Where on Earth is Joh? #1

….I’m home. In Canberra. Exciting right?

To be honest, I was possibly biting off a bit more than I could chew when I came up with the idea for this series. I imagined myself sitting on the balcony outside my cabin at our accommodation in Albury/Wodonga, sipping on infinite cups of tea and joyfully blogging away. There were definitely no dark circles under my eyes in this picture; none to be found.

Oh how I laugh hysterically at past-Joh.

I had no idea just how tiring touring would be. I don’t think I’ve ever been that exhausted in my life. But please don’t get me wrong. Whilst the week on tour was intense, it was also intensely rewarding and a ridiculous amount of fun.

But I should really start at the beginning.

For those of you who don’t know, I’m one of 16 scientists from around Australia, chosen to be a part of the Shell Questacon Science Circus. This is a joint initiative run by Questacon (the National Science and Technology Centre in Canberra) and The Australian National University with support from Shell. As part of a Masters in Science Communication, we develop science shows to perform in schools all over Australia. This year, I get to travel to do shows in primary schools on the NSW Central Coast, organise Public Exhibitions in Albury/Wodonga, run workshops in the Northern Territory and facilitate teacher professional development sessions in Victoria.

You know, among other things like sleep and assessments… and sleep.

Science circus group
What a good-looking bunch

It occurred to me that some of you may be interested in what we do when we’re out of town.  A tour, in my admittedly limited experience, generally runs something like this.

Day 1:

First things first, it’s truck-packing time! We travel in a convoy and a half: ten cars and an 18-metre semi-trailer. Since our truck is home to our show props and our travelling exhibition we need to get it all packed. We get there at what I like to call “stupid O’clock” in the morning (you know, the sort of hour that requires consuming your body-weight in coffee before you’re kind of functional?) and get everything loaded. And then, we’re off to the Albury/Wodonga region. The rest of day 1 is filled with travel which is, quite frankly, horrifically boring and so we’ll move on to:

Day 2…. 3 and 4:

This is where it starts to get interesting… and exhausting. Most of any one of our tours is taken up by school visits. These run in a sort of “rinse and repeat” pattern. We split into groups of two, go into a school, introduce ourselves to the teachers, set up in the space we’ve been allocated, perform shows, pack up the space we’ve been allocated, say goodbye to the teachers and re-group at the accommodation.

Rinse and repeat.

crazy lady with glass
Not sure if opera singer or crazy lady…

This is, without question, my favourite part of tour. Despite the pattern, no one day is the same. Each school I visited was different and awesome in their own special ways. At the first school, I had an eleven year old call me out on resonant frequency (not kidding – this kid was on it), and another ask if I could feature on his YouTube channel (presumably there’s a Minecraft let’s play out there with a random cross to “mad woman attempting to break glass with voice” for no apparent reason; I desperately want to find it). At the second school I experienced the most adorable lunch break ever where my partner for the day, Nicole and I were surrounded, and entertained by, about ten kindergarten kids telling us all about their chickens. And at the last school, I discovered that “Equine studies” is a legitimate high school subject. I’m not going to lie, most of our time back at the accommodation was spent sharing anecdotes. And if nothing else, it’s a joy to see children loving the things you’re passionate about and getting really involved and excited about your shows.

But it’s not all about the schools…

Day 5 (aka “the day that wrecked me”):

The last of our major operations is the Public Exhibition, we call it a PEx. Since there’s no way 16 people would need an 18 metre semi-trailer’s worth of show props, the majority of the truck space is taken up with over 40 hands-on exhibits. Usually, PEx days, like school show days, follow a pattern. We roll into town, unpack the truck, set up all of the exhibits, set up the shop, set up the show space, run the PEx for about 3-5 hours, breathe for a few seconds, pack everything up and roll out of town.

It takes a lot of coordination and practise to get that pattern done in a small amount of time and efficiently, but I think we’re all getting there. Throughout the day we entertained 1496 people with exhibits and science shows (I get to lie on a bed of nails and have someone smash a brick on my chest with an axe… no big deal). It’s a crazy day but again, heaps of fun (are you sensing a pattern here?).

On a side note, we do get some down time. Our school days do tend to finish at around 4PM and we’re free to explore and, within reason, do whatever we want to relax. I spent a bunch of time walking around Lake Hume with some fellow circus members, cooking dinner, playing games and just chatting. It was really lovely to hang out with the circus; they’re a great bunch of people.

Lake Hume turned on the sunset for us! Credit to fellow Circus presenter Mizaan for this amazing shot.

Anyway, day 6 is a travel day and boring so let’s finish up this contrived recount shall we?

Touring is, I’ve decided, one of those things that’s so intense that you end up sleeping for a week when you get back, but you absolutely can’t get enough of it. There are a bunch of things that could have gone better upon reflection but if you can’t think of ways to make things run more efficiently you’re not doing it right… right?

