My experience as a Science Busker
By Rob Stanley on
Tags: science busking
“Hello, may I entertain you with some science?” This was how I introduced myself to countless strangers in St Pancras station over the past two weeks. I might not be an athlete, but I certainly feel like I’ve been put through my paces over the Olympics!
I was there as part of a team organised by the Francis Crick Institute in order to entertain, and maybe educate, the crowds on their way to the Olympic park.
It all started with me seeing a tweet from the Crick asking for volunteers to be trained as “science buskers”. The idea of approaching strangers and attempting to entertain them sounded terrifying! But it wasn’t something I could turn down as it’s one of my aims to seek out potentially embarrassing situations – to get the fear out of my system before it really counts!
There were two days of training from Dr Ken and Sara Santos of Maths Busking, who taught us 10 science “tricks” of which we could manipulate our favourites into a routine. Then we were let loose for a trial in St Pancras station – the verdict? Not quite as terrifying as anticipated!
I was caught on camera at the Somer’s Town START festival:
Loads of enthusiasm at the START festival in #somerstown and our #science buskers! #medicalresearch twitter.com/TheCrick/statu…
— The Crick(@TheCrick) July 14, 2012
This time next week our buskers will be out in full force. Say hi if you are in the javelin train queue at St P! twitter.com/TheCrick/statu…
— The Crick(@TheCrick) July 19, 2012
I did 10 hours of busking over the Olympic period (five two-hour shifts). We had been expecting to busk at people queueing for the Javelin train, but these queues never appeared during our shifts. The backup plan was to approach individual groups inside the station – far more daunting! Lesson 1: don’t look or sound like you are selling something.
There is definitely a skill in finding people to talk to. First of all they had to be stationary, ideally looking bored. I found families with children aged around three to ten was normally the best bet for the tricks we had to show. This meant that a lot of our time was spent looking for suitable people to approach.
Once we found a candidate family I found it was surprisingly easy to approach them without feeling nervous. I think that was a mixture of being in the right zone, and being somewhat able to hide behind the (rather fetching) Crick t-shirts. I found about 90% of people were happy to be approached, in some cases this required a run through of one of the tricks before they completely warmed to us. The rejections did tend to be upsetting, but I figure that’s one of the downsides to the job. In the least they helped me refine my technique of how to approach people. So, lesson 2: don’t be disheartened.
Image from the Francis Crick Institute.
I tended to lead with the trick that was holding a ping-pong ball into the air by blowing air through a straw (demonstrated by me in the photo above). We would ask children and parents if they would like a go, often with positive responses. Of course, some were better than others! Unfortunately we couldn’t give out the balls, I was surprised how few disappeared!
My favourite trick was called Newton’s Revenge (which you can buy in magic shops). Here’s a video of the effect. This trick would get some wide eyed responses. Often people would work out that it’s due to a magnet – though the real explanation is slightly more complex than simple magnetism.
The question “May I tie your children up?” was generally answered with enthusiasm. This was my opener to a trick described at Maths Busking. Then we would finish by handing out a Crick Science Snappers.
On my fourth shift UCL interviewed me, Martin and Linda:
I volunteered for science busking expecting that it would be something to improve myself, but I heave learnt that interacting with children and encouraging them to enjoy science is rewarding in its own right, and that the act of science busking with the right audience is addictive! I’m looking forward to more opportunities to science busk, and to develop more science tricks (particularly biology related). Lesson 3: it’s a ridiculous amount of fun!
I’ll finish with two of my favourite responses:
- I met a bunch of teenagers who knew how all of the tricks I showed them worked, and who finished with “Francis Crick went to our school”.
- After describing that Francis Crick was “one of the men who discovered what DNA looks like”, and showing them a picture of DNA, the children that I was talking to began twisting around. I then pointed out that DNA was double-stranded and they should really be twisting in pairs, at which point they started hugging and twisting together.