In search of a better bang

July 29th, 2006 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, brainiac | 68 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Saturday July 29, 2006
The Guardian

Like many other ex-RAF old duffers with handlebar moustaches in their early thirties who read the Daily Mail, I’ve often imagined that school science these days is rather boring and staid – not enough explosions – as a result of an obsession with health and safety, and perhaps other forms of political correctness that has “gone mad”. The teachers I meet, on the other hand, tell me that the increasingly feral nature of children is a greater cause for concern.

So imagine my delight at being sent this fabulous instructional video made with CLEAPSS, the body that advises schools on health and safety in science ( A few minutes in, you get to see the bloke from CLEAPSS bung some rubidium, and then some caesium, into some water. Students of my obsessive tenacity will recognise the relevance of this: when I first busted Sky’s science show Brainiac for faking their caesium and rubidium “experiments” by using stage explosives – and more on what else they’ve faked later – one of the reasons they gave me was that for “health and safety reasons” some experiments might not be practical to do for real.

And yet here is a video from CLEAPSS, the school safety people, giving advice to teachers on how to use caesium and rubidium, in the classroom, to do what Brainiac couldn’t manage to do on telly. “They’re not banned but you should consult an organisation like CLEAPSS, special risk assessment required.”

Now, in this genuine video, there’s lots of light and futting, but nothing like the exploding bathtub of Brainiac’s cheap fake stage explosives. Could this be an isolated fluke? After all, Sky say that although Brainiac fake things, they “assure viewers that the science behind the stunts is factually correct.” I mean they also say that viewers will expect things in Brainiac to be faked, because it’s an entertainment show, and even as a veteran of corporate wriggling, that has to be among the lamest I’ve heard, but anyway: Brainiac faked putting 2 grams into water. The sensible people at CLEAPSS used a pretty small amount.

But meanwhile, last week’s hero – that bloke who bought a kilo of highly reactive sodium off Ebay to chuck in the lake in his garden – has gone one better. Theodore decided to use 5 gram chunks of these two highly reactive metals, an awful lot more than Brainiac, well, didn’t use. To protect himself, he built a home-made glass capsule breaker in the garden, which he modelled on the 1980s Christmas boardgame stalwart “Mouse Trap”: Theodore pulls a bit of string, which pulls out a pin, which lets a hammer swivel down, which breaks the glass, which plops the metal in the water, which goes “phut”.

If you watch his videos (here) you will see plenty of light, and some pinging, and phutting, and all kinds of interesting stuff, but no cheap fake plastic explosion like on Brainiac. And why not? Because although caesium and rubidium are technically more reactive than sodium, he explains, in reality, sodium can give you a bigger bang for your money, because the atoms are smaller, so you get more atoms per gram, and therefore the same sized lump makes more hydrogen. “Under typical night-time escapade conditions, the larger hydrogen explosion created by sodium more than makes up for the more vigorous initial decomposition reaction of caesium. It’s a pity that Brainiac felt they needed to perpetuate a myth by faking it, when the truth is even better: common everyday sodium beats out those high-priced exotic elements.”

Now I’d like to end on that sage budget conscious make-your-own-fun message, but there’s one more twist. I’ve now got a long list of other stuff from Brainiac that looks pretty fake to me. Sky said they would need some time to look into them and then they would let me know. I gave them two examples: one featuring a washing machine with potassium in it that blew up, and the other a bloke with an infeasible kilo of nitroglycerine. It took them a week to look into them, and the result is that suddenly they now simply refuse, point blank, to answer the simple question of whether these experiments were faked or not. I think that means I win.

· Ben Goldacre recently won the Science Writers award for best feature, as well as being named best freelancer in the Medical Journalism awards. Last week he also received the Healthwatch award for “significant steps in improving the public’s understanding of health issues”.

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68 Responses

  1. jonathansizz said,

    July 29, 2006 at 3:51 am

    “Theodore pulls a bit of string, which pulls out a pin, which lets a hammer swivel down, which breaks the glass, which plops the metal in the water, which goes “phut”.”

    Actually, other than lacking an elephant which gets startled by a mouse, it sounds remarkably similar to the plot of “The Perils of Penelope Pitstop” to me.

