Oh, you know each other?

As I travel the country working on events and visiting schools, it always makes me smile when someome says “We had a visit from X, not sure if you have ever come across them?” or “Ah, so you know and get on with X?” (X is a STEM presenter).

Katie Steckles (seriously cool maths presenter) next to an unknown person

There’s a high chance that I know them and they know me. You see, whilst we may seem to operate by ourselves as freelancers or appear to compete for headline shows, we do talk and support each other. The UK Science Communication scene is very close-knit.

It may come as a shock to some people who consider us to be competitors that we may admit to liking each other or (heaven forbid) even recommend someone else for a particular gig. If I am unable to fulfill a potential client’s needs, rather than just say no, I would much prefer to recommend an alternative and point them in the right direction.

But our collaboration goes beyond that. There are regular messages flying around on WhatsApp, email and Slack groups about potential clients, laser safety, the best cameras or smoke machines, plus things like how to get hold of large quantities of borax or veterinary lubricant.

We are one industry with a mission: To engage our audiences with science (in fact, all of the STEM subjects). Sure, we each bring our own expertise or niche to the festival stage, school hall, theatre, online videos, television or radio shows, but collectively we share a common broad aim. With that in mind, why wouldn’t I want to support my fellow science communication colleagues, be it formally or informally?

I have worked with and supported many other presenters behind the scenes on theatre tours and festivals, particularly from a Health and Safety perspective. Whether it is working with Greg Foot on a national theatre tour, supporting production H&S at Cheltenham Science Festival or advising on Christmas show tour safety, I enjoy my work behind the scenes just as much as being on stage.

Of course, I get to see another side to presenters and support them towards best practice in science show H&S. It provides an interesting dual-perspective on the performance world!

That’s why I value being part of a close-knit group of people and organisations such as the BIG STEM Communicators Network. It gives us an opportunity to support each other and, in the longer term, raise the quality bar.

Matthew goes global at ISF

Hand in firework stunt - do nt try this at home!

Matthew Tosh’s success at communicating firework science to public and school audiences is being acknowledged internationally this month, as he speaks at the 16th International Symposium on Fireworks (ISF). On Tuesday 25th April, Matthew will talk to representatives from the worldwide firework industry about how he has developed demonstrations and narratives for stage shows to engage and inform audiences.

It’s his second ISF. At the 15th ISF in Bordeaux, overseas colleagues were quick to recognise Matthew’s passion and dedication for engaging with the public. They encouraged him to submit a paper on his work, particularly about his successful STEM education and public engagement.

Matthew will be highlighting the challenges of presenting to different audience abilities and scaling up shows to fill big stages which, if you aren’t careful, can easily reinforce the misconception that fireworks are just about noise and big explosions.

Matthew at the Science Museum London

“It’s much more subtle. It’s about showing the public how diverse and detailed this industry is.” says Matthew. “There is a lot of unseen work behind the scenes including research and development, firework and show design, risk assessments, mathematical modelling and meticulous planning. This is long before the first firework is even taken out of its packaging.”

“As an industry with materials that can be lethal if used incorrectly, we have a responsibility to communicate our work to our audiences. And how we communicate effectively and responsibly is an art in itself.”

The former science teacher also aims to raise awareness about firework safety and inspire young people about the creative possibilities with strong STEM skills and qualifications.

Matthew adds “Many careers in the live events and entertainment industries require good science and maths qualifications. It can be easily overlooked when careers advice is being given out to young people.”

The week-long Symposium is being held in Omagari in Northern Japan, the location of several huge firework festivals and celebrations in summer months. It is a gathering of professionals from all over the world to discuss cutting edge firework developments. Presentations will cover the research and development of firework ingredients, safety, transport and firework control technology. It’s also a chance for suppliers and traders to showcase their offerings.

And in case you were wondering… Yes, the Symposium features many firework displays!

Matthew will be providing updates from the 16th ISF via Twitter, Facebook and Youtube.

Matthew Tosh on stage at Swansea University

Le Maitre to sponsor flagship science show

Le Maitre logoMatthew Tosh is delighted to announce that Le Maitre Ltd will be sponsoring a flagship charity science show during British Science Week (13-22 March). The show has been commissioned by the British Science Association (BSA) and Kids Company in association with the Science Museum.

Matthew was asked to produce a show that is a first introduction to the fun, creativity and wonder of science for children who wouldn’t have access to such opportunities. Known for his enthusiastic and engaging style, both with and without pyrotechnics, Matthew is thrilled to be able to help.

A range of effects from UK manufacturer Le Maitre will be used in the show to demonstrate exciting science in action and, in true Matthew style, he has a few tricks up his sleeves.
Matthew with VS flares“One of my aims is to allow audiences to appreciate the broader aspects of science and the skills you get from studying the STEM subjects at school. Many of these skills are used throughout the live events, stunts and entertainment industry, which can so easily be overlooked.”

“2015 is the International Year of Light, and so it is only natural that I should want to include the vibrant colours that Le Maitre pyrotechnics offer, especially with their terrific “VS – virtually smokeless” range.”

Le Maitre Virtually Smokeless logo

“Le Maitre is delighted to be supporting British Science Week at the Science Museum by providing pyrotechnics for the show. We have worked with Matthew on several occasions and he has a great way of getting kids excited about science. The children from Kids Company are in for a treat!” Says Sally Dobinson, Marketing Manager, Le Maitre Ltd.

Matthew will present the show to over 400 children from Kids Company’s London schools programme. Kids Company is a children’s charity that provides emotional and educational support to vulnerable inner-city children and young people.

The BSA is organising the event for British Science Week in partnership with the Science Museum. The BSA wants to increase and diversify the amount of people who participate in and enjoy science.