So tour is intense, exhausting, rewarding, entertaining and ridiculous amounts of fun. 10/10, would totally do it again… which is lucky seeing as how I’ll be travelling to the NSW Central Coast in May. Hopefully I’ll be able to update you all at the end of every week but, given my past record of less-than-clockwork posting, I am making no promises. Next time it’ll be for three weeks. A crazy-awesome, exhausting three weeks…

Bring it on.



Vacuum cleaners don’t suck

Anyone that’s known me for more than a few years will know that I am not exactly the biggest fan of cleaning. I like to hoodwink people into thinking I have things sorted and that I exude domestic goddess status but in reality, I honestly don’t care that much. This is slightly problematic for someone with a crazy dust allergy but at the risk of this becoming a personal confessional, let’s move on shall we?

Henry is secretly disgusted in all of us

This deficiency in ability-to-adult is possibly why, when handed a vacuum cleaner as a pivotal prop to use in one of my shows and told to explain how it worked, I laughed hysterically.

But then it occurred to me that it’s highly likely the vast majority of people who frequently use a vacuum cleaner, have no idea how it works either. It’s like any piece of commonplace machinery in modern life; we use it but if asked to pull it apart and put it back together we’d end up with a mess.

Vacuum cleaners, it turns out, don’t suck. In fact a “vacuum” is more than a misnomer – it’s entirely not how they don’t suck and to explain just exactly how they don’t suck, I’m going to need to explain pressure.

First things first we need to think about air pressure. Take a look at your thumbnail. It’s about one square centimeter in area right? Well now I want you to imagine there’s a 1L carton of milk balancing on it. Heavy? Awkward? A contrived gedanken experiment? All answers to these questions should be “yes”. If you ever get a chance, you can actually feel what this is like. All you need to do is get a plastic bag and a vacuum cleaner (stay with me). Wrap the plastic bag around your hand and remove the air from inside it with the vacuum cleaner. You should be able to feel the air outside the bag, pressing onto your skin. Atmospheric pressure is CRAZY.

Vacuum cleaners work on the principle that any areas of high (so higher than atmospheric) and low pressure, if given the opportunity, will want to equalise. This means we can have some fun like this (with added cute-factor) or this (skip to 2 minutes for awesomeness). Now inside a vacuum cleaner, there’s a chamber with a fan. This fan is constantly rotating and works to push the air out of the chamber creating an area of low pressure. This means that the high pressure outside of the vacuum cleaner, instead of getting sucked in, is pushed in so that the high and low pressure equalises.

So vacuum cleaners don’t suck. I’ll definitely be thinking about how I know that the next time I “clean my carpets”*.

*”leave the vacuum cleaner in the cupboard to languish for eternity”.


Gedanken experiments: the art of avoiding fork-in-hand situations

I want you all to do something for me. Don’t worry, this won’t be horrifyingly embarrassing; you can do this sitting down and in the comfort of your own home. I want you to imagine placing your hand onto the table in front of you and pressing down. The force needs to be equal and constant.

Ok you can stop now. (Take your hand away from the table – you’re supposed to be thinking, not doing).

I want you to imagine that you’re pressing down with the same hand and the same amount of force. This time, instead of the table, you’re pushing your hand onto a fork (bet you’re glad you’re imagining now right?). Which one are you reluctant to do? Which one hurts more? If you answered “the fork!” then you’re absolutely right and your sense of self-preservation is clearly working.

What I just asked you to do is what’s called a “Gedanken” experiment. It’s a common device used in science communications to illustrate an idea without, say, the fuss and bother of calling an ambulance to deal with any awkward fork-in-hand situations.

The term was coined by none other than Albert Einstein. In his first language, German, it means “thought experiment”. Einstein famously used this method to develop and communicate his theory of general relativity. His memoirs are riddled with stories from his imagination that led him, step-by-step, to his ground-breaking conclusions. Like this one:

I was sitting on a chair in my patent office in Bern. Suddenly a thought struck me: If a man falls freely, he would not feel his weight. I was taken aback. This simple thought experiment made a deep impression on me. This led me to the theory of gravity.

Einstein concluded, through further thought and relation to everyday situations like riding in a lift, that within a given system, it is impossible to tell the difference between effects relating to gravity and extra acceleration. General relativity. You may also have heard the story of a night spent imagining himself riding a light beam… It’s a little hard to do in real life so Einstein had to be creative and then come back and prove his thought excursions were legitimate in other ways.

So why the weird and slightly worrying fork experiment?

Well sometimes it’s hard to demonstrate a principle to an audience without involving ridiculously convoluted or horrifically dangerous demonstrations. The use of the table vs fork experiment to illustrate that pressure decreases with increasing surface area, gives an audience something to relate to. I’m sure you winced at the thought of pressing your hand onto something sharp? Yes?

Then I declare the thought experiment a success.