  2. CDavis said,

    July 29, 2006 at 10:35 am

    I still wanna see what happens when you enclose the stuff in a weighted cage that fully submerges it. Without this, yer metal is going to bounce about on the surface, bouyed up by its own outgassing, and making minimal contact with the water.


  3. AitchJay said,

    July 29, 2006 at 12:28 pm

    That’s an interesting idea CD, the guy who runs the site might be well interested in that. I’m sure he would be open to ideas to improve his experiments, he seems like he wants the best possible outcome. Anything that will improve the ‘phut’ factor, is go..

  4. AitchJay said,

    July 29, 2006 at 12:34 pm

    Just checked out his new page, he’s smashed the vials underwater and compared that to not underwater: point made.

    I like this guy’s thinking; I hope he joins the forum..

  5. john barleycorn said,

    July 29, 2006 at 2:33 pm

    The Brainiac scenario reminds me of a Reith Christmas Lecture thingie on telly a few christmas’ ago when the presenter was demonstrating an experiment to the audience which failed to work. She then just skipped merrily on to the next experiment with a comment along the lines of ‘trust me it normally works’. I felt a bit cheated.

    My handlebar moustache is in it’s late thirties…GRAMMAR BOY 😉

  6. Ben Goldacre said,

    July 29, 2006 at 2:41 pm

    your handlebar might be in its late thirties but i am in my early thirties. and if i’d been trying to say what you were trying to say, i wouldn’t have apostrophised “its”.

  7. superburger said,

    July 29, 2006 at 3:01 pm

    Can we have a new forum rule baning correction of peopleses grammer? It’s the lowest form of 1upmanship on many a internet site (and esp slashdot).

    The comparison of the gram per gram bang of Na v. Cs could easily be used in schools to explain the power of the mole – 1 mole of Cs will bang a lot more than a mole of Na…….

  8. john barleycorn said,

    July 29, 2006 at 4:03 pm

    Ok sorry, I’ll stop now. I’m just a tad disappointed that those who (quite rightly) call for exactitude in the sciences underestimate the potential misunderstandings caused when misusing language.

  9. Ben Goldacre said,

    July 29, 2006 at 4:10 pm

    yes. except there was no grammatical error, you simply misunderstood a perfectly clear sentence.

  10. Dr* T said,

    July 29, 2006 at 4:38 pm

    Pedantry is an affliction. People don’t do it to wind other people up, but purely because you see it and it look so glaringly obvious you can’t understand how someone could possible make such an incredibly basic error etc etc. Some people get offended at being corrected, instead of accepting they made a mistake, understanding why and thus improving themselves……..

    I have such an affliction. It sometimes gets me in to trouble.

    Ho hum.

  11. john barleycorn said,

    July 29, 2006 at 6:47 pm

    Ho hum indeed Dr* T. This is what pisses me off about forums; what was originally meant to be a little light-hearted pedantry (check the autocons or whatever they’re called) is turned in to a slanging match. I apologise if I caused offence! I guess this is and not badenglish.

    Mind you it is interesting that Ben thinks he didn’t make an error…

  12. Dr* T said,

    July 29, 2006 at 7:13 pm

    [pedant]I assume you mean ‘fora’…[/pedant] 😉

    Criticise and be criticised. Enjoy the good science and bad science. Get a thicker skin.


    P.S I’ve never seen a moustache of ANY age read the Daily Mail 😉

  13. Ben Goldacre said,

    July 29, 2006 at 7:25 pm

    seriously man, tell me the grammar error, i’m interested. your only clue so far is “My handlebar moustache is in it’s late thirties…” so i presume this relates to the first line. what’s the grammatical error? (not including your own error of including an apostrophe in the possessive form of “its”).

  14. john barleycorn said,

    July 29, 2006 at 8:02 pm

    Dr* T: LOL!

    Ben: ‘Like many other ex-RAF old duffers with handlebar moustaches in their early thirties’ should read ‘Like many other ex-RAF old duffers in their early thirties with handlebar moustaches’ . The implication of your version is that the moustache is in its’ early thirties as opposed to the wearer of said moustache being in his early thirties.

    Can we be friends now?

