by the Punk Scientists.

Ben -   And the glue holding the whole evening together is in fact Jon Tickle who first rose to fame on British television on Big Brother and then of course, you led on to entertain and educate us through Brainiac...

Jon -   Edutainment, yes.

Ben -   Edutainment, which is - it's anarchic,  it's fun but at the same time, there is still definitely something to learn from it.  How did you get into Brainiac?

Jon -   I was very, very lucky actually.  I positioned myself on Big Brother as, not intentionally, but that's how it came out, as a bit of a geek.  Hopefully, one who is technically aware rather than socially inept - there are two different definitions in the dictionary and I choose the one that suits me, but the executive producer of Brainiac was working up the show at the time.  And bless Richard Hammond, but he's not the most scientifically versed person in the world.  He loves science but he's not very knowledgeable and so, there was a need to fill in a section in the script, which explained the science.  And so, there was a sidekick role going begging.  And luckily, Richard thought of me and I got the gig and never looked back really.

Ben -   And on Brainiac, they have you doing far more than just a filling in the science gaps.  You're explaining some of the detailed science behind the big, messy experiments.  You do walking on custard and it's your favourite one...

Jon -   Yes.

Ben -   Come back to that in a minute.  But also you're looking at things that your body can do and you seem to be taking on the science questions from anybody who's willing to ask them, which is a very brave thing to do.

Jon -   Oh, this is the very nice thing about the show.  That very quickly we achieved a critical mass and so, we had lots of questions coming in, not only from the regular audience you might expect in terms of school kids and young people, but actually from all ages.  And there are limits to the kind of questions you can answer in a 3 minute item on a television program.  But we do try and address them by doing what some people can't do, which is getting out there and doing experiments.  And very often, they're very simple ones.  The best times on Brainiac were with a tray on a street corner, asking people to taste the difference between foods cooked with and without monosodium glutamate.  And that's the kind of experiment you can do at home.  It's just somebody has chosen to write in rather than do it themselves, but very pleased to demonstrate science in action.

Ben -   It's fantastic to be able to give people the answers that they are looking for.  Obviously, there are sometimes questions that we can't answer but more importantly, there are no stupid questions.  Nothing is a silly question to ask.

Jon -   No.  This is one of my axioms.  I'm absolutely passionate about that.  There is absolutely no such thing as a stupid question.  There is a simple question for me to answer, but there is nothing that I will ever deride when somebody asks me a question.  So,  there's no shame in asking what you might think is a simple question.  The simplest questions are often the best ones and that's what Brainiac tries to do.  We try to answer those questions but also explain how you might go about finding out those answers for yourself.

Ben -   So you're encouraging a certain way of thinking.

Jon -   Yes.  We don't do high science as such, but what we do and try to do is encourage a scientific method.  And this is something that you know, changed my life as a teenager - the understanding that you can ask a question and go about finding an answer in a structured, rigorous, real way rather than just believing anything that somebody tells you.  It's very powerful and it's something I use at work all the time.

Ben -   And that realization as a teenager led eventually to you walking on custard?

Custard, in a bowlJon -   Yes, it did, yes, one of my favourite experiments on the show.  And certainly, when I speak people on the streets or in bars that's the one they always bring up.  It was a fabulous experience, not least because I got to go to Richard Hammond's house.  That was actually his pool that it was filmed in, he has a very nice pad out at Gloucestershire.  Unfortunately, there was a downside to the day in that like most Brainiac experiments, it was filmed during the dead of winter.  I think this was February so I had to dive into a pool of water to start off the experiment to prove that I couldn't walk on water.  And so, I think we needed three takes of me, jumping into a 2-degree swimming pool.

Ben -   They didn't heat it for you?

Jon -   No, no!  This is a bone of contention  with me.  We arrived for the shoot on the previous night and we were in a hotel having drinks in the bar and Mr. Hammond swore to me that he'd switched on the heating.  And I believed him before I jumped in the first time.  But obviously, he wasn't going to heat 27,000 litres of water, just so he could drain it five minutes later and fill it up with custard.  So yes, it was absolutely freezing.  I had hypothermia I'm sure afterwards.

Ben -   And how long did it take to mix?

Jon -   Oh, oh, all day, all day.  The Brainiacs are mainly quite stupid individuals and that's not something we make up for the show.  They really have very little common sense between them.  And so, they hadn't brought enough custard powder with them.  And so, we had to send vans, all around the west and southwest of England that day in order to empty, I don't know where you find warehouses full of custard powder but they at least got it done.  And so, we had vans coming in all day, filling up the swimming pool.  It took most of the day to film.  We usually film two or three or even four experiments a day with Brainiac, but that was an experiment that took all day to film.

Ben -   Fantastic.  And what is coming up for you in Brainiac or indeed anything else?

Jon -   Well, Brainiac is unfortunately dead now.  We last went in front of the camera two years ago although you can still see repeats.  I'm still doing things in the science communication arena like today.  So, very pleased to be involved in the program tonight.  But for me, at the moment, I'm trying to concentrate on my career and further my proper career, I always call it.  I'm a software designer.

Ben -   And this is something that most of the people don't know about you.  That actually all of the Brainiac stuff, you do in your holiday.

Jon -   Yes, since Big Brother, I haven't really had a proper holiday.  Actually, I had my gallbladder out about three months ago and that was the first time I've had two weeks off work for six years.  It was a very pleasurable experience for me despite what it might going to sound like!  Yes, so normally, I  spend my 30 days holiday a year doing things like this, trying to further the aims of science communication.


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