Steal this explosion

February 20th, 2009 by Ben Goldacre in bad science | 33 Comments »

I’ve just been sent this excellent selection of slightly dangerous science videos, as part of an effort by the Institute of Chemical Engineers to persuade science teachers that health and safety is no barrier to bangs and giggles in the classroom. Some of them are rather good.

My best advice for you is to watch those videos and ignore everything I am about to say. I don’t like to mischaracterise myself as someone with spare flesh to waggle (it’s my defective personality, that’s a medical problem, and you’re not allowed to criticise me for it) but I struggle with their webpage, and because I’m bored on the coach on my way to give a talk to some medical students in Oxford about the crimes of big pharma, I’m going to paste up the email I just sent to the PR guy at the IChE.


[you didn’t need that bit]

these are ace


here is some unsolicited PR advice from a nerd:

1. i would definitely blog this if i could embed the videos and link back to you

2. wtf is a “WVX” file, and why does it take so long to play on my computer? stream! flash?

3. why not let me as a viewer download them? you dont want to dissuade people from copying your work, that’s exactly what you’ve made it for.

4. why do i have to watch the intro on every single one?

4a. especially when they are slow to load, in a weird format, and not downloadable?

5. with that annoying library music

sorry about that. but those are nice videos, and they could be widely seen. hopefully someone will remix or re-edit them, and make something fun and easy to watch, and hopefully you will be good spirited about that, because they will be doing you a favour.


I know it’s boring, but time and again I find people doing potentially great things, and then shooting themselves in the foot at the final furlong by being all 1860s about it, bending over backwards to stop their message from getting out. They’ll have Twitter splashed proudly across the page, because someone’s told them it’s all cool, but no RSS feed for new content, and so on.

Now obviously I’ve become slightly interested in intellectual property issues over the past couple of weeks (and specifically in the rather self destructive views that many content providers seem to have on them). But for my own part, people often ask if they can lift bits of my book for their teaching or lectures, all worried, and I say: “yes please.”

I want to be plagiarised, I want you to steal my ideas, that’s exactly what they’re here for, and the same goes, with some vague caveats, for mainstream media. I’d prefer you to say where the stuff came from, so that people can find more of the same if they like it, but to my mind that’s a matter of panache rather than law or money. I’m not worried about income, I’m worried about being ignored by a bad old world that’s close to being an excellent one, and in fact, while we’re on that subject, when mainstream media outlets have lifted my ideas and passed them off as their own, it’s mainly annoying to me because they’ve done them in a slightly crap way (and how annoying is that?).

Right, apologies, as you were etc, time to fire up Powerpoint, here’s some more procrastination material for you before I go, but do watch the science videos as well. If you can be bothered to sit through the intro. Ten times. While you wait for the WVX file to get itself together. “10% buffering…” Nostalgic!

If you like what I do, and you want me to do more, you can: buy my books Bad Science and Bad Pharma, give them to your friends, put them on your reading list, employ me to do a talk, or tweet this article to your friends. Thanks! ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

33 Responses

  1. HeXetic said,

    February 20, 2009 at 7:48 pm

    RE: #2, Ben, if you really describe yourself as a “nerd”, you should be ashamed of yourself for not googling (or Wikipedia-ing) WVX yourself:

    The WVX is just a file that tells your browser, “Hey, show him this other video file over there”. Whatever media player you have set up to play their stuff (e.g., Windows Media Player) is then streaming or otherwise playing whatever the file is linked to, which in the case of the first video is:

    I would guess that the problem with speed is either:
    a) The connection from your computer to sucks
    b) Windows Media Player is very, very bad at streaming things. It likes to buffer almost the whole video before playback begins.

    If you punch the WMV link into your browser you can download the movie yourself… just needs a little hacking.

  2. rumleech said,

    February 20, 2009 at 7:56 pm

    Just looked up the .wvx is a media redirector which leads to the actual windows media file on

    Hope this helps.

  3. rumleech said,

    February 20, 2009 at 8:02 pm

    Correction – they’re not the actual files they’re actually other .wvx files and no (easy) to get at the actual videos.

    Damn I should look before I leap.

  4. Slov01 said,

    February 20, 2009 at 8:17 pm

    VLC. Solves issues 2 and 4.

  5. Slov01 said,

    February 20, 2009 at 8:23 pm

    Change .wvx extension in the url to .wmv and save. Easy.

  6. montyfood said,

    February 20, 2009 at 8:27 pm

    Save the wvx. Crack open with text editor. Voila! The location of the actual file on Amazon S3. Unfortunately they’re in crappy Windows Media Format (wmv).

  7. rpg said,

    February 20, 2009 at 8:29 pm

    You helpful people are missing the point.

    Any interface that requires the user to look up a file-type, or download something else (I happen to know what VLS is but I’ll bet most people interested in this won’t. They have VMP or Quicktime or iTunes), or change an extension is *broken*.

    There should be a simple ‘download’ button that downloads the file in a common format that doesn’t require extensions: these days an iPod (i.e. vodcast) format option should be there too.

  8. rumleech said,

    February 20, 2009 at 8:29 pm

    I didn’t play with the file enough.