  15. Ben Goldacre said,

    July 29, 2006 at 8:18 pm

    that’s a matter of taste or style, not an absolute grammatical rule, by your reckoning if it was the other way round then people (although only those wilfully vexacious like yourself) might have interpeted that the moustaches were reading the daily mail.

    your incorrect use of an apostrophe in the possessive form of “its”, on the other hand, john barleycorn, above, is a good example of a very basic and absolute grammatical rule being clearly transgressed.

  16. profnick said,

    July 29, 2006 at 8:19 pm

    Just beat me to it. I’m afraid it stands out like canine genitals, and john barleycorn has arisen from his deep furrows yet again. Incidentally, I’m assuming that superburger’s faux pas are deliberate so I won’t rise to those. Precision applies both to science and to the communication of the ideas otherwise post modernistism will prevail. You can’t have it both ways guys.

  17. profnick said,

    July 29, 2006 at 8:25 pm

    Just to clarify, my comment agrees with john barleycorn and was just preceded by Ben’s post. I can’t agree that it’s “a matter of taste or style”. If you set yourself up as an arbiter of precision then you must accept that you may be misunderstood if you use sloppy language.

  18. Ben Goldacre said,

    July 29, 2006 at 8:32 pm

    i presume you agree with barleycorn on his use of the apostrophe in the possessive form of “its” too, profnick.

    my sentence was: “Like many other ex-RAF old duffers with handlebar moustaches in their early thirties who read the Daily Mail.”

    joh barleycorn says it should read: “Like many other ex-RAF old duffers in their early thirties with handlebar moustaches who read the Daily Mail.”

    both are equally subject to spurious and wilful misinterpretations (as are many perfectly good sentences): one deliberate and spurious misinterpretation is that there is a large community of people with moustaches that are thirty years old; the other which john prefers is that there are moustaches that read newspapers. both are equally absurd. both are equally vexacious. i don’t believe anyone reading my article interpreted my sentence to mean that i was referring to 30 year old moustaches.

  19. profnick said,

    July 29, 2006 at 8:42 pm

    Didn’t spot my typo then?
    Ben, I’m not trying to be anally retentive on this one. All I’m saying is that it jumped out of the page at me (and I’m on your side).

  20. profnick said,

    July 29, 2006 at 8:55 pm

    i presume you agree with barleycorn on his use of the apostrophe in the possessive form of “its” too, profnick.
    You presume too much sir.
    an oh by the way Dr *T…..According to the Oxford English Dictionary…

    forum n. (pl. forums)

    1) a meeting or medium for an exchange of views.

    2) (pl. fora) (in an ancient Roman city) a public square or marketplace used for judicial and other business. Origin ME: from Latin, lit. what is out of doors.

  21. Robert Carnegie said,

    July 29, 2006 at 9:13 pm

    I don’t see an erroneous “it’s”. I see some where “it is”, or another construction, would serve.

  22. john barleycorn said,

    July 29, 2006 at 9:25 pm

    “that’s a matter of taste or style, not an absolute grammatical rule, by your reckoning if it was the other way round then people (although only those wilfully vexacious like yourself) might have interpeted that the moustaches were reading the daily mail. ”

    No, because you used the word ‘who’ which implies people not objects.

    “both are equally absurd”

    Yes, that’s why I wasn’t really being that serious.

    “your incorrect use of an apostrophe in the possessive form of “its”, on the other hand, john barleycorn, above, is a good example of a very basic and absolute grammatical rule being clearly transgressed. ”

    Guilty as charged. A very sad and unfortunate error to which I can only admit to.

  23. john barleycorn said,

    July 29, 2006 at 9:27 pm

    Post no. 5 “My handlebar moustache is in it’s late thirties”

  24. Aspiring Pedant said,

    July 29, 2006 at 9:34 pm

    I’m totally loving this, by the way. In the printed version the reference to age is omitted but it still reads like it’s the moustache that reads the paper. Although as a mere trainee pedant I didn’t pick that up for myself. Might I suggest the following text “Like many Daily Mail reading, handle bar moustached, ex-raf old duffers, in their early thirties”. That doesn’t read as well but the meaning is perhaps less ambiguous.

    I think the sub-editors may have done a good job here – that sentence is just too complicated.

