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It’s a few days since I came back from the Cheltenham Science Festival and I’m still buzzing. My live science show, “Science vs Magic”, went down a storm, and months and months of work seem to have paid off. I received an email from Dr Andrea Sella, a live science show veteran, telling me he thought it was a “fantastic talk – brilliant premise, brilliant execution, very solid story line, excellent comic timing, great examples, and your energy level was up there at the deranged level… loved every minute”Tom Whyntie, who was one of the performers in what was the best show I saw at Cheltenham – The Tree of Physics – tweeted“Science vs Magic my favourite at #CheltSciFest. Great demos, crucial message, but above all @alomshaha is a phenomenal showman”.

I’d be lying if I said this kind of praise didn’t leave me feeling ridiculously flattered, but praise from these guys really does mean a lot, not just because both of them are “real” scientists but because I’ve seen them perform their own live shows and it’s clear they know what they’re talking about.

Science vs Magic is the first time I’ve tried to do anything like this. The closest thing I’ve done previously is a school assembly for Science Week. I conceived of the show in an attempt to become the IOP Schools Lecturer for 2010. I was shortlisted, but the gig went to the lovely Dr Melanie Windridge. However, by that point I’d invested a whole lot of time and money into developing the show and I was determined to prove to myself (and the IOP) that I could make the show work.

A few months after being rejected by the IOP, I performed the show in front of a few school audiences as part of the Otley Science Festival. The children seemed to love it and I received hugely enthusiastic and positive feedback from teachers and other adults who saw the shows. But, to be brutally honest, I don’t think it’s that hard to impress a hall full of school children, especially if they’re missing their regular science lesson. And it’s not that hard to do a few demonstrations on stage that make people go “wow”. I suspect any “enthusiasm” for science that this kind of thing generates is short-lived.

I wasn’t happy with the show – I had had a particular goal in mind when writing it, a “point” I wanted to make, and I thought I could do it better. I knew some of my demonstrations were a bit lame and that I was making up for that with my on-stage banter. So, I sent out a message on the BIG CHAT mailing list and asked for help. Quite a few people responded, including demo legend Ben Craven and Olympia Brown, Senior Young People’s Programme Coordinator at the Royal Institution.

I gritted my teeth and sent Ben and Olympia copies of a video of an early performance of the show, cringing at the thought of these strangers watching something I knew was far, far from perfect. Ben Craven emailed me, praising the concept but gently pointing out some of the problems with the show. A short time later, I met with Olympia and her colleagues Dave Porter and Andy Marmery. Over cups of tea in an office recently vacated by Susan Greenfield, they told me that they really liked the idea of the show… but they thought they could come up with ways to make it better.

Over the next few months, Oly, Dave and Andy really helped me to improve the show’s structure and came up with a bunch of demos that were much, much better than my original ones. Armed with these new demos and a much stronger script, I tried the show out at a school in Hackney and finally felt like it was close to being the show it was meant to be. I know the show was good on that particular occasion, not because the kids clapped like crazy, but because the conversation I had with a teacher afterwards convinced me that I had done far more than entertain and amuse for an hour – the show had been genuinely thought provoking.

A successful performance at Cheltenham has been the highlight so far of my work on this project. But it’s far from complete. I’ll be performing Science vs Magic again at the BIG Event in July and I’ll be looking for feedback from the audience of my peers in science communication. I hope they’ll like the show, but I also hope they’ll be watching with a critical eye and offer up some suggestions for further improving it. I probably shouldn’t think of it as “my” show any more – it’s really been a collaborative effort and I owe a huge thank you to everyone who’s helped shape it so far, especially the brilliant team at the Royal Institution.

  • Ann Fenech Jun 17, 2010 Reply

    Hi Alom,
    I’m definitely not a veteran or anything of science communication, but I was in the audience for the Cheltenham Science festival show, and I must admit it was one of the shows I enjoyed most at the festival! I was just scared you’ll fall down dead having exhausted all your energy. And if you say it is still “far from complete” I hope to get to see how it will turn out!
    (And btw: thanks for linking to my post on the UCL blog! Hope to see some more of your work in the future!)

  • Andrea Sella Jun 23, 2010 Reply

    I don’t think you should be too put out by not getting the IoP prize. These things tend to be rather political and often go to those who say “Me me me” the loudest. You just keep doing your stuff which is just fantastic as it is.
    And if you do get a gong (which you will, now that you are a member of The Establishment), just remember to use your new-found power only for good.

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