  9. rumleech said,

    February 20, 2009 at 8:31 pm

    rpg… You’re right but until such a button is implemented we’re limited to playing with the .wvx and seeing what that does.

  10. botherer said,

    February 20, 2009 at 8:32 pm

    The files are actually hosted here (and can be downloaded from here):

    Then change the phrase after icheme/ to match the file you’re after:


  11. botherer said,

    February 20, 2009 at 8:33 pm

    It would probably also help if they had their “Contact Us” option linked correctly…

  12. nigelshu said,

    February 20, 2009 at 8:56 pm

  13. brainduck said,

    February 20, 2009 at 9:03 pm

    Ben, if you are happy for people to re-use bits of your book, why on Earth did you release it under traditional copyright instead of Creative Commons?

    A CC-by-nc-nd would make it *legal* for people to do everything you’ve said you want done (or CC-by-nc-sa if you want to make mash-ups legal also).

    It’s certainly possible to publish in dead-tree format with a CC license, I’ve a friend’s commercially published book in front of me now which did exactly that.

    I can’t even see any form of copyleft on your blog, ffs – or indeed any conditions whatsoever, so it’s probably technically illegal for any of us to read you at all. Yep, Internet law is weird.

    If you are going to be bothered about copyleft, use the tools that are already out there, & help spread them, please!

  14. montyfood said,

    February 20, 2009 at 9:14 pm

    …oh, and by calling it “annoying library music” you insult the good folks at Ninja Tune who have supplied it.

    I think Ninja’s catalogue is about as far away from genuine tacky library music as you can get & kudos to the white coats for getting them on board.

  15. alandove said,

    February 20, 2009 at 9:15 pm

    At the risk of being one of those arrogant Mac/Firefox users, I’ll point out that 2 and 3 are non-issues on this platform, and 1, 4, and 5 are pretty easy to address. Firefox on the Mac obligingly loads the Flip4Mac plugin to play the WMV/WVX file, and Flip4Mac obligingly offers a pull-down menu with “Save as source” and “Save as Quicktime” options. Click the latter, and there’s a lovely Quicktime copy of the video on my desktop.

    Other free software easily clips out the annoying intro, after which I could pop the thing over to YouTube and embed it in my blog if I were so inclined – and if the creators had made it clear that I wouldn’t be sued for doing so.

    Of course, that highlights the legitimacy of your main complaint, which is that the creators have made sharing these videos much more difficult than they had to.

  16. Damien said,

    February 20, 2009 at 9:50 pm

    It’s good to see the link to StealThisFilm. I recommend checking out their new film “The Trial” which is basically the good bits of Part 2 with some interviews with The Pirate Bay’s staff related to their (ongoing) court case in Sweden. TPB vs Big Media.

    The outcome will be pretty important.

  17. kjpalladino said,

    February 20, 2009 at 11:07 pm

    I actually really appreciated the demos on their own, and forwarded them to my sister. She graduated last spring with her undergraduate degree in Chemical Engineering, and is teaching high School Chemistry at the FAWE Girls’ School in Kigali, Rwanda

    They seem feasible even on the support of the system there.

  18. rpg said,

    February 21, 2009 at 12:25 am

    At the risk of being one of those arrogant Mac/WebKit users, all that happened here is that a tiny .wvx file downloaded.

    So… that’s another lost customer.


  19. Pro-reason said,

    February 21, 2009 at 4:26 am

    At the risk of being one of those arrogant Linux/Firefox users… oh, hang on. I don’t have to be.

    I clicked on the video link, and the video opened in a new tab, using the Mplayer plug-in. It took a few seconds to buffer up properly, and then started.

    It’s a nasty format (WMV), but actually turned out more convenient than horrible embedded Flash. I would have preferred Theora+Vorbis, but this is OK.

  20. Pro-reason said,

    February 21, 2009 at 4:29 am

    Hey, I was expecting her to drink the water in the first video, to freak the girls out even more.

    Would I be right in thinking that it would be sterile and non-toxic?

  21. thepoisongarden said,

    February 21, 2009 at 10:26 am

    Thanks, nigelshu.

    I’ve used your links to download all ten and then slide forward passed the intro and just watch the experiment.

    Sorry, montyfood but that music is naff.

    I’m surprised they didn’t make them in black & white to really complete the retro look.

    I supposed they’ll say these are intended for teachers to learn how to do experiments so they don’t need to be ‘sexy’.

  22. maize said,

    February 21, 2009 at 10:42 am

    How to make a local playlist of the videos, trimmed:

  23. Philippa said,

    February 21, 2009 at 1:43 pm

    Well I just liked the videos 🙂

    Reminds me of my Chemistry A level pract exam, 2.55hrs in and I poured my result down the sink by accident.

    Bugger eh?

  24. gnadori said,

    February 21, 2009 at 4:59 pm

    The videos are on Youtube, you can embed from there. Here:

  25. CDavis said,

    February 22, 2009 at 2:13 pm

    At the risk of being a ’60s kid, are these things really exciting? The only high points of my own school science I recall were a) a teacher who underestimated the power of a balloonful of oxygen/acetylene mix, and b) a ditto who dropped a 2Kg bottle of mercury in the classroom, causing hilarious Chernobyl-type fear reactions in the authorities.