    My dictionary has forum – n. pl -rums or -ra – but fora has to be the plural of choice for any decent pedant.

    Prof Nick – I’m not sure anyone tries to be anally retentive – some of us are just lucky that way.

  25. FlammableFlower said,

    July 29, 2006 at 9:48 pm

    Getting away from the grammar and back to some science, I’d love to see someone put superburgers experiment into practice. Not because I have any arguement, rather I would be interested to see 23 g of sodium versus 133 g caesium. That’d be a hell of a lot more than Braniac’s measly 2 g.

  26. FlammableFlower said,

    July 29, 2006 at 9:49 pm

    Getting away from the grammar and back to some science, I’d love to see someone put superburger’s experiment into practice. Not because I have any arguement, rather I would be interested to see 23 g of sodium versus 133 g caesium. That’d be a hell of a lot more than Braniac’s measly 2 g.

  27. Ben Goldacre said,

    July 29, 2006 at 9:54 pm

    it’s true, it does illustrate a very interesting point about moles an ting. i guess we might want to account for surface area too, just to be fair? i reckon dumping 133g of caesium filings into water would be rather good fun.

  28. Dr* T said,

    July 29, 2006 at 10:08 pm

    If you’re making filings, why not go the whole hog and use Caesium dust? (Used to use magnesium dust and zinc dust) Place it in an inert atmosphere, attached a Dyson with the drum half filled with water, retire to a safe distance and flick the ‘on’ switch.

  29. jackpt said,

    July 29, 2006 at 11:34 pm

    I must say, looking at the above grammar debate made me reach for my ex-civil service Plain English book, Fowler’s, CGEL, the OED, Usage and Abusage, Burchfield’s Fowler’s, and Bill Bryson’s Difficult Words. On the other hand I understood the sentence the first time. So I can’t be arsed. Mentally I must of inserted commas before and after ‘with handlebar moustaches’. Which goes to show the wonderful capabilities of the average human brain.

  30. jonathansizz said,

    July 30, 2006 at 3:18 am

    “Mentally I must of inserted commas..”

    Good grief! They’re all at it..!

  31. Robert Carnegie said,

    July 30, 2006 at 11:38 am

    Has this page been rigged so that you can’t search text to find “it’s”?? 😉

  32. jackpt said,

    July 30, 2006 at 12:46 pm

    I have to correct myself, that should be Bill Bryson’s Troublesome Words, not Difficult Words, and it occurs to me that in order to avoid ambiguity, including vexation in those susceptable, that CGEL = Comprehensive Grammar of The English Language, not Cambridge Grammar of The English Language. It was late. I was tired and emotional.

  33. Squander Two said,

    July 30, 2006 at 10:50 pm


    > Precision applies both to science and to the communication of the ideas

    Very true.

    > I’m not trying to be anally retentive on this one.

    I guess that you probably are trying to be anally retentive, so as not to soil yourself. I know I am. However, I imagine that you’re not trying to be anal-retentive.

    I feel better now.

  34. coracle said,

    July 31, 2006 at 9:13 am


    Has this page been rigged so that you can’t search text to find “it’s”??

    Maybe you’re using internet explorer, the search function of which, I have often found to be of little use. Try Firefox instead, all-round a better browsing experience.

  35. HowardW said,

    July 31, 2006 at 12:00 pm

    Grammatical pedantry: I have to say, I much prefer the second ambiguous option, with moustaches reading the Daily Mail (rather than moustaches simply being 30 years old). Definitely much better :-)

    On a related theme, is my brain still short of caffeine, or doesn’t the phrase:

    …and perhaps other forms of political correctness that has “gone mad”.

    have an error in it? Isn’t it “the forms” (rather than political correctness) that “have” (rather than has)?

    Normal discussion about science will resume shortly.


  36. Delster said,

    July 31, 2006 at 1:22 pm

    In another form of pedantry, how can a 30 year old, with or without a daily mail reading moustache, be considered to be an old duffer?

  37. Janet W said,

    July 31, 2006 at 6:17 pm

    It’s irony, Delster. He got an award for it.

