Is this reality show audition ‘science communication’?

On last night’s episode of America’s Got Talent, we had ourselves an audition from one 32-year-old child-of-teachers Nick Uhas. He’s got his own YouTube channel with a decent collection of science communication videos (Some are question answering, some are DIY/backyard projects – fire and explosions are frequently involved); now, he’s trying to use an NBC reality show frequently populated by musicians and acrobats to share how cool science is.

If you’re not keen on watching the above clip, here’re the basics:

  1. He gives each judge a balloon full of an unspecified gas, and says it’s “very different” from helium. He asks, “So what do you think’s going to happen?” Mel B answers, “[your voice] goes lower” and he briefly acknowledges her contribution by adding “Well, we’ll just have to find out” (From the tone he seems a bit distracted delivering the rest of the balloons). One by one the judges freak out about how low their voices do indeed get after breathing the gas in – Mel gives us a great evil laugh at about 1:05.
  2. Mel and Howie come up on stage to help with the next demo. Nick mentions a set of containers (a large Erlenmeyer flask, a large graduated cylinder, and an average glass bowl) are full of 35% hydrogen peroxide, and there are small containers of a “catalyst” potassium iodide. He notes that a catalyst is what “makes a reaction go faster”. When they pour the KI in, a bunch of foam suddenly forms and spews out from each of the containers.
  3. Nick points to a container he identifies as being full of liquid nitrogen “which is -321 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s very cold” and a bucket full of recently-boiling water. A stage hand helps him pour some of the LN2 into a large garbage bin, and then Howie pours the hot water into the bin as fast as possible. A ‘giant’ cloud erupts and everyone gasps, laughs, and/or claps.

The whole thing lasts about 4 minutes. The crowd and judges love it; he gets through to the next round of competition with all “yes”es. I myself enjoyed the clip and got a few good laughs out of the judges’ reactions.

But the entire time I’m watching this, I’m wondering to myself “Is this ‘throw a bunch of science demos at a crowd of people with little to no explanation of the actual science going on‘ method of presentation actual science communication?”1

I’m by no means suggesting that there’s anything wrong with his presentation. Showing people science demos – with little to no explanation of what’s actually happening – at the very least might spark a few people’s interest into doing their own research and finding out how Nick did everything. He has videos where he walks through the featured demos: “Deep Voice Gas Sulfur Hexafluoride“, “Elephant Toothpaste Prank“, and “Liquid Nitrogen SUPER CLOUD“. Each offers further explanation of the science involved (some more than others), so if a viewer was super motivated they could google to learn more – either from Nick’s videos or some other site on the Interwebz.2

And I get why he doesn’t go into the details. He’s got 4 minutes to impress 4 judges (or at least 3 of them), so of course he’s going to throw as many flashy demos as possible into his stage time. It’s sensible for him to think that ‘wasting’ time properly explaining why sulphur hexafluoride (That’s the actual name of the anti-helium3 gas) does what it does threatens his chance of getting through to the next round…Or explaining that there’s also dishsoap and water and food coloring in the containers with the hydrogen peroxide, and what the actual chemical reaction is that produces all the gas needed to make the foam. Or explaining the phase change and energy transfer involved in making a garbage bin cloud, or just mentioning what the cloud is made of (How many people thought it was made of nitrogen?)…

I would have really appreciated it if Mr. Uhas, at the end of his presentation, had said something to the effect of “If you want to learn a little more about how I did X – you can check out Y”. Maybe the show wouldn’t allow him to promote his own channel, but he could have thrown out phrases to be googled, at the very least.

But to get back to my original wondering, was what I just saw an example of science communication – that thing I’ve got a postgraduate degree in? There’s a part of me that wants to say “no” because I don’t feel anything was really communicated other than ‘wow’, and that part of me doesn’t consider ‘wow’ enough of a message. Then there’s a part of me that says ‘wow’ should be enough, especially when time or attention span is short.