Matthew added: “Even if you don’t go on to study science beyond school, I want to ensure that people are excited and comfortable by science in use around them.”

Cheltenham Science Festival

Writing and interpreting risk assessments, understanding safety distances, the handling and storage of dangerous goods… this is all bread and butter language and procedure for pyrotechnicians as we go about our work. However, there are times when an event organiser, venue manager or production company may not have the relevant in-house specialist knowledge, particularly when working with hot flames, sparks and explosions.

Venue CAD drawing exampleIn the months and weeks leading up to an event, organisers want to understand the nature of the stage sets and stunts being planned. They seek assurance to be confident that the risk assessments are robust and cover the relevant areas and eventualities. Having access to specialist knowledge is vital. This is one of the reasons that the Cheltenham Science Festival production team approached Matthew Tosh; asking him to come on board as a consultant for the 2014 six-day festival.

Matthew will be providing pre and live event support for the shows and awards ceremonies that involve so-called higher-risk stunts, tricks and demonstrations. He brings over eight years of combined pyrotechnics and live science presenting expertise to the Cheltenham team.

High-profile science shows are incorporating more close proximity pyrotechnic and explosive effects to show off particular science principles, as well as enhancing the dramatic and visual aspect. These require an understanding of how the materials perform, detailed risk assessments and robust rigging techniques. A specialist eye also helps give organisers the confidence that safe rigging, storage and set-up procedures are being followed, particularly if any on-site changes or material substitutions need to be made at short notice.

The Times Cheltenham Science Festival runs from 3rd to 8th June 2014. You can find out more and what’s on here.

Bangs for the sake of bangs?

I was prompted to write this article in response to a number of comments on social media channels in the past 24 hours about pyrotechnics and explosions in chemistry outreach and science communication activities.

In case you’ve just arrived from an external site, I’ll declare my interest at the outset: I am a pyrotechnician as well as a science presenter. I am a physics graduate, not a chemistry graduate, but I use chemistry and rely on it in a lot of my work. I should also add that I broadly agree with the arguments against explosions for the sake of explosions – chemistry is far more elegant and a much broader subject and one shouldn’t attempt to represent it by a single type of demonstration… or a demonstration at all, as some may argue.

I do not wish to reduce the debate to “are pyrotechnics and explosions per se good or bad?” A little of everything in moderation and used appropriately, works well. By appropriate, I mean not including a bang just for a cheap audience thrill and “getting them on side”. I’ve seen so-called “whizz-bang” lectures that are a cluttered collection of exothermic, brightly-flashing, smokey reactions with little or no structure and, quite frankly, they bore me. I’ve also been fortunate to see some very clever lecturers and teachers build suspense, with even some of the quietest of demonstrations (the first time I saw Nylon being made springs to mind).

The challenge of a presenter or lecturer is to present a broad range of demonstrations representing different aspects of the subject. This is true for many subjects and not just chemistry.

However, I am concerned at some of the paraphrased comments and questions I’ve seen flying around on social media networks today about how pyrotechnics could be perceived as a “terrible tool for chemistry outreach”.

Pyrotechnics and pyrotechnic-type demonstrations (including explosions and stoichiometry demonstrations) cannot and should not be used as standalone representations of chemistry. It’s far too narrow an application. I think most people would agree on that. But let’s not forget that they do indeed represent valid and real applications of chemistry. I know post-doc chemists who have worked in pyrotechnics R&D and I spend a lot of time in muddy fields using their products.

Pyrotechnic devices (as we call them in the industry) are tools. Any tools or devices can be used correctly, but they can also be misused. Misuse could be downright dangerous or irresponsible use (e.g as a weapon). It could also be including a bang or flash in a lecture for the sake of it because it’s chemistry and that’s what the audience expects to see. Overuse is a misuse.

Audiences expect it because over the years we’ve allowed the bangs to become the main stars of our demonstrations and have hence allowed the perception to develop.

I am regularly asked to present lectures about the science behind professional firework displays and stage effects. My area of interest is how both chemistry and physics underpin the range of visual and aural effects, not to mention how we make it all happen with technology, engineering and maths. I’m absolutely clear from the outset that I’m presenting a very specific application of the sciences. The main aim is to highlight how Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) play important roles in the creative and entertainment industries – pyrotechnics being just one aspect of this broader industry.

Matthew Tosh demonstrating an application of chemistry

© Matthew Lord 2013 | www.wtf4photography.com

In most of my lectures, I only include one actual explosion and its primary purpose is to demonstrate a physical principle; i.e. that of a supersonic shockwave. Yes, it’s loud and the maximum pressure is selected to match the size of the venue and age of the audience. I won’t lie; it’s a great demonstration and I really enjoy doing it. It usually features in a series of demonstrations relating to reaction rates and rates of energy release. However, if I’m not doing anything about shockwaves, then I rarely include an explosion.

The colour chemistry can get very detailed, depending on the age of the audience I’m talking to. It’s a great way of demonstrating aspects of physical chemistry, electron energy levels and competing emission spectra. Pyrotechnic whistles are fascinating, but bizarrely illustrate more physics than actual chemistry.

I’m trying not to sound too defensive. I am obviously biased towards pyrotechnics as I’ve been working with them for over seven years. My passion for them is driven by the fact that there is a wealth of chemistry and physics at play behind the scenes.

Chemistry cannot be communicated with pyrotechnics alone, but to badge them broadly as a terrible tool for chemistry outreach is misleading.

If deploying carefully selected pyrotechnic effects and demonstrations helps open a young person’s mind to some of the possibilities and wider applications of the STEM subjects and why it is important to get a good GCSE grade (or equivalent) in these subjects, then I will have achieved my aim as a science presenter.

A terrible tool? I’d argue that it is the operator who is at fault, not the tool.