Saturday 13th March 2010

It was an inordinately arduous five-hour journey in the Oxford Physics transit van (hereinafter referred to as the physics van!!!) to the Big Bang Fair in Manchester. On the team: me, Suzie, Rosalind and Svet. Our task was simple: explain particle accelerators in twenty minutes, eight times in three days, and in the process hopefully convince a few kids that ‘scientist’ and ‘football star’ are comparably glamorous careers. Let’s do this!

We were sharing our stage—which was actually configured as a catwalk—with a handful of other shows. It was somewhat lax on the part of the organisers that none of their materials, from the organisational e-mails in the run-up to the event, through the brochures handed out, to the poster displayed near our stage or even on the official website, explained at all what each show was actually about. This was presumably mystifying to punters—our own show, Accelerate!, is not exactly blessed with the most descriptive of titles—but it also left me curious as to who exactly our co-conspirators were.

Svet and Suzie levitate a superconductor.

I’m no Mystic Meg, but most of these didn’t come as any particular surprise: For example, ‘The magic of maths’ used maths to explain card tricks, and ‘Introduction to nanotechnology’ saw a (slightly crazy) chemist brew up a magnetic fluid live on stage by way of introducing nanotechnology. All well within the bounds of expectation. But what the hell could I expect from ‘ActionDog’?

My predictions for ActionDog’s show fell into two rough categories—it was either some kind of Aibo-Fido robo-dog whose jerky gait, whining, buzzing motors and red blinking eyes like a 70s Doctor Who baddie hiding in a Christmas tree amused bystanders whilst some idiot in a white coat with ‘crazy’ hair explained how he worked; or some poor sap covered in fake fuzz bounding around like a maniac averting scientific peril, barking ‘ActionDog to the rescue!’ when the only thing which really needs saving would be the credibility of the person in the dog suit, and, soon, the wider practice of science communication.

Imagine my total fucking astonishment, then, when ActionDog turned out to be a fashion show. With actual, genuine (hot) models. It certainly seemed to explain why our stage was fashioned as it was. The science connection here, in case you were wondering, is that their garments were inspired by the process of human ageing. And ActionDog was not really the title of the show, but the name of the company who had overseen it.

Svet explodes two of our patent hydrogen balloons.

Our show usually immediately followed theirs, so we shared a backstage area with the ActionDog team. As these implausibly tall, impossibly skinny, professionally beautiful girls in platform shoes were stripping to their underwear (and extremely tiny their knickers were too) and being zipped rapidly into their next outfit, I was pouring liquid nitrogen, hissing and steaming, into a bucket (a process which, in case you were wondering, strikes fear into the average model) and hoping like hell that static from their woolly leg-warmers didn’t cause a spark, setting one of our balloons full of hydrogen alight and resulting in an explosion of rubber, shards of science demonstration, and shapely body parts.

This is not a social situation that my life so far had prepared me for. In spite of my secondary school headmaster’s dream that we would emerge from his establishment as well-rounded individuals, never once had he given an assembly on talking to half-naked women whilst holding a tub of liquid air. I decided to stick to what I knew, and showed them how to levitate a superconductor above some magnets. I hope they got something out of it, but I think it’s possible they were as unprepared for this situation as I was.

Besides semi-clad hotties, the Big Bang Fair provided plenty to see and do. One stand allowed kids to make their own custom Perspex sunglasses with a laser cutter, another allowed fascinated punters to fondle a human placenta in a bag, and yet a third allowed one to design a jet engine and then see how efficient it was—for some reason on a giant 3D screen. Though it was at times gratuitously sciencey, it was just about slick enough to make up for it.

Me and a see-through balloon on a thermal IR camera. Photo by Svet.

Our Accelerate!-ing went quite well and, of the 17,000 visitors to the fair, we reckon we snagged about 500 to watch us blowing stuff up, levitating stuff and detecting particles from outer space.

The only minor incident was when we nearly set a child on fire. One of our hydrogen balloons was presumably a little under-full, and the candle on a stick must have melted the latex without initially igniting the hydrogen. The balloon zipped off on a spasmodic trajectory, with a sound somewhere between typical released-balloon rasping and the roar of a rocket motor as a jet of flame propelled it around our heads like a huge, angry wasp with afterburners, before coming to rest, still flaming, at the terrified child’s feet. Thankfully for our health and safety record, she was not wearing highly flammable woolly leg-warmers. And it demonstrated to our audience two of the most important things about science: 1. you never know what’s going to happen, and 2. it is fucking brilliant.


  1. So now I know! I was wondering who those cool tall skinny glam/punk 70s style over-makeup-ed gals were wandering around. They rather stood out from the general ambient geekiness going on.

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