Maybe, a third part argues, it’s more #SciArt than #SciComm. For example, looking at one of those Hubble (or another less-famous satellite) space images can evoke a feeling of “That’s beautiful!” and make you think about your place in the universe and how (literally) awesome everything is.

Hubble captures view of “Mystic Mountain”

But by itself,4 it can’t communicate the science hiding in the image or how the image was created/processed. It might inspire you to seek out that knowledge; in fact, I’d say great SciArt definitely should do that – even if it’s merely to make you scan to another part of the screen and read a descriptive caption.

Some would say SciArt falls under the umbrella of “science communication”. You might say that. I might say that, depending upon how good I am at arguing with myself. “Science Communication” might be a catch-all term for any attempt at conveying any message about science. But I personally think there should be some sort of distinction between pieces that make you feel something and those that (also) tell you something (All good SciComm, of course, should make you feel something).

I want Mr. Uhas to do well – to advance to a level on the show where he’d actually feel comfortable including a proper lesson beyond “Science Rules!” It’d be really cool to see an hour-long Vegas show (They still do that for the winner, right? I haven’t watched AGT in ages…) all about showing an audience some cool science and actually explaining that science. You’re certain to reach a different demographic than just the people that watch people on YouTube set stuff on fire and whatnot. Whether or not he stands a chance of winning, however, is another discussion entirely…and I have no idea who any of the other contestants are. There’s probably an 8-year-old opera singer…

But in the end, I don’t know if Nick Uhas threw in enough science information for me to consider his AGT performance ‘science communication’. Perhaps I’d call it proto-SciComm. He just didn’t have enough time given everything he included, but that’s just my opinion. I’m curious to know what other people consider falling under the SciComm label – feel free to let me know by adding a comment below!

 


1. I’m also trying to ignore the annoying feeling that his act is perpetuating the stereotype that all scientists wear lab coats and goggles, but yes I know there’s a safety component involved to these things… ↩
2. Someone did actually tweet at him “Loved your act but wanna know WHY/what happened!” He referred her to his YT channel. ↩
3. Not the same as “anti-helium”, the anti-matter version of a helium atom, which would be made of 2 antiprotons and 2 neutrons in the nucleus, orbited by 2 positrons. ↩
4. This is the text that accompanied the above image at its JPL home. It’s long, but informative:
“This craggy fantasy mountaintop enshrouded by wispy clouds looks like a bizarre landscape from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image, which is even more dramatic than fiction, captures the chaotic activity atop a pillar of gas and dust, three light-years tall, which is being eaten away by the brilliant light from nearby bright stars. The pillar is also being assaulted from within, as infant stars buried inside it fire off jets of gas that can be seen streaming from towering peaks.
This turbulent cosmic pinnacle lies within a tempestuous stellar nursery called the Carina Nebula, located 7500 light-years away in the southern constellation of Carina. The image celebrates the 20th anniversary of Hubble’s launch and deployment into an orbit around the Earth.
Scorching radiation and fast winds (streams of charged particles) from super-hot newborn stars in the nebula are shaping and compressing the pillar, causing new stars to form within it. Streamers of hot ionised gas can be seen flowing off the ridges of the structure, and wispy veils of gas and dust, illuminated by starlight, float around its towering peaks. The denser parts of the pillar are resisting being eroded by radiation.
Nestled inside this dense mountain are fledgling stars. Long streamers of gas can be seen shooting in opposite directions from the pedestal at the top of the image. Another pair of jets is visible at another peak near the centre of the image. These jets, (known as HH 901 and HH 902, respectively, are signposts for new star birth and are launched by swirling gas and dust discs around the young stars, which allow material to slowly accrete onto the stellar surfaces.
Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 observed the pillar on 1-2 February 2010. The colours in this composite image correspond to the glow of oxygen (blue), hydrogen and nitrogen (green), and sulphur (red).”↩

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