Saturday July 29, 2006
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 (qurl.com/pop). 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”.
· Please send your bad science to firstname.lastname@example.org