Category: appearances

Melbourne International Science Festival?

Of course there’s no such thing. But every year I try to inject a little science into the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, usually through the medium of the Melbourne Museum Comedy Tour. This year is no different – and you can get all the goss, and tickets, over at museumcomedy.com.

But, I sense you wonder, what else are you doing? Surely you have something more directly science-y in the works? And, well…I sort of do. It’s true that my focus has wandered in recent years, taking in a broader geeky scope than just science. It’s one of the reasons I haven’t written often here on the blog – I try to confine myself to science topics, and yet a lot of my time is taken up thinking about games, stories, politics and other things. Mostly in a geeky context, of course. For this reason, my next solo show – or shows, it might be two – is also broader in scope. Roughly 25% of it will be science based, but the other 75% will be the other three quadrants of the geek equation.

But this is all part and parcel of my life, both as a person and as a comedian. You can read about the comedy output on my production company site, Shaolin Punk, and more specifically about Museum Comedy on its own site. This place…well, this is about me as a solo performer, and if I’m going to me more broadly geeky, then so is this site. I’ll still write about science topics close to my heart – so expect things about dinosaurs, space, evolution and so on – but I’ll also be writing about the other things that matter to me.¬† I’ll tag things, though, so you can filter stuff out, but it’s time I talked more here, and that means opening it up.

I’m curious, though; assuming anyone reads this still, what do you want to see? What would you like to hear me talk about? I’m entirely open to suggestions. Maybe I’ll even start a podcast. Who knows?

I’ll tell you who knows. Only the future. Let’s go hang out there.

2011: International Year of EVERYTHING

It’s always an international year of something. Indeed, usually of several things: 2011 is the international year of Forests, People of African descent, Veterinarians, and Chemistry.

Chemistry is the study of matter – what it’s made of, why it does things, how it can be changed. Much of it has very little to do with beakers and bunsen burners, but of course that’s what we all remember from high school. But all that stuff you think of as elementary physics – the structure of atoms, how they combine into molecules – that’s all chemistry. And it’s awesome. It’s really the study of stuff (if you’ll excuse the Dr Karl-ism), the study of everything. Everything is, after all, made up of stuff.

Fittingly, a day or two ago it was also the centennial of Marie Curie winning the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Take a moment and think: what was significant about Marie Curie’s Nobel Prize in 1911?

If you answered “she was the first woman to win one”, well…if this was QI, you’d get a big “OBVIOUS BUT WRONG” alarm going off. Sure, Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, and that’s significant – there have only been 41 prizes awarded to women, compared to 776 to men since 1901 – but she was the first female Nobel laureate in 1903. In 1911, she became the first person to win two Nobel Prizes, something only three other laureates have managed in all the years since, the first not until fifty years later.

It’s for these awesome reasons that I am the proud owner of a Marie Curie T-shirt, produced by nerd retailer ThinkGeek. I’m pretty excited by this range of excellent women T-shirts, which show them being awesome for things other than cleavage and nudity. I plan to pick up the others (Mary Shelley and Ada Lovelace) when I can convince myself to get rid of some of my old T-shirts.

Before I finish talking about 2011, let me say that I also hope it to be a year in which I get out there and do a few more gigs for science. (There are a few lined up already; check out the gigs list.) I’ve not been idle, but it’s been a long while between drinks when it comes to writing science shows. I’ve been instead feeding that other geeky side of me, the one that loves games, mainly with +1 Sword and Dungeon Crawl (you can read about them at Shaolin Punk). I might write a bit about that here for you as well; this is my blog, after all. I never said it would be all about science stuff!

An oldie, but a goodie

Last Friday, the Anarchist Guild Social Committee – a sketch comedy group of whom I was a member – celebrated their second birthday, and Nick, their leader, asked me if I’d come and contribute to the shenanigans. I said yes, he said he didn’t want a sketch, and after a while I settled on the idea of just doing a science demonstration. While I thought of a few candidates, I settled on that oldie-but-goodie, the egg in the bottle trick, made famous¬† here in Australia by Julius Sumner Miller; you can find a collection of clips from his most famous series, Why Is It So?, on the ABC Science web site. (They’re well worth a watch, though it’s interesting to note that the kind of interaction he has with school students is probably not allowed these days, and there’s a noticeable lack of women and girls on the program – despite his inclusive welcome of “ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls”.)

