Q: How did you two come to be involved in Hollywood Science?
Jonathan: I’m very much the sort of person who likes making things and I also like explaining how science works to the public. I did a series called Rough Science, which is now in its third series, and I was asked last year to do six ten-minute Hollywood Science programmes on BBC TWO’s Learning Zone, with Robert. Because of their success, the Open University decided to do a bigger version - so we’re now filming four half-hour programmes, again for BBC TWO.
Robert: I think they asked me because I’m quite thick - in a happy and optimistic kind of way. Actually, I got involved through doing programmes for the Open University. They knew I had done some programmes for Channel 4 called I-Camcorder, where I had to deal with technical issues in an easy-to-understand way. So I suppose they felt I could complement Jonathan with my humour and enthusiasm.
Q: How would you describe the experience of working together?
Robert: It’s an absolute joy for me. Jonathan is the most brilliant person to do stuff with because he’s funny and clever. He makes me laugh but he also explains things, which I genuinely didn’t understand to begin with. The show works best when we can laugh and feel that we’ve communicated the science clearly. It’s quite easy to miss the mark - you can either be too silly or muck about too much or get too dry and scientific. Finding that balance is what we’re trying to do.
Jonathan: The combination of our personalities seems to work. I’m useless at presenting and Robert’s brilliant.
Robert: You’re getting worryingly good at it.
Jonathan: You make it easy for me. I couldn’t do this programme on my own.
Robert: I definitely couldn’t do it on my own as I wouldn’t have a clue what I was talking about. Even if there were someone clever telling me what to say it still wouldn’t work.
Jonathan: There’s synergy.
Robert: Yes, my word precisely. That’s what we have synergy.
Q: What do you think the appeal of the programmes is?
Robert: It’s fun, as well as informative. To use films, which everyone knows something about, is a great bridge across which to talk about science.
Jonathan: On the series I make quite a few of the props and set up the experiments. Because I make them I understand them and can explain the science. I do a lot of talks and presentations to school kids and found that using my Hollywood Science 'tool kit' is a brilliant way of bringing science into the classroom - especially at GCSE level where kids want everything to be cool.
Q: Have you found that Hollywood always gets the science wrong?
Robert: When we start the experiments I’ll look at the movie clips and go: 'that’s rubbish, that won’t work'. Nine times out of ten, the one that I genuinely thought was a load of duff science proved to be the one that actually worked. That’s always a shock.
Jonathan: We have been surprised when they’ve got it right. For instance, in the first series, we examined a clip from Shanghai Noon where Jackie Chan is trying to escape from a prison cell. He has this idea of bending the bars, using a piece of cloth for leverage. He pees on a cloth to make it wet because he says wet cloth is stronger than dry cloth. I thought that was a load of rubbish, but when we did the experiment it turned out to be true.
Q: So what’s the most physically challenging thing you’ve had to do so far in the name of science?
Robert: In The Great Outdoors John Candy eats a 96-ounce steak. Well, we made the equivalent weight in hamburgers - 26 massive burgers. I ate two and half pounds of the stuff. The first two were quite nice but after that my jaw ached for days from all the chewing.
Jonathan: But you’re looking forward to the experiment where you stand in pools of water, being electrocuted
Robert: Yep, can’t wait for that one.
Q: You seem to have a very relaxed, spontaneous enthusiasm about everything you do together
Robert: That’s not deliberate. When Jonathan tells me something like we’re going to blow up a safe full of water I go, "Really, what an actual explosion?" It’s too much fun. We’ve both got that enthusiasm to try things out.
Jonathan: Blowing up the safe that’s from the film The Score with Robert De Niro. He blows up a safe by drilling a hole and filling the safe with water before putting dynamite in. The idea is because water can’t be compressed, when it blows up, the air can’t absorb the energy, so goes straight to the outside of the walls. When we tried it we put in the same amount of charge
Robert: We used the exact design of safe
Jonathan: And in the safe without water it was a feeble explosion but when we put the water in the safe it blew the door off.
Robert: It fired across the garden.
Jonathan: When I first saw the film I thought I wasn’t sure it could be done but it really worked well, which was brilliant.
Robert: We actually put real explosive in them, which I don’t think we could have done in the first series.
Jonathan: This time round we’re able to fulfil more ambitious scientific investigations - and hopefully provide more entertainment for the audience.
Robert: Yep, the boys have got more toys