  38. Dr Aust said,

    August 1, 2006 at 12:49 pm

    I rather like the idea of doing the comparisons PROPERLY, i.e. same wts in grams, then instead “equivalent no. of moles” to liberate the same amount of H2, then “in uniform filings” to eliminate effect of surface area.

    The point is that this is what scientists really do, changing / perfecting the conditions to eliminate “confounding” factors so that you get an answer to a precisely phrased Q like:

    “If I dump the same no of MOLES of Cs and Na, in an equivalent physical form of small filings, into an essentially infinite vol of water, do I REALLY get a more rapid/violent reaction with Cs as the “more reactive element theory predicts?”

    This “tinkering” process (the Germans call it “basteln”) is a large part of DOING science, and actually something common to the scientist and (e.g.) someone trying to fix a computers/lawnmower/car (change one thing at a time in a systematic way).

    Surprisingly, it also tends to be something that is hard to get across to modern students. I can remember trying to “trace” a mysterious wobble (interference) on recordings of muscle tension in one undergrad student practical – at first we thought it was mains electrical interference, but the frequency was wrong, eventually we traced it to cyclic waves of air pressure from the air-con, as it could be eliminated by putting a big piece of cardboard over the experimental machinery. The other guy running the class (a veteran experimental scientist) and I both found this fascinating, and tried to explain who it illustrated an important practical principle etc. But the students were deeply uninterested, clearly thought we were mad and were no doubt just wondering. “how can we get the recording we are supposed to get and then go home.”

    Anyway, I think “amateur” investigators like Theodore Gray are in a great tradition.

  39. Dr Aust said,

    August 1, 2006 at 7:12 pm

    PS Sorry to go on, but it really is a key part of “scientific education” to see the process that goes into formulating an hypothesis properly and then setting up the right experiment to test it.

    This is one of the things most lacking in the students reaching Univ science courses – which is a shame, because LEARNING how this works should be a big-league opportunity for “participatory” “interactive” “discovery-based” (add your own modern buzz words) learning in school science.

    Student (or Brainiac) reasoning “Well, Rubidium, it’s like more reactive, innit, so you’d get, like a really ‘uge explosion, yeah?”

    Q How would you do it to make sure the answer really reflected whether this was or wasn’t true (i.e. remove confounding factors)

    – Working out the answer to Qs like this (see above) is what teaches scientific thinking

  40. Delster said,

    August 2, 2006 at 7:55 am

    Personally i was curious as to what would happen if you put the “nutralising” acid in the water first and then added the metal….. and lacking both a small lake and the kilo of sodium i’m not going to get a chance to find out….

  41. sockatume said,

    August 2, 2006 at 8:11 am

    Dr Aust: I absolutely agree. I was never taught the scientific method explicitly at university level, let alone high school level. It’s something that we’re expected to just pick up by osmosis, I guess.

  42. guthrie said,

    August 2, 2006 at 12:09 pm

    Exactly, sockatume- I had the same problem. Someone somewhere along the way through school and university forgot to tell us about the scientific method. Lack of a proper concept of experimental set up and fiddling about makes it harder to do science properly.

  43. Squander Two said,

    August 2, 2006 at 1:15 pm

    I was taught scientific method — in a university philosophy class. Never taught it in any supposed science lessons, though.

  44. Dr Nicholas said,

    August 2, 2006 at 5:19 pm

    I had to wait until the end of the final year of my physiology BSc to be taught about the scientific method, in an optional class teaching us how to appraise literature. I managed to complete my dissertation with no understanding of it (and got a first)!

  45. guthrie said,

    August 3, 2006 at 8:30 am

    HHmmm, I’m beggining to see a pattern here.
    I’d love to find out why we are hardly ever taught the scientific method. Its not hard, as long as you avoid going into the philosophy.

  46. apothecary said,

    August 3, 2006 at 10:53 am

    My experience was similar to others – I wasn’t taught the scientific method per se until a final undergraduate year philosophy of science course as part of a special option.

    Surely a wider appreciation of basic science philosophy and a handle on the essentials of science are basic skills everyone needs in a modern society. CP Snow’s “two cultures” is exactly right:

    “A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?…. …. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their neolithic ancestors would have had.”

    A more sceptical (in a scientific sense) approach would surely militate against many of the fads and fancies we see. The Popper question would see off any attempt to wear the clothes of science by homeopathy, crystal healing, feng shui….

