Demonstrations as an endangered resource.
Demonstrations and experiments are quite different things in science. Experiments are written up carefully, peer-reviewed, published, and archived for generations to come.
Demonstrations, on the other hand, are thrown together and presented for theatrical effect, honed over decades, and passed down by word of mouth. In contrast to the rigid structures of research publication, science communication is downright bardic.
There have been a few attempts to catalogue demonstrations. Some terrific chemistry texts have been published (try Roesky & Möckel or RSC Classic Demonstrations), but recent projects with a broader scope have all floundered. It’s a huge undertaking, and while several wikis got off the ground on one side of the Atlantic or the other, so far they’ve all underestimated how much work is needed before the resource becomes useful. So word of mouth is still the archiving process, and it’s thus not uncommon for a demonstration to be, tragically, forgotten.
I first came across ‘lighting a match with water’ from Andy’s predecessor Bryson Gore, when I worked at the Ri twenty years ago. But it’s been seen only rarely since then, and it doesn’t seem to have ever been particularly common in the UK. Which is odd, because it’s a dramatic and insightful demo.
So I was delighted to see it saved from obscurity and revived a couple of years ago. In the capable hands of Farrah Nazir, then at the Centre for Life in Newcastle and now helping organise the British Science Festival, it won the Best Demo Competition of the British Interactive Group. Farrah had come across it from Steve Spangler:
Steve’s been in the game for years, and he’s probably come the closest to building a proper demo catalogue simply through the number of the things that he’s performed on US TV over the years. Notwithstanding 45 years of Christmas Lectures, we’ve a lot of catching up to do.
Tales From the Prep Room isn’t — yet — trying to be anything as grand as a demonstrations catalogue, but we will try to explore some of the less common, more original, or more historic demos. And we do have a secret resource up our sleeve, of which more soon.
Tales from the Prep Room
Ri Channel Collection