Of course Why Is It So? is quite an old vintage as television programs go, besides which the egg in the bottle experiment doesn’t appear in any of those clips. Members of my generation (X, in case you were uncertain) probably know the demonstration better from a series of Cadbury chocolate commercials in which Julius appeared in the 1980s – a cunning move, and proof that he was ready to spread the word of science in any way possible! Perhaps I should be seeking that road to success?

Anyway, it’s a classic, and I was genuinely excited to peform it again; it formed a brief part of my first solo science show, Listen to the Man in the Lab Coat in 2004, and served as an encore to my Comedy Festival debut, Science-ology, in 2007. Not having performed it for three years made it just as much a treat for me as for (hopefully) the audience – and given that some of them had never seen it before, I think I picked just the right “science trick” for the crowd. I hope to get some video of my demonstration and put it up here in the near future, but in the mean time, here’s a basic run-down.

First, you need a bottle – it used to be easy to get glass milk bottle, but now they’re a bit of a rarity in Australia. So much so I brought one back from my trip to New York, from the Milk Thistle organic dairy farm. (I’m aware that recent articles say there’s no nutritional benefit to organic farming, overturning previous research, but there are still other advantages, not least the taste. But I digress.) You can find glass milk bottles locally, though, and I recommend you do; other bottles can do the trick, but milk bottles have the perfect sized opening.

Next, you need an egg. The egg should be too big to fit in the bottle, and the larger the better; I used “XL” size (free range) eggs, about 60g each. There are some misconceptions about the egg; I’ve had a number of people complain that they always thought the egg was raw, but it’s always been a hard-boiled, shelled egg for this experiment. (You could try a raw one, and probably get a cool result, but an exploding raw egg is much messier. Actually, now I really want to try that…)

Finally, you need some paper and matches. This is the dangerous bit, so allow me to put in an obligatory warning: don’t do this at home without adult supervision, kids.

Okay, so the egg is too big to go in the bottle, right? How to get it in without mashing it? Set fire to a small strip of paper, drop it in the bottle, then put the egg back on top. After a short time, the egg will be magically “sucked” in to the bottle with a very satisfying pop! How did this happen? Or rather: why is it so?

I have to explain, of course, because that’s the primary difference between a science trick and a magic trick: there’s no scientist’s circle making sure I never explain how it’s done, and in this case, it’s all done with pressure.

(Sometimes someone claims the explanation is “Bernoulli’s principle”, and technically that’s accurate in some sense, though Bernoulli’s principle is specifically about the relationship between a fluid’s speed of flow and its pressure; an aircraft wing is a better example of that.)

So what happens to the egg? First, the flame heats up the air inside the bottle; since this causes the air to expand, there is a greater volume of air than can fit inside, and some of the air escapes by pushing past the egg. (You can often see this if you put the egg on quickly after dropping in the flame; it bounces up and down making farting noises.) Once the flame goes out – not because it has “used up all the Oxygen”, by the way – the air begins to cool, and as it cools, it condenses, decreasing in volume. There’s now a lesser volume of air in the bottle than is needed to fill it, creating an area of low pressure. The higher pressure air outside the bottle exerts a force on the lower pressure air inside – not enough to break the bottle, of course, but enough to push the egg inside until the air can get in and equalise the pressure.

So that’s it! I use a big egg to get a good noise, which means it can’t be extracted easily, though you should be able to do the experiment in reverse by holding the bottle upside down with the egg near the opening and either heating the air inside (to make it expand) or blowing extra air into the bottle past the egg. My eggs are usually too big for this method to be reliable. If you want to get really fancy, you can soak the egg in vinegar without taking the shell off, which makes the shell soft; once you get the egg inside, it will eventually harden, and that’s pretty impressive. If you don’t want tell-tale signs of burnt paper inside the bottle, you can either heat up the air by immersing the bottle in really hot water, or directly reduce the pressure by immersing the bottle in really cold water, which are less reliable and less impressive, but still work.

So there you have it: the egg in the bottle. If you’d like to see me do it, along with all the witty banter I’ve developed, by all means get in touch – consider me available for weddings, parties…anything!