    For exciting whizzbangs, my colleagues and I looked to our own experiments. I’ve yet to find anything better than a large chunk of sodium, enclosed in something well-perforated and weighty, dropped into a body of water. Old Victorian gym-room basins could be reduced to rubble.


  26. matt_st said,

    February 22, 2009 at 11:10 pm

    As the IChemE PR guy Ben refers to at the start of this post, this is all very useful and interesting.

    I’ll be sharing the feedback with colleagues tomorrow and, in the meantime, if anybody wants to re-mix/edit the videos, I’d be keen to see the end product.

    A little background on the videos: They are a resource for teachers, complete with supporting resource/instruction sheets and designed to help make school science lessons more interesting and exciting for students.

    We’ve had a really, really positive reaction from the teaching world and some coverage on the Guardian’s Education website and as part of a package on BBC Breakfast TV.

    I’ll keep an eye on this thread and am keen to learn any further feedback.

  27. notzed said,

    February 23, 2009 at 9:06 am

    Reducing the potential use of information for public good is just the tip of the iceberg of the problems with so-called intellectual ‘property’.

    In the commercial world they are used to lock competitors out of markets and increase the costs for all of us.

    And the problem for everyone is that the companies making the big bucks have the influence with the politicians – so the problem will only be getting worse.

    If you have a minute, look up ‘ACTA copyright’ in google.

  28. Nick Bland said,

    February 23, 2009 at 12:37 pm

    agree about ninja tune, but it’s not their best stuff.

  29. John said,

    February 23, 2009 at 12:46 pm

    Sodium is good fun.

    Even more fun is magnesium ribbon.

    Insert into L and N holes in a switched socket outlet and switch on (with a broomstick).

    Instant magnesium flare.

    I should add “do not try this at home” but unfortunately I did.

  30. PreviousChemist said,

    February 24, 2009 at 3:31 pm


    I agree – there are more attention grabbing chemical experiments (Don’t do these at home):

    1) Comparative reactivity of metallic Lithium, Sodium, and Potassium when dropped into water.

    2) The thermite reaction. Starting off by just burning magnesium in air is fairly spectacular.

    3) Light a balloon full of hydrogen with a spill. Now do the same with one filled with a stoichiometric ratio of hydrogen and oxygen.

    4) Ignite a small pile of ammonium dichromate.

    5) Fun with nitrogen tri-iodide

    6) A clock reaction

    7) Catalysis of sugar cube combustion with cigarette ash

    8) Bioluminescence

    9) Production of mercury by heating cinnabar

    10)Production of polyurethane expanding foam (binary liquid)

    11) Make some ice-cream with liquid nitrogen

    12) Demonstrate one of the many anomalous natures of water by floating an ice cube in liquid water, then watching (say) solid dodecane sink in dodecane.

    13) Have some (possibly) colourless solutions, which when mixed produce funky coloured precipitates/colloids. Possibly do the production of Prussian blue (and how that kicked off colour chemistry)

    14) Demonstrate the different flame colours generated by different salts: explain the use of sodium in street lamps and the discovery of helium

    15) Make some hydrogen sulfide.

    16) Melt some sulfur and show how rubbery the allotropic (this is a simplification) form is compared to crystals. Look at the allotropes of carbon.

    17) In contrast to hydrogen sulfide, make one or several esters.

    18) Sniff some 88 ammonia

    19) Drip water onto calcium carbide to produce acetylene, then light the acetylene. If possible, find an old lamp that used this.

    20) Demonstrate limelight

    21) Try and dissolve polystyrene in water, then dissolve it in acetone.

    So a few bangs, and few smells, and a few things to trigger intellectual curiosity. I’ve probably missed oodles more. The only ones I haven’t done of the above are numbers 10,11 and 21.

  31. Mike Hughes said,

    February 25, 2009 at 12:55 pm


    Is this the thread to mention that two of your Podcasts on ITunes will not download to my phone?

    Could it be the file format 🙂

    Hmm, possibly 🙂

  32. Tony Sidaway said,

    March 6, 2009 at 6:33 pm

    The screaming jelly baby experiment and others were the subject of a series of videos produced by the Training and Development Agency for Schools, which have attracted some media attention.

    They can be seen here:

    The TDA seems to have had a lot more money to throw at the production side, and as matt_st says the ICE has concentrated on producing support materials. For sheer spectacle the TDA videos are obviously more fun to watch and more likely to enthuse teachers and school students alike.

  33. wayscj said,

    November 21, 2009 at 6:20 am

    ed hardy ed hardy
    ed hardy clothing ed hardy clothing
    ed hardy shop ed hardy shop
    christian audigier christian audigier
    ed hardy cheap ed hardy cheap
    ed hardy outlet ed hardy outlet
    ed hardy sale ed hardy sale
    ed hardy store ed hardy store
    ed hardy mens ed hardy mens
    ed hardy womens ed hardy womens
    ed hardy kids ed hardy kids ed hardy kids