Game of Tendons (and other viscera)

I like to think I have a pretty good sense of how I learn new things these days. Still, I love it when I find something new that rings my bell.

If you’ve seen me in the wider world, you may notice that I have a stooped posture, and have done since primary school. What may have started by large school bags then got exacerbated by hours hunched in front of a computer.

Over the years I’ve had exercises, and tried yoga and Pilates. One issue is that to me my back is a mass of muscles, and I have no idea what needs to be relaxed and what needs to be built up.

My beautiful and insightful girlfriend Cobi Smith came up with an alternative. She visualised my back as countries in some imaginary land, Seanstorso, and wrote me a story. I used the Human Anatomy Atlas (which, by-the-bye, is an awesome app for the iPad) to illustrate some maps of these fantastical lands.

The following becomes my homework.

North and South Trapezius

Once upon a time there was a faraway land called Seanstorso. Generations ago all the people of the land of Seantorso lived happily together, working together to keep their land in balance. However the people of North Trapezius grew arrogant and greedy, even turning on their own kind in the South to get more power. The land of Seanstorso became unbalanced.

The Rhomboids

As the people of North Trapezius waged war, other people lost strength, cowering under North Trapezius’s tyranny. The Rhomboids, who had worked so well with the people of South Trapezius, were almost paralysed with fear as they witnessed their southern neighbours being destroyed by their northern kindred.

The lands of Seanstorso, once beautiful and balanced, began to change. The mountains and valleys the people had worked in harmony with for generations began to shift. People’s work from which they drew strength was taken away, and so they became weak and despondent. The North Trapezius used this as justification for their dominance. The people of North Trapezius eventually wrought full control over the lands, considering the other people as worthless serfs. The time when all the people lived in balance had nearly been forgotten.

Levata Scapula

As the people of the south cowered under the force of the North Trapezius, the downtrodden Levata Scapula decided to take action. The Levata Scapula lived alongside the people of North Trapezius in the time of harmony, but they had been among the first to suffer when the North Trapezius hunger for power was awoken. Unlike those in the south who were deemed weak serfs, the North Trapezius forced the Levata Scapula to labour for them. The Levata Scapula become slaves carrying the loads of the southern lands that were being shifted north. But it became too much. The Levata Scapula were the first to see how the land was shifting, and they were sick of slavery.

The peoples of Levata Scapula need to entreaty the king who sits on his throne in the capital of Cerebellum that Levata Scapula, who must intervene lest the Lord of North Trapezius destroy the land and bring the entire kingdom to its knees (or rounded posture.) And winter is coming.

Not only am I now picturing the muscles involved, but I also know which ones are the problems, and which ones are the solution, all wrapped up in a story worthy of a HBO television series.

A little Penn and Teller

I had a number of influences for An Evening of Rough Science.  One of the most important was stage magic.

I have a larger and more detailed talk about how science demonstrations and magic tricks have a lot in common.  That’s a subject for another time.

Right now, here are a couple of clips of Penn and Teller that have influenced me over the past two years.

How slight of hand tricks can influence science demonstrations came to me while reading Derren Brown, but Penn and Teller have a brilliant act that lays out the (so called) rules of slight of hand.

Penn and Teller are also famous for telling people how their magic is done, and the cup and balls act with clear cups is one of their most famous. Interesting that in actually seeing how it is done in no way removes anything from the experience. (Interesting, too, how in this video the acoustics of the tomb they are in are so terrible, Penn has to really crank down his usual exuberance.)

Penn now explains human perception of numbers. No magic, but a great way to make an otherwise dry subject engaging.

Larger scale now.

The Art of Science Communication: we are “Science Communication” Communicators

In the trapsing over the countryside to various schools I get a lot of time in the car to remember about unpaid bills, fret whether my son loves me, and to come up with new and interesting blasphemies to swear at the stupid drivers on the road.  Now and then I actually think over what I do for a career, and start to analyse that day’s presentation.  I rake over its bones trying to figure out where it worked, where it maybe failed, and on the odd occasions, what made it sizzle.

To get this straight in my head I’m going to start getting elements of it down here.  Also to offer it up for others to for questions, comments or observations.

Observation number one:  We’re in the business of Science Communication Communication.  On the face of it that seems like a terrible tautology, but bear with me a sec.  Not only are we presenting an idea, observation, piece of fact that not only has the audience go “Gosh that was interesting/exciting/morally ambigious”, but also want, at the soonest opportunity, to go and tell someone else about it.

Let me tell you what I don’t mean.  I don’t mean like that kid in your class who doesn’t play sport, usually has his nose in a book during lunchtime, and delights in using big words like “dioxyribonuclaic acid” in grade five.  You know the kid I mean.  You all went to school with him.  Except for me: I was that kid.  This kid gets his feelings of importance through knowing the obscure stuff that the rest of the class doesn’t know, which is fine if you want to rub someone else’s nose in your knowledge, but kind of crap for teaching it.

These days I think hard about the one take home message that the rest of the presentation can  hang off.  This message is preferrably one, but at most three, sentences that I try to drum into the audience Derren Brown-style.  For instance, a presentation on energy and its uses may have its take home message as “Energy doesn’t come out of thin air, it has to come from somewhere”, and from that hang ideas of types of energy and conservation of energy.  When the audience heads home that afternoon and is discussing the day’s schooling with parents over cookies and a glass of milk, the Sentence can then launch out of their beautiful minds like a sparkelling gold Easter egg.  Here the rest of the session can be reaccounted around the Sentence, including the really cool bit where the presenter explodes a bottle full of volitile vapour and burns himself.  Or something.

The idea about the single idea is that it lowers the bar of entry for retelling the story.  It’s clear and unambigious, but most importantly it’s not “dumbing it down”.  It allows those audience members who have a better grasp on the material to talk about it later without resorting to big, scary words, without cutting out other students who may be new to the material.

And if nothing else, it gives the presenter a single ancor to build the presentation around without turning it into a “Shopping List Show”, which is something I’ll launch into next time.