Sydney Museum Comedy gig!

Hi folks – an ultra quick update here to advise you that I’ll be appearing at the Australian National Maritime Museum for the latest Museum Comedy gig, the Mythic Creatures Comedy Tour. It’s an after hours trip through the special Mythic Creatures exhibit, featuring yours truly, Dave Bloustien (Good News Week) and Amanda Buckley (Beaconsfield: The Musical). For more details, hit the Museum Comedy web site!

Science fiction double feature

I missed Moon at the Melbourne International Film Festival, and I was bummed, because it looks like the first “proper” science fiction film since Gattaca. My friends have heard my sci-fi film rant before, and I’ve mellowed a lot, but it boils down to this: science fiction isn’t just a backdrop.

Isaac Asimov called science fiction a “flavour” that can be added to any genre – best-loved Robot books are detective stories – but that flavour isn’t just the superficial set of tropes: space exploration, time travel, aliens, a future setting and so on. A film (or a story in any media, for that matter) can have some or all of those and not be science fiction.

Science fiction is about exploring possibilities, about asking “what if…?” and answering “then maybe…” Every great science fiction work explores the human answers to the technological and social questions they raise. “What if we invented robots that could truly do the work of any human?” “What if we colonised Mars?” “What if our population continues to grow at its current rate?”

Moon promises to do something like this, and using reasonable science (rather than technobabble) to boot. I don’t want to give much away – the trailer spoils the key premise of the film, but if you haven’t seen it it’d probably be more fun to go in blind – but Sam is a solitary worker on the moon, running a largely automated mining operation. His situation could be the setting for any type of film, but it’s “proper” science fiction because of its exploration of the effect his situation has on him, and its wider social and ethical implications.

I didn’t miss District 9, and I was cautiously optimistic. A spaceship comes to Earth and hovers above Johannesburg – no message, no destruction, not even any motion. Eventually the authorities land on it and cut their way in, revealing squalid conditions and a population of bipedal, crustacean-like aliens who don’t resist being moved into a camp on the ground, called “District 9”. It’s a pretty clear allegory for the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees, especially here in Australia where we do keep those a large number of asylum seekers in detention centres for an unspecified time. (And, until recently, billed them for this – though thankfully this practice has just been abolished by the current government.) It devolves into a bit of a shoot-’em-up towards the end, but the emotional journey of the protagonist – forced by an accident to appreciate how the alien “prawns” feel – isn’t compromised. It’s pretty good science fiction, if not terribly deep and far too wobbly. (My beloved felt quite ill through most of it, thanks to the incessant shaky-cam.)

This isn’t to say I disapprove of pure entertainment, even when it uses science fiction tropes. I enjoy Star Wars (by which I mean Episodes IV-VI) as much as any card-carrying geek, it clearly isn’t science fiction, falling more into the science fantasy/space opera camp. Its story is mostly drawn from classical mythology and American history (in case you’re wondering about the latter, I don’t think it’s an accident that nearly all the Imperial officers have British accents, while all the rebels are Americans – though quite how Alec Guinness fits in I’ve never been able to work out).

I bring this up because of a little thing called Suburban Knights. Star Wars is full of cool ideas developed badly (especially in the case of Episodes I-III), and while there are a lot of fan-films out there, most of them don’t do anything new or interesting with those cool ideas. Most of them ape the original films, and not just the lightsabers and costumes – they even re-use or mash-up the dialogue, often to awful clunky effect. Suburban Knights is different: it takes a cool idea – Jedi Knights battling evil Sith – and takes it entirely out of the Star Wars context. Obi-Wanker and Darth Death are not Star Wars characters, even if they do throw lightsabers and Force lightning at each other. They’re more like the archetypal wanker and bogan, in Australian terms, but with Force powers.

What does this have to do with me, I hear you ask? Well, Suburban Knights Episode Two: Death Crush is about to get a premiere in Melbourne – and yours truly is in it. I won’t give anything away, but you should definitely check out the Suburban Knights web site, where you can watch the first episode and find details about the premiere. Note that it’s invite-only, but if you’re keen to come along and see both episodes of Suburban Knights, then please drop me a line at ben@labocatman.com.au and I’ll see what I can do.