Fran Scott describes herself as ‘not your typical scientist’. She is an experienced science demonstrator, translator and developer for both children and adults alike on stage and screen. Whilst her degree is in neuroscience, Fran has been known to tackle all aspects of science and engineering in her shows, making sure the scientific concepts are accessible to a wide ranging audience.
I always like to show failures on stage because that’s how you learn in science.
On first memories of science
I suppose what you mean about science, cause one of my things is that science isn’t done in labs, isn’t just done in schools, it’s there. Everyone knows science, they might not know the name that you put to that science that’s happening, but everyone knows science.
So my earliest memories of science…I grew up on a farm, I was very hands on, so I suppose its just…it’s the practical parts of it I would say, in terms of fence making, things like that, and I remember this one memory – its not the nicest of memories – but we had to fill our septic tank with certain gravel and it was like, well, why are we doing this? Why do we have to take wheelbarrows of gravel down the field? And I suppose my earliest memories are from that period on the farm so, you know, four to twelve of just…that hands on of how do you make stuff do the stuff that you want it to?
On starting work in science
So I work in science communication and basically the way that…I didn’t know that science communication was a career, I had no idea, and I knew that I loved science and I knew that I hated the way that people overcomplicated certain aspects, cause once you took it away, once you wrote it down, you made a pretty picture out of it, you went, that’s easy. And it was like, why are they making it more complicated than it needs to be?
Now growing up in the north, we’re very honest up north and we call a spade a spade and I’ve never lost that, and in a way it helped me because my honesty put me in situations that perhaps weren’t ideal, in terms of…I would be that person that put my hand up in class when I didn’t get it, but in a way that’s informed me. And so, yeah, I would say in terms of seeing the world as it was and then calling a spade a spade, seeing how things do what they do but then being questioning about it has really informed how I do what I do because I very much break it down and go, well what would I want to know? What would the young Fran want to know?
On creating engaging experiments
So recently I’ve been working a lot with Children’s BBC and in that there’s a series called Absolute Genius where we look at a different genius each week, each episode, and look at their theories that have impacted on the world. Now, one of the geniuses that we recently covered was Turing, so we were trying to come up with a way to explain how computers work. And so the way that I sort of go through this process is to try and boil it down to this one take home message that I want the children to be able to explain to their parents, and explain it in a way that they go, “oh”, it makes so much sense to them that whenever they see that thing happening, they can really cling on to that idea.
So we ummed and ahhed for quite a bit and I sat down and I was like, I want that take home message to be that everything that a computer does is basically down to it making one of two decisions; so on or off, yes, no. And I was like, how can everything a computer does just be down to those two decisions? And I was like, I really want to show this idea, because it’s such an abstract idea, how? Surely as a kid you’d be like, hmm, don’t be silly, so I came up with an idea of making pizza. So the programme I do with the children’s double act Dick and Dom and so I was like, they’re brilliant, children go on the learning journey with them. And so we got the boys into a pizza restaurant and I was like, do you want cheese on your pizza? Yes or no. Do you want ham? Do you want pineapple? So by them just answering yes or no, they made totally different pizzas. And then we showed the array of pizzas you’ve got and if you add more questions into that, just by answering yes or no you have so many options and the way that it just built up. And that was that one idea that I wanted them to take away.
The programme hasn’t gone out yet so we don’t know how people will react to it, so we’ll just see, but I like that concept of being able to go, right, that’s a difficult concept but trying to come up with a way that people will remember and take home with them.
On why experiment failures are OK
The set I did tonight was one that was like, is this possible, so it was a learning for me. And basically what I do is I can light a bowl of butane from a Van de Graaff generator using an earthing globe and then I try and do it with my finger. Now, yes, tonight it worked, but nine times out of ten it doesn’t work with my finger. So I write it into that set as a failure, because I always like to show failures on stage because that’s how you learn in science, it’s either…well, there is no failure in science, it’s how it is, either it matches your predictions or doesn’t. So sometimes when it doesn’t match we call it a failure, its not a failure, it’s how it is.
So when it doesn’t work with me using my finger, that made me think, why? Why would it work with the spark from the earthing globe but not from my finger, and I’ve actually been looking into that because there is no reason! I need to look into it a little bit more as well. So that is learning and what I do love about my demonstrations is it keeps your brain on its toes because, a lot of my demonstrations I’ve never done before and people are like, what will happen and I’m like, I don’t know and so its a case of just going, why did that happen? Just like, the first time I ever did this I was surrounding them [the bottles used in the experiment] with plastic mesh just in case the bottle exploded in my face and I was like, well, I don’t know how big the flame’s going to be so I might as well coat this plastic mesh in fireproof spray. So I coated the plastic mesh in fireproof spray and it didn’t work, the spark was going through the plastic but I was like, plastic is an insulator, why is the spark going through the plastic? That’s not happening, it doesn’t happen. Now when looking at what fireproof spray does, it makes insulators conductive, which spreads the heat out, which means it doesn’t set on fire. So I was like, of course! So that’s why I love doing the demonstrations because you are constantly learning, but practically, and that’s my favourite kind of learning.