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”.

· Please send your bad science to

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68 Responses

  1. 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.


  2. 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…


  3. 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?

  4. BorisTheChemist said,

    August 3, 2006 at 3:39 pm

    I meant to say media savvy.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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)?

  12. 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.

  13. 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)

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. 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.