    Sorry for this long post with the CP Snow quote. It just seemed so appropriate.

  47. Andrew Clegg said,

    August 3, 2006 at 12:25 pm

    Apothecary: That’s a great excerpt, thanks for posting it. I felt like memorising it to trot out at parties in just those situations, until I realised couldn’t remember which one the second law was. Shame on me.

    I also learnt nothing of the scientific method (at least explicitly) throughout school, and half a computer science degree, until I changed to History & Philosophy of Science…

    To everyone that was arguing about grammar earlier: *clears throat pompously* Speaking as a computational linguist of sorts, prepositional phrase attachment in English can occur at any level of the phrase-structure tree and can frequently only be disambiguated with the help of background semantic knowledge, rather than on the basis of syntax alone. This background knowledge (e.g. knowing that a person is more likely to be described as “in their early thirties” than a moustache is, regardless of phrase order) is part of what sets us aside from computers, and is something that natural-language parsers have all sorts of trouble simulating. So there.

    c.f. Groucho Marx: “Last night I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas, I don’t know.”


  48. Delster said,

    August 3, 2006 at 12:49 pm


    philosophy? in the scientific method?

    i’d have said it’s more like engineering. You try and show how something works, why it works and what was done to ensure it was that “something” that had that effect and not other factors. If it ends up not working you be a good little engineer and change one variable at a time until it does….. then you can also figure out why i didn’t work and possible implications…..

    and i still like the idea of a 30 year old, daily mirror reading, moustache…. wonder what it’s day job is?

  49. Delster said,

    August 3, 2006 at 12:50 pm

    P.S. I was also not taught scientific method in either my biology, chemistry or physics.

  50. apothecary said,

    August 3, 2006 at 12:55 pm

    >> I realised couldn’t remember which one the second law was

    “the entropy of the universe increases during any spontaneous process”, or “nature tends to disorder”.

    My old chemistry teacher at school defined life as “that which feeds on negative entropy” My! how we laughed.


  51. Andrew Clegg said,

    August 3, 2006 at 2:12 pm

    Delster: “and i still like the idea of a 30 year old, daily mirror reading, moustache…. wonder what it’s day job is?”

    Probably writing jokes for Groucho Marx.


  52. Andrew Clegg said,

    August 3, 2006 at 2:24 pm

    PS Delster, there are a lot of philosophical issues around the scientific method; it’s one of those things that gets harder to define, justify and defend the closer you look at it.

    Defining it might seem easy, but you end up getting into logical problems (like the one about “all ravens are black” = “all non-black things are non-ravens” so does the discovery of another white dove mean more support for the former hypothesis?). Also is there just one scientific method, or several?

    A lot of people think you can justify the scientific method (whatever it actually is) by reference to the successful technology it produces — I certainly used to — but then, homeopathic hospitals, anti-arthritic copper jewelry and £5000 hi-fi cable are successful technology by a lot of yardsticks.

    And to defend it you need to have an idea of how much supposedly neutral observation and hypothesis is (a) theory-bound and (b) socially influenced — or even socially constructed in extreme cases? — and I suspect the answer is, more than a lot of scientists would like to admit.

    Come to think of it, maybe all this is why they don’t teach it in school…


  53. BorisTheChemist said,

    August 3, 2006 at 3:38 pm

    I, like everyone else here, had to learn the scientific method informally. Luckily I have a PhD supervisor who holds it very highly and also makes sure your conclusions fit the bill too. Its great for me, but not so good for him as he doesn’t rush out “results” for trendy press releases and therefore doesn’t get the recognition that he deserves. Sadly working your way up in the scientific establishment is all about being media, publishing in the right journals and knowing the right people, god forbid we actually recognise individuals for the quality of their science.

    On philosophy – remember peeps that science is just a branch of philosophy (like everything else) after all what does PhD stand for?

  54. BorisTheChemist said,

    August 3, 2006 at 3:39 pm

    I meant to say media savvy.

  55. Squander Two said,

    August 3, 2006 at 11:46 pm

    I rather like the idea of being media.

