Science is important, so it's not something you should just lock up in a lab. John Hill finds out more about Brainwave, the Sedgefield event designed to ignite a passion for science in the next generation.
TOM Pringle is spreading a message across the planet. He’s been to the Himalayan foothills, the Australian outback and more than 500 other far-flung places.
The message is simple, and often explodes.
“I take science and make it accessible to an audience that doesn’t care about it,” he says. “I’ve been literally all over the world, providing 100% live science. It has a very powerful effect.
“One person came up to me a few years ago and said they were studying chemistry at university because of me. They said they saw one of my shows about ten years ago and that helped them decide they wanted to be a chemist.”
Pringle’s on-stage alter-ego Dr Bunhead combines physical comedy with explosive demonstrations and important lessons about science. Pringle used to be a teacher, but is now providing a jaw-dropping experience for schools, TV shows, theatres, festivals and other events worldwide.
You’ll be able to meet him yourself at Brainwave, the three-day science festival which returns to Sedgefield’s NETPark from July 13 to 15.
Brainwave is a free festival organised by Business Durham, which is designed to spread word about the wonders of science to children and families. It’s the third year of Brainwave in County Durham, and it’s proved so popular that tickets for the schools day on July 13 have already been Hoovered up.
However, there’s still a chance to pop over to the public days, which feature acts such as Dr Bunhead, the return of the battling machines of Robots Live, the North East’s largest mobile Planetarium, a series of science exhibits and even a marauding Dalek.
“It’s about inspiring children and families about the wonders of science,” says Catherine Johns. “It’s getting the message across that science permeates every aspect of our lives, including the gadgets we use every day. It’s showing people that science is fun and incredible, that it’s the miracle of our time.”
Johns is the director of innovation development at the County Durham Development Company, the operator of NETPark. She manages the innovation team at a science park that has helped to develop North East success stories such as Reinnervate and Kromek.
However, she’s extremely aware of the importance of helping a new generation fall in love with science.
“We’ve had a community engagement programme since 2009, going into schools and into the community to talk about science. This programme has reached 22,000 people over three years.
“We realise that if we don’t inspire children and their families, we’re missing a trick. The popularity of science is increasing all the time. You only have to look at the popularity of people like Professor Brian Cox and shows such as Bang Goes The Theory. It’s a case of capturing that inspiration. The approach really depends on the age group.
“If it’s a GCSE level audience, you can start talking about career options, telling them what’s being developed here and opening their eyes. At primary school level, it’s fun, messiness and making slime.”
More than ever, science is fuelling the breakthroughs that turn heads every day around the world, so it’s more important than ever that we pass it on to our children in a way that’s exciting and inspiring.
That’s why events like Brainwave are so important. It’s why science is on your TV set, and why “science communicators” like Dr Bunhead are in demand from Edinburgh to Ethiopia.
“Something like Brainwave taps into that crucial age bracket between the end of primary school and the start of secondary school, where you’re most able to influence them”, says Pringle.
Before Bunhead was born, Pringle packed up his chemistry degree and wandered into a career as a secondary school science teacher. However, he soon realised that approach wasn’t for him.
“I found it too restrictive,” he says. “The problem was that I was always trying to make every lesson the most unforgettable experience the kids had ever seen. I didn’t want to treat kids like brains on sticks. I wanted this visceral experience where they were all engaged emotionally, and I nearly killed myself with exhaustion.”
Instead, he spent a couple of years selling telephones, and then went back to university to push for a PhD at Edinburgh. It was during this time that he was asked to do some science shows in schools in the area, and he soon found himself repeatedly sneaking out of the lab to perform free shows around the area.
“Before I knew it, I was doing things in schools all over Edinburgh, then I was at the Fringe. I’ve been all over the world since, and I haven’t stopped for nearly 15 years. It wasn’t exactly a career choice. It was just something that happened.”
You may have seen Dr Bunhead on shows such as Blue Peter and Sky One’s Brainiac: Science Abuse, as well as on channels such as Discovery, ITV and Disney.
He was behind the first ever live science performance in the West End, and has his own entry in the Guinness Book of Records for the most potatoes fired out of a spud-cannon in three minutes.
During his appearance in Sedgefield, he’ll be performing a show called Pyromania. Pyromania is an exploration of mankind’s relationship with fire, from cooking food to firing rockets.
His show features “stunt scientists” from the audience, as well as “specially trained stunt jelly babies, astro-hamsters and bionic bananas”.
“It’s fire that sets us apart from other species,” Pringle says. “It allowed us to cook food. The Industrial Revolution was powered by fire. In the technological era, it was the control of burning which allowed us to send big rockets into space.”
Dr Bunhead’s act includes a lot of physical comedy, but there’s an important science message in everything he does.
“I use a lot of comic movement, like blowing up a rubber glove on my head, but it always goes on to reveal something about science.
“Sure, you can have a part of the show where the audience gets really excited, but that’s not the main reason you’re there. You’re there to give them a thirst for more, and a need to understand.
“There’s a ‘wow’ factor that’s generated when the kids see these demonstrations. After every ‘wow’ moment, there’s always a ‘why’. At that point, the mind is open, and the door is open to bring the science in.
“It’s about helping them to understand what’s happened and how, and making them feel smart. It also gives them a tiny bit of a kick, because sciences are difficult. However the reward is understanding the world around you.
“The thing I always loved about science is that it’s full of very simple ideas. When you understand them, they’re everywhere you look.”
As well as acts such as Dr Bunhead, visitors to Brainwave will be able to investigate a range of science exhibits, from the vibrating string set-up which helps them to see the wavelengths of various notes, to the large scale models of our ears.
“They can also investigate what happens when you subtract colours from white light, see themselves in distorted mirrors, and get to know more about electricity by experimenting with items such as circuits, morse code transmitters and electromagnets.
“This is one of my favourite events,” says Councillor Claire Vasey, Durham County Council’s cabinet member for children and young people’s services. “It’s an unmissable opportunity for our younger residents to get up close and personal with a dramatic array of eye-watering experiments and jaw-dropping displays.
“It’s science at its most enchanting, and all for free. Come along and help us make this the best Brainwave ever.”
For more information go to www.haveabrainwave.com