Day 1 - Thursday
The Bang Tent [Image: Ian Johnston]
I’ve no idea what the venue looks like and only the vaguest idea where it is. Strolling down The Mound in Edinburgh, though it’s easy to spot - a funky marquee like an crouching pangolin and nice big Bang! banners all round. As soon as I arrive I spot my OU colleagues, exhausted but still cheerful after a day of devolving people and pressing scratch’n’sniff cards into their hands. They have my OU polo shirt, so one quick and mostly decent change behind a poster later and I’m in uniform and good to go.
But go where? I sniff around, prise Dallas from a host of adoring fans and get pointed at the man in the red sweatshirt. he is a nice man. He is my friend. He helps me - and ten minutes later I’m grasping my mike backstage with all four presenters, waiting to go on.
Individual introductions from the compère - who has me on his list as "Ian Serjeant" - and we’re waiting for the first question. Dallas holds the world Scalextric speed record, the compère mentioned this and the first couple of questions ease out more details. It’s a nice relaxed atmosphere, the compère wanders around with a mike and a mug of coffee and soon the questions are coming thick and fast.
How did we first get interested in science? Will the Large Hadron Collider make black holes? What’s a wave? How do chameleons change colour? Why do we close our eyes when we sneeze? All the questions come from the children who make up about 75% of the audience - but they’re not simplistic. On the contrary, children have a knack for asking really big, really hard and really interesting questions. For those of us who have spent years looking in great depth at tiny problems, that’s refreshing - and challenging.
Doing science [Image: Ian Johnston]
Soon the half hour is up and the audience is shooed out. Jem, Liz and Dallas chat with fans for another ten minutes outside. Then they’ve gone, the marquee is shut, the security guards are turning away new arrivals at the general display tent, and it’s all over. Or almost all.
Yan is back at his stall, indefatigably demonstrating more culinary science to a crowd who just don’t want to go. What a man!
Day 2 - Friday
Inside the Bang! tent [Image: Ian Johnston]
Oh dear. I’m rushed at work, can’t find a bus and arrive at the tent, perspiring freely (this sounds much better than "sweating like a pig") two minutes after kick-off. Luckily everything is running ten minutes late, so there is plenty of time to get ready. Our compère gives us all stern instructions - keep it snappy and only one follow-up to each question. It’s going to be a bigger audience then yesterday and he wants to get through as many questions as possible.
And off we go. Almost a full house this time and the questions fly at us. How do light bulbs work? What are out favourite experiments? Why does tapping a can of fizzy drink make it fizz less when opened? Not a dud question amongst them, and all for children. Answering them can be quite a challenge - we have to come up with replies which are brief, accurate and entertaining. The other four, of course, are professionals, but I hope I hold my own. One major personal triumph - I was asked for my autograph afterwards. Fame!
Day 3 - Saturday
A moment, please [Image: Ian Johnston]
I’m taking no chances this time and arrive an hour and three quarters early, to the visible surprise of the crew. I fill in my time forcing Scratch ‘n’ Smell cards on members of the public and joining in with Dallas on the street science stand. He’s great to work with - very relaxed, very approachable and his real interest in everything from adiabatic compression to eddy currents is infectious.
And on to the show. Not quite as full as yesterday (my colleagues on the OU Devolve Me stall were less busy today as well) but a much higher average age. The last two audiences were 80% families with small children - this one has many more adults. And the result? Far fewer questions at first.
Then the children realise that the adults are too shy to ask anything (scared of seeming ignorant?) and give the four of us just as good a grilling as before. Only four? Yes, Dr Yan had to leave early, so I am slightly less outnumbered by the pros this time.
Why don’t the gases in the air separate out by density? Why do Mentos make diet coke fizz? How do F1 drivers cope with G-forces? The final one’s a killer - why does gravity pull us down? Try answering that one without notice in thirty seconds in a way that makes sense to a ten year old.
The end. We all bustle out as the crew move in to strike the stage, dismantle the tent and pack up ready for the next roadshow. It’s been a challenging and exciting three days, and it’s been particularly nice to spend time with Dallas, Liz, Jem and Yan who are every bit as nice, entertaining and bright as they come across on screen. They’re a great team and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed joining them.