How to turn dull science on its head

21st April 2006 at 01:00
The Edinburgh International Science Festival used a new platform to show science is fun, writes Douglas Blane

There are no windows in Edinburgh's Bongo Club, so shapeless shadows fill the hall while bright lights pick out the stage, where a young breakdancer whirls on his head. "A hundred and fifty revs a minute," the compere calls out. "That's amazing."

Profisee is good, but he is surely not good enough to count a person's speed as he is spinning.

"We've got little computers attached to their bodies," he admits to the audience, and green matchstick men start dancing on the large screens behind him. "It's called motion capture technology."

Like all events at this month's Edinburgh International Science Festival, which is supported by TES Scotland, Maad Skillz combined interactive learning with entertainment. But, explains spokeswoman Sophie Hanson: "Most of what we do is aimed at kids or adults who are already engaged with science."

Maad Skillz was part of oneEighty, a pilot project that takes modern culture as its starting point and aims to capture the attention of the 11-30 age group. The other components were enSight, a multimedia exhibition charting the evolution of science data into art, and The Big Wave of films, presentations and special guests from the world of surfing.

"We bring science into their interests and make it relevant to what they like to do," says Ms Hanson.

Breakdance is a key element, and getting international performers such as B-boy Rodolphe, as well as home-grown talent such as the Psycho Stylz Crew, looks like a great move. Their skill is breathtaking and the connection with the audience immediate.

Co-host Tommy Mullins brings in the science. "You know when you have to push a heavy box across the floor, you need to give it some get-going? But once it's going, the going gets good and you don't need to give it so much to go."

"Uuuh, yeah," Profisee replies.

"Take a look at B-boy Bull and Harribo." A mighty push from the young breakdancers' arms sets them spinning on their heads. "First they have to battle the static friction from the floor," Tommy explains. "Once the battle's won, the friction falls,and that lets the breaker spin on and on and on."

Eventually the dancers wind down and then spring to their feet, and the audience applauds.

Next up for the Maad Skillz treatment is conservation of angular momentum which, Tommy explains, is a fundamental law of physics.

"Fun-da-men-tal law," Profisee puts some rhythm into the words. "That sounds like it's gonna melt ma brain."

"Nah," Tommy says. "We'll do it with dance."

The show combines science and great entertainment. There is even a real scientist from Edinburgh University, with a hand-held gadget that can image the inside of a beatboxer's throat.

"How far can you stick your tongues out," Jim Scobbie asks the audience and looks around at the response. "Not bad. But you maybe don't know that your tongue is a whole lot bigger than that, about as big as your hand.

"You can see using ultrasound, which is what doctors use to look at babies before they're born.

Bigg Taj and Psylent V, who have been teaching the children basic beatbox and giving virtuoso performances, take turns at holding the ultrasound transceiver to their throats. This creates huge images of their tongues, leaping like salmon on the big screens behind them.

Dr Scobbie is a speech scientist, he explains, who uses a variety of techniques to learn how humans vocalise. Ultrasound is a new research tool being pioneered at Edinburgh University.

"Ultrasound gives you these wonderful, non-invasive images. We're now aiming to make them much more useful by developing ways of taking detailed measurements, which gives us a wealth of information about how people learn to make sounds. Eventually this could help children whose speech doesn't develop normally."

Dr Scobbie adds: "The beatboxers' vocal skills are incredible and we can record them and use them to teach speech therapy students, who have to learn to hear and make a huge number of sounds."

In the hall the show is building to a scratching, breaking, beatboxing climax. Some of the audience stay on to try out their own moves while the performers pack up their equipment.

Profisee is holding up his infant son, while a couple of performers indulge in some friendly rivalry.

"You gotta be a breaker when you grow up."

"Nah, nah. Beatboxing is best."

Maybe he'll be a scientist, someone suggests.

"He's gonna be anything he wants to be," Profisee ends the speculation.

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