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Jonny Berliner


By day, Jonny Berliner is a physics teacher but he is also an acclaimed songwriter and performer.  Jonny’s music generally focuses on conveying complex scientific ideas and theories via simple explanatory song.

I think kids need to discover things for themselves and realise that science, in many ways, is play. 

On first memories of science

I guess it’s probably first learning science in school, maybe a bit of Christmas lectures on the TV at Christmas, but it’s something that’s always interested me.  My life is, I guess, in a way, devoted to science, because the more I learn about it the more questions I have and the more engaged I am, the more I want to know, so it’s one of those things, I guess…it’s like a bug.  Once you’ve got it, it’s addictive and you can’t get rid of it.  I don’t really have a specific area of science.  My passion, and my degree, was in the history and philosophy of science, but really I just take an interest in all science, in an unbiased way.  On a daily basis I’m a physics teacher and also do songs about science generally. 

I don’t think there’s any one person that inspires me to be involved and to study science, I think, actually, every scientist I’ve ever learnt about inspires me because they’ve come up with something new and they’ve contributed something to the world and that in itself is inspiring.

On getting kids to connect with science

One of the things I’ve been doing at school is introducing kids to the idea of gardening and the science of growing and they really love it because it’s so hands on and you can see the science at work and, you know, every week they come back and it’s grown a little bit more and they want to know why.  So it really opens it up to, ah, them having an explanation that I can give.  And then they like me.

I think the way that we can get more people into engineering and physics and science generally is by really raising the profile of science as something that is fun, something that is interesting.  So often the scientists are sort of considered the geeks, the not cool ones, but gradually we’re changing that and science is becoming a bit more cool, kids are being inspired by it, and that’s great.  I think the more that we can do to do sort of project-based stuff in schools, where kids are finding stuff out for themselves…and I think there’s room for kids to be able to do their own research and find out new things, to be the scientists, then why would they be scared of being scientists in the future?  They’d…it’s something they’d relish.

One of the most fun things, actually, I do with the kids, which I get good feedback from, is taking science songs into the classroom.  They find it’s a really good way to learn because it helps them remember all the really long words, all the hard things, and it puts the theories into order for them and it makes it much easier.  So it’s really fun engaging kids with science and music simultaneously.

Now, the Brian Cox effect.  I think this needs to be studied scientifically because I’m not entirely sure it exists.  Science is becoming more cool and it might be to do with Brian Cox but I suspect it’s to do with the fact that the internet makes everything, all knowledge, so much more easily accessible.  And science is interesting!  So if it’s easy to come across something new and something interesting you’ll find it and you’ll do it, so there’s more people that are involved in science because it’s easier to be involved in science.  Although I’m sure Brian’s done no harm!

On teaching the scientific method

The way to give children the idea, the scientific method, to get them to understand it, unfortunately is not to just describe what the scientific method is and to tell them because I think they get that a lot and I think it’s kind of a boring way to put it.  The way, I think…it needs to be done through action and I think kids need to discover things for themselves and realise that science, in many ways, is play.  When you play, you’re taking an object and you see what’s possible with it and you might play with it in one way and it’s not very interesting so you don’t play with it in that way again and so you find a new thing to do with it and that’s essentially what science is.  You take an idea and you play with it and you see what’s possible and you throw away the bad stuff and you keep the good stuff and I think science has to be play for them, and it has to be hands on and they have to do it for themselves.  So, I get the feeling that if schools could engage more in projects rather than fulfilling a curriculum, I feel like it would give kids a better feel for science, but it might not help them pass exams.

I’m trying to just, sort of, get my ideas in subtly a little bit at a time but, you know, there’s a lot of teachers out there who’ve been teaching for a very long time and they’ve done project-based stuff before and they didn’t think it worked, so they’ve gone back to this, and they think they’ve…so it’s difficult to change people’s minds because the people whose minds you’ve got to change have been doing it for years and years and years and they think they know what’s best.  And maybe they do, but you’ve got to keep trying, you’ve got to keep changing and keep innovating.

[At home] I think it probably depends on the parent.  I think in some areas, and with some types of parents, they’ll want the league tables, they’ll want to know that their kids are in the top 10% of the country and all that and hitting their grades.  Some parents take a sort of more relaxed view and then they don’t put so much faith in statistics like that and they do want their child to just genuinely be fulfilled in the classroom which is quite nice, but it’s kind of rare as well, I think.

On Richard Feynman

What made Richard Feynman so special as a science communicator is his lack of pretention: he doesn’t need to prove he’s smarter than you.  He puts it in ways that everyone can understand, but he doesn’t dumb it down.  He also finds the most visual ways of describing everything.  For instance, I was trying to get my head round electromagnetism, so I read some Feynman and the first thing he was saying, it’s quite amazing, everything in nature, everything that is negatively charged is so balanced with everything that is positively charged and if we just took the electrons in someone and made them more than the protons by one percent, and did the same with someone else, if they stood next to each other the force of repulsion generated would be enough to lift the Empire State Building, and that just blew me away.  But it just gives you such a good feel for charge on an electron.

On current physics

The most important thing about being curious is that it widens your world view and it stops you being stuck in your own ignorance.  For me, the most exciting work that’s being done in physics at the moment is, well, there’s a lot.  The stuff going on at the LHC is just fascinating.  I’d love them to be able to shed some light on dark matter because we’re all confused about what that is.  But some of the stuff going on with electromagnetism at the moment is pretty weird, where the cloaking devices that they’ve got…they’re making that sort of Harry Potter invisibility cloak possible, and that just blows me away.

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