    People tend not to realise the philosophical battles that were fought to establish the scientific method. The whole idea of conducting experiments in order to learn about the natural world was revolutionary — the traditional view, held for most of recorded European history, was that human actions changed the natural world and that an experiment therefore could tell you nothing. It seems bizarre to us now, but one of the main objections to Galileo’s demonstrations of, for instance, objects of different weights rolling at the same speed down an inclined plane was that, yes, they may move at the same speed when set up and controlled by Galileo, but everyone knows that the heavy object is faster when some human isn’t interfering with it. Just to be clear, it’s not that he was suspected of trickery, but that humans were believed to be in opposition to nature, not part of it, and so observations about stuff done by humans could have no bearing on stuff that happened naturally. For the scientific method to even make sense to us, let alone for it to work, a whole load of other philosophical ideas needed to take root in our culture first.

    I shall now shut up before I get started on the history of mathematics.

  56. Delster said,

    August 4, 2006 at 11:58 am

    Boris, i’d have to say that science used to be a branch of philosophy.

    Originally “science” was only handled by observing something and coming up with a thought process that explains how it works. There was no physical measurement of weights and measures of any kind…thats when it was really philosophy, we’ve come a long way from the old greeks since then.

    Also Squander’s right about culture playing a part, not to mention minor inconveniences put in sciences way by religion.

  57. Dr Aust said,

    August 4, 2006 at 9:52 pm

    Interested to see someone metion Gallileo and the “rolling ball down ramps” experiment. This is one of the classic early examples of the power of scientific method, beautifully illustrated a few years ago in an Open University TV show I caught one night at 1 am or similar.

    Everyone (even my students) know(s) the story about Gallileo dropping a cannonball and a feather off the tower. The balls down ramps is the refining of this (possibly apocryphal) demonstration into a proper experiment.

    The method systematically removes possibles sources of confounding error:

    – How to avoid wind resistance acting on falling objects? Roll balls down ramps instead of dropping objects. Same “downward force” acts.
    – How to have a nice controllable experimental set-up, everything close together? Ditto, balls down ramps, no high tower required.
    – How to avoid problems of different SIZED objects? Use balls of same size but made of materials with different weights, and roll down standard ramp.
    – How to assess how fast it happens? First point: one person to let the ball go, another to yell out when it reaches the bottom of the ramp.
    – But… how to time accurately? No stopwatches! Answer: timing device is a measuring cylinder full of water, with a bung/tap at the bottom. Open tap on first shout, shut it on second. Amount of water out tells you (relative) timing.

    Easy when you know how.

    What I really liked about this, as shown in the TV programme, was that the basic principle of “refining the experiment” was absolutely crystal-clear and totally relevant to today , even though the experiment itself is hundreds of years old.

  58. dormouse said,

    August 6, 2006 at 8:11 pm

    Dr Aust mentioned Galileo and timing with water cylinders. The version of the OU demo I recall was even more elegant and (I believe) directly related to Galileo’s approach. Balls are allowed to roll down the ramp. As they pass certain points, they trigger little bells (lights were used in the modern OU version). With a little practice (i.e. a modicum of practical skill which stands the scientist apart from the GCSE coursework student…) the bells can be placed so they are triggered at equal time intervals. The human brain is pretty good at that. And at telling if one set of bells goes quicker than another. And the spacing of the bells then increases with the distance travelled – leading to the idea of constant acceleration.

    All in all, a truly beautiful experiment.

    As for teaching the ‘scientific method’ I prefer the “show not tell” approach in most cases. I should add that I am a physics teacher. I hope to lead students to realise what makes a good experiment and a bad one. Sometimes I make a point of asking what we can really learn from a certain demo – e.g. photoelectric effect. Typically several demonstrations are shown in sequence and one has to be quite clear about precisely what each one shows. Often students are all too ready to take on board your suggestion. It never hurts to fool them occasionally – setting them to prove untrue suggestions for example is a favourite of mine. A surprising number of them are quite capable of that. Those that do are invited to join my one-hand-clapping club where we perform Steve Reich’s Clapping Music to the tune of John Cage’s 4’33. But I have gone on quite long enough.

