Dr. Marty Jopson is an accomplished scientist. Although he has a PhD in plant cell biology and a Natural Sciences (Botany) degree from Cambridge university, he is comfortable explaining the whole gamut of scientific subjects. He has been involved in making science television programmes for over twenty years. In that time he has worked extensively behind the camera but also in front as the long standing (8 years +) science presenter on the BBC1 flagship programme, The One Show. When not on television, Marty performs his distinct brand of much acclaimed, hair-raising and flammable science on stage at science festivals around the country. He is the author of two popular books on “The Science of Everyday Life” and “The Science of Food”.
Describe something that has recently amazed you and how it made you feel.
While on holiday this Summer, I visited the church of Sainte Chapelle in the heart of Paris. Every wall of the church is covered with gloriously colourful medieval stained glass windows. It is one of the most amazing spectacles and a wonderful example of how creativity mixed with science and technology can create something truly astonishing.
How would you personally define wonder, awe and curiosity? And how do they relate to each other?
It’s the desire to see more than the surface detail. Then once you scratch the surface and go deeper you are confronted with what is often deeply counterintuitive science and that is where the wonder and awe begins.
What inspires you to be creative?
Other people being inspired. Which is why going to science festivals, meeting the public and seeing them responding to my own and other performers work gives me a huge creative boost.
Do you have any ‘rituals’ or an environment that aids your creativity?
Not really, but I know I work best against a deadline. If I am at home, the couple of hours before my family return from work and school are when I get my best creative work done.
What do you love about magic?
Personally it’s a puzzle for me. You see a trick and start applying a logical heuristic to try and work out how it was done. So, I guess I get the same pleasure I do from watching a trick as I do from solving a sudoku.
What do you think hinders an audience from experiencing wonder when watching a magician?
You loose the sense of wonder when you are distracted from the immersion in the narrative of the performance. It’s the same with any performance, be it a play, a film, a science show or a magic trick. The performer creates a story, you immerse yourself in that narrative and forget the world around you – the wonder is broken when the person next to you starts rustling a crisp packet or your phone buzzes and demands your attention.
Where do you think our sense of wonder comes from and what can we do to cultivate it?
I’m not really sure about this one, but I guess wonder comes from our ability to be taken away from the mundane world and go into a different narrative. So, to cultivate that we need to practice accepting narratives and ignoring distractions.
Tell me more about your career and how you ended up presenting for BBC1?
I spent 10 years making TV programmes behind the camera. I worked as everything from researcher, to director, cameraman, editor and ended up managing a production company. All the while I continued performing science on stage and in 2006 I went freelance and focussed on the performance, including some TV series I had developed with myself as presenter. Then in 2007 the One Show started and I was asked to be one of the reporters and I have continued ever since.
As part of the films you make you often get behind the scenes access to some awe inspiring structures and projects (eg. Crossrail). What have been some of your favourite places to visit?
Over the years I have become a bit of a bridge nerd. They are amazing structures where the engineering and artistic design are both made visible for all to see in a way that other structures just don’t do. We made 5 films on the new Forth Crossing up near Edinburgh and I still think this is the most glorious structure I have ever visited, climbed up, walked over and been inside. My family won’t let me talk about it anymore – I have bored them all with it!
And do the workers/engineers/scientists there still feel a sense of awe or have they become immune to it from regular exposure?
Regular exposure as you suggest does inure you to the spectacle. But what I do know is that engineers take enormous pride in the finished product. Being able to sit back, when it is all finished and tidied up, and say “I did that” is something they definitely do. But they won’t admit it. It is a deeply practical and pragmatic career and most engineers I have met are very modest and focussed on the day to day practicalities.
What are the biggest challenges of conveying wonder through a camera lens?
Probably the biggest challenge is that the audience for a television programme can walk away whenever they want. They have little to no up-front investment in watching unless you can make them want to. So, you need to ensure that what they see is completely engaging and the story you tell hooks them in and makes them want to stay with you. Sometime the subject matter we film for the One Show can be a bit technical, so the hard bit for me is making sure I let the audience see why this is really cool and exciting – even if it seems a bit dry and crusty at first look.
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