The Punk Scientists

The Science Museum's 'Punk Scientists' explain to Meera how they make science engaging through making people laugh.....
27 September 2009

Interview with 

Jon Milton and Dan Carter-Hope, The Science Museum


Jon -   Well, basically, what we want to do is to try to get everyone interested in science so not just sort of preaching to the converted.  We want to engage everyone.  Well, we don't really simplify our science.  We just make shows very accessible.  They're funny.  They're silly.  They're stupid, maybe a bit peurile.

The Science MuseumDan -   Yeah.  It's the opposite of the stereotypical science show or lecture.  We've gone to the opposite extreme, and it's sort of elements of pantomime.  "It's a knockout" and being in a pub.

Meera -   Well, because that's what I was going to ask you, because there's so many different groups now trying to make science more accessible...

Jon -   Yeah.

Meera -   And the whole field of science communication...

Jon -   Yeah.

Meera -   But what do you do that's different?  Because your slogan is that, you're aimed at adults purely as your main kind of audience.

Dan -   Well, yes, originally, but we've also expanded to include, I think, it's safe to say, everyone.

Jon -   Yeah.

Dan -   Having done kid's shows, teenage shows, adult shows and family shows.  So, really, we've turned into the SWAT team of science communication.

Jon -   But our main focus is adults so..

Dan -   Yeah.

Jon -   I mean, we do a regular gig where every month at the Science Museum in London...

Jon and Dan -   The Late opening...the 'Lates', yeah.

Dan -   Where we do a different show every month depending on the theme of the night.  So the next one...

Jon -   For example, there has been a Formula One.  We've had women in science.  There's been space.  What else did we do?

Dan -   Climate change.

Jon -   Climate change is the next one, yeah.

Meera -   That's your next one coming out?

Jon -   Yeah.

Meera -   So what aspects in climate change are you looking at there?

Jon - Oh, it's that.  The mechanism; how it's going to affect our lives,  crazy weather?

Dan -   A bit of skewed look at it as well...

Jon -   Yes.

Dan -   ...because we're trying to look at local food and local produce because to break down - to bring down the carbon footprint, you should try and eat your local produce and that sort of things.  So...

Meera -   And do you?

Dan -   Yeah, I do actually.

Jon -   Yeah, I go to my local supermarket because...

Dan -   No, that's not the point, man.

Meera -   Do you read where it's from in the label?

Jon -   I say "Where's that?"  I don't know.  I say, okay then.

Dan -   That sounds fun.  I'll eat that--no!  Yeah, I do.  So, the most part, I think, practically, I don't think as many people who's need to...

Jon -   No.

Dan - it because of price especially in the economic climate.  Can I say that without sounding dull?

Jon -   No.

Punk Style in the 80sDan -   Our skewed look at that is that as a result of the temperatures going up, year on year, insects have been getting slightly larger.  So our proposal is, why not eat insects?

Jon -   Yeah.

Meera -   Okay.

Dan -   So we get some insects...

Jon -   Easy to farm.

Dan -   And this is where we're showing to be hypocrites because you can only get edible insects that do come from...

Meera -   They're not locally sourced then?

Dan -   No.  No.

John -   Local to Cambodia.

Dan -   Yeah, yeah.  The tarantula...

Meera -   Locusts...

Jon -   Yes, from Cambodia.

Dan -   We're making important science points.  It's not just about bullying people into eating insects in the live environment.

Jon -   But it's trying to get people to think in a slightly different way.

Dan -   Yeah.

Meera -   Well, you also reach new audiences because I've seen that you've also performed at Edinburgh Fringe and places like that.

Jon -   Yes.  Yeah, two years ago.

Meera -   So how have they gone down?

Dan -   That went down really well actually.

Jon -   Yeah, very well.

Dan -   We first saw that went there was Einstein Year so we may have had some help with the publicity.

Jon -   Yeah, because we did a show about Newton.  Yeah.

Dan -   What?  No, we missed a trick there!

John -   Oh, next...

Dan -   No, we did a show about Einstein obviously.

Jon -   Yeah, went really well.  It was a great experience.  And that's a sort of ideal audience for us really, sort of festival-going crowd who are willing to try something a little bit unusual.

Meera -   So how would you summarize then the main ways you try and engage your audience and get them kind of passionate about science?

Dan -   It's through big interactive demonstrations of things.

Jon -   Yes.

Dan -   Because lots of people have to get involved and there maybe a degree of humiliation either for us or for them depending on how it works out.

Jon -   It's all audience participation.  We don't...

Dan -   Voting, that sort of thing.

Jon -   Because I suppose most science communicators, they just do experiments.

Dan -   Yeah.

Jon -   Which is great because they look brilliant and they get really good reaction...

Meera -   You want interaction?

Dan -   Yes.

Jon -   But we actually interact with people.  I suppose that's because we deal with adult audiences.  So it's nice to do experiments because you get a bit of wow factor; but we found it wasn't enough and people, adults, tended to find they're being a bit patronized because most of the established experiments are targeted at children.  And that wasn't our target audience.  So we changed.  So we took - we started to take sort of more theoretical things and tried to make them into live things, for example...

Dan -   Yeah, which sometimes works really well.

Jon -   Yeah, Brownian motion -we turned into a live demo...

Dan -   Yeah.

Jon -   Using the audience to be the molecules...

Meera -   Oh, nice.

Jon -   Yeah.

Dan -   And beach balls...

Jon -   We're getting beach balls at them and then more and more beach balls.  So we try and put in this sort of "it's-a-knockout" element of escalation.

Meera -   And would you say they understand the kind of science behind that?

Dan -   Well, a lot of people surprisingly do.  Yes, people who aren't - are necessarily into because...

Jon - A lady came up to us...

Dan -   Our ringing endorsement!

Jon -   Oh, yes, yeah.

Dan -   Yes.

Jon -   Who came up at one of the Edinburgh shows.  She said she's been married to a physicist...

Dan -   A physicist.  It's awful.

Meera -   But now she's going to understand your work?

Dan -   Yeah, for the first time, she actually understood what Brownian motion meant so...

Meera -   And so explain to our audience what is Brownian motion.

Dan -   No.

Jon -   [adopting a strange voice] It's the random movement over particles suspended in a liquid.

Dan -   Yeah.

Meera -   And is there - it has to be said in that voice?

Jon and Dan -   It does.  It does.

Meera -   Yeah?

Jon -   And it proves the existence of the atom.  Anyway, it helped to prove the existence.

Dan - Yeah, it did.  It led to proving the existence...

Jon -   So we do little footnotes of...

Meera -   But your backgrounds--both of yours--aren't science backgrounds?

Jon -   No.

Meera -   So what made you get involved with making science exciting for other people?

Jon -   We worked as explainers at the Science Museum's Launch Pad Gallery.

Dan -   Yeah.

Meera -   It all began there?

Jon -   Yes.

Dan - They recruit a lot of people for that job.  They were looking for science backgrounds.  They recruited a similar amount of people with performing music, comedy, drama backgrounds.

Meera -   Yeah, and then lastly, and I guess the question you must get all the time because we always get asked if we're naked because we're the "Naked Scientists" so are you indeed punks, or have you ever been punks?

Jon and Dan:  No.  No.  No.  But at least you can say we are scientists.  We can't even say that.

Dan -   I said, no, but I have genuine interest in science.

Jon -   Yeah.

Dan -   But one of our former taglines, tried and tested, was that if we made things simple enough that if we can understand it, anyone can.


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