  59. guthrie said,

    August 7, 2006 at 11:04 am

    I think the difference between science and engineering is that science produces the equations and stuff that engineering uses. The engineer is satisfied with the knowledge that composite X has a density of 1.2g/cc and a youngs modulus of 20 GPa. The scientist will be able to tell you how and why it has these properties, eg its based on high modulus carbon fibres arranged in a certain manner, etc.

  60. Dr Peter Borrows said,

    August 20, 2006 at 6:51 pm

    As Director of CLEAPSS I was delighted to read the Bad Science column in the Guardian of 29th July.

    May I, however, correct one slight misapprehension? The role of CLEAPSS is not to advise on health and safety in school science. Rather, the remit is to advise schools on good practical science (and technology). Obviously, good practical science is healthy and safe, and so safety is part of the advice. But rather a lot of healthy and safe practical science is bad and boring and we are against that.

    In 2005 CLEAPSS was commissioned by the Royal Society of Chemistry to investigate the many myths about allegedly banned chemicals and procedures. Part of the research involved asking schools and local authority officers to complete a questionnaire. This listed 40 plausibly banned items and asked whether schools believed they were banned or discouraged and asked local authorities (as the main employers of school staff) whether they had in fact banned them. In fact 2 of the 40 items are banned nationally and over 60% of the local authorities said they banned nothing more. This was very far from what schools believed, however. Our report, Surely That’s Banned? is on the RSC web site at A paper copy of the main report (without the statistical appendices) will be sent by the RSC to all secondary schools in September.

    Since the report was produced we have been discussing with various groups – especially local authority science advisers and inspectors and local authority health and safety advisers – how we can correct teachers’ misunderstandings. One strategy already agreed upon is to publish on the CLEAPSS web site an extended version of the list of 40 plausibly banned items. This will be extended in two ways. Firstly, it will have more than 40 items. Secondly, for each item, it will state not only whether the item is banned nationally but also where schools can find guidance in CLEAPSS publications on how to carry out the activity safely and effectively. We hope to put the list up early in the autumn but then expect it to grow as time goes on.

  61. Nurn said,

    August 21, 2006 at 9:30 pm

    (To get back to the grammar) I’m so happy to see geeks getting geeky about grammar on this site! It seems so ‘Humanities Graduate’ – don’t everone get geeky about there own subject (mistakes deliberate)?

  62. Ben Goldacre said,

    September 19, 2006 at 7:17 pm

    vic reeves is taking over as the presenter of brainiac. his quote is: “Science is my God and my ultimate goal in Brainiac is to destroy the moon with dynamite,”

    i’m sure they can rig that up for him.

  63. mamoulian said,

    September 20, 2006 at 2:11 pm

    Do we know yet if the potassium washing machine explosion was real or faked?

    If the bathtub one had to be faked because of the volume of water on top of the metal then maybe the churning and not-full-of-water washing machine could have been real?
    Could it?

    (haven’t found a video of it online, but it is repeated quite a bit on Sky 1 and 2)

  64. Ben Goldacre said,

    September 20, 2006 at 2:30 pm

    i’m told it was faked, by at least one or poss two people (havent totted up all my crew tips yet) but they denied it, in the sense that they wont tell anyone. i have got some quite good new stuff on them now though. heh.

  65. mgriffiths said,

    October 2, 2006 at 4:01 pm

    There’s a new GCSE science syllabus, “Twenty-First Century Science”, that has been designed to teach pupils the science they need to know as non-scientists. It includes the scientific method, risk assessment, analysis of science in the media etc. Sounds like a great idea to me.

  66. Ben Goldacre said,

    October 2, 2006 at 4:22 pm

    is that right? it would be good to see a link if the doc’s online. i’ve got some grave doubts about some of the new science prospectus stuff i’ve seen recently.

  67. Ben Goldacre said,

    October 2, 2006 at 4:23 pm

    although naturally in all fields of human conduct, actually no, make that education only, i think everyone should work about five times harder. as time passes school exams have got easier (and anyone who denies this is a buffoon): this is clearly the wrong direction for a developing culture to go in.

  68. mgriffiths said,

    October 11, 2006 at 3:09 pm

    The site for the course is – in particular this page talks about scientific literacy.

    It’s all over the news today because some academics have criticised it as dumbing down.