Tom Pringle (AKA Dr Bunhead) has been a globe-trotting, freelance science communicator for over 20 years and is internationally renowned as a pioneer of performance-science shows and immersive training programmes. He has performed on TV (Brainiac, Blue Peter etc.) and in theatres and schools across 30 countries. He has trained thousands of people (including scientists, students, teachers, technicians & science presenters) in many languages and cultures, across all six inhabited continents. Occasionally, he writes for press, educational journals and books. Tom embraces science, education, physical theatre, dance, puppetry and applied improvisation to deliver innovative and impactful science communication and CPD for school teachers and academics.
Can you describe something that has recently amazed you? How did it make you feel?
It takes a lot to amaze me. One of the problems of getting older is that familiarity and tiredness cloud the eager eyes of our former youth. Amazement is also over used. Modern language inflation means that an ‘interesting’ event is now ‘awesome’, leaving true awe nowhere to go in our vocabulary. But something did amaze me seven years ago that still inspires me today.
How would you personally define wonder, awe and curiosity? And how do they relate to each other?
These three all feel like flavours of joy to me. A cognitive joy that spreads into our body, so connecting our mind with our senses and feelings. In that way they all seem to be a holistic appreciation of our outer world through our inner self.
For me curiosity is the desire to know and the joy of finding out. Curiosity is a joyful drive to understand this magnificent and crazy universe we find ourselves inhabiting.
Wonder is wonderful. It is a deeper appreciation teetering on the verge of cognition where feeling exceeds thinking.
Awe is awesome – in the proper sense of the word. It is beyond our reasoning or comprehension. It is pure experience. Our breath stops still, thought ceases, there is just being. In this stillness we appreciate the incomprehensible, magnificence of nature. We know that every atom of our own existence and everything we see around us were all born from the same stars. Perhaps awe is the feeling of unity that our collective atoms feel when they witness their family assembled in other forms. But that’s not scientific.
Where do you think our sense of wonder comes from and what can we do to cultivate it?
Since our current scientific understanding fails to provide a satisfactory answer to that question I’m left with ‘I don’t know’. Otherwise I must admit to my deeper personal beliefs, which would disqualify me as a scientist.
I don’t believe wonder is cultivated. I believe we’re born with it. Many of us lose it as we age. Is it due to living longer or the way we live? Could we blame factory-line education, fast-paced junky-style social-media interactions, modern living, fractured social networks, disconnection from nature? This is not my area of expertise but I notice that when I take time to walk in the hills, to swim in the sea, to watch the clouds pass by, to stop and just look at an insect going about its business, to appreciate that which is around me, then I feel wonder return to me. I usually sigh and something inside feels calmer, more content and meaningful. I notice more detail and what I notice fills me with greater joy. So, taking time to be amongst that which naturally takes its own time, which has its own reliable rhythms, that makes me feel more wonder. What does it for the next person is for them to discover.
Why should awe & wonder feature in classrooms?
They cannot be featured like some off-the-shelf product. They happen spontaneously, outside of our control. They can be encouraged but never forced. The best we can do is respect them when they occur and do all we can to nurture them. Helping children find ways to express their awe and wonder is a key component of pupil-led research activities I explore in classrooms.
What’s your favourite experiment/demonstration?
A class of 10-year old pupils were lent a magnet each. For homework they had to create a trick, invention or game with their magnet. Next morning one girl assembled her classmates in a circle on the floor. She took a hair grip from her hair and said “I wanted to see if my Kirby grip (hair grip) was magnetic“. She showed that it was by dangling it from the magnet. “Then I wondered how many Kirby grips it could pick up“. A clump of 9 hair grips dangled from the magnet. She then pulled them from the magnet and laid them in a pile. So far so ordinary. “Then I noticed this” she said and picked up one hair grip. As she did three more stuck to it. The whole class gasped and fell silent for a heartbeat. The wonder in the room was palpable. Then the curiosity kicked in. How had the magnetism ‘moved’ from the magnet to the hair grip. For me something so totally obvious and everyday had become a wonderful and curiosity-creating mystery through the fresh eyes of the children. I was amazed at the excitement in the room and how electrified with wonder I felt. The children were soon fizzing with ideas and observations of how “the magnet leaked into the hair grip” as one boy put it. I learnt so much in that moment about so many areas of education that fascinate me and the relationship between curiosity and wonder. This happened seven years ago and still inspires me today (that answers question 1. for you!)
You’ve made a career out of blowing stuff up and creating fireballs. How do you harness the immediate hook of an explosion and make it more than an entertaining few seconds of pyrotechnics?
These big hooks and others like them are ‘Wow moments’. The press and media find fireballs the catchiest way to hook readers’ attention and they get people to my shows. So I become known for these things. However, I employ many different types of Wow besides the pyrotechnic variety. When I create a wow I know I have people’s attention. It’s what you do with this attention that really matters. When the Wow bubble pops there is a space where ‘Whys’ and ‘Hows’ naturally follow. Rightly played, Wow leads to Why. In this Why state pupils experience the ‘vacuum of ignorance’: they know they don’t know, they know that you do know (usually) and they want you to fill that gap. They are primed for learning. How I take it from there depends on their level and my repertoire of teaching techniques. The key point is that now they’re pulling the learning out of me rather than me trying to shovel it in. One way or another I try to lead them to that wonderful, curiosity-rewarding penny-drop Aha! moment – the most potent force in developing confident and successful learners. This is the Wow! Why? Aha! trajectory – just one of many ways that wonder can enliven learning.
Recently you took a year out to go back to school and attend a physical theatre course. What has that added to your work and has it changed some of your thinking?
This course was really tough for me. It challenged every belief I had about how to engage an audience. It forced me to create work through my body instead of my mind. I was really bad at it for a very long time. I produced a lot of embarrassingly awful work. I had not felt so incompetent since my music teacher told me I would never be musical and placed me into the musical dunce group. It reminded me of the importance of being a constant learner and the value of being a bit rubbish at things. To repeatedly fail until we make a breakthrough (favourable failure). This has been invaluable in the way I connect with struggling learners.
I have always avoided collaborative work but this course also forced to devise theatre pieces with a team of people I disagreed with most of the time. From this course I learnt to love the sound of my own voice a bit less and appreciate the value of others a lot more. Most of all it has enlarged the range of techniques I have for connecting the mind to the body and senses. It has radically shifted the way I ‘theatricalise’ science communication.
Tell me some of the opportunities and challenges of commercialising science communication? I’m thinking along the lines of high production theatre shows, large scale exhibitions like The Big Bang fairs and TV shows like Braniac.
You ask a lot of questions. This one deserves its own chapter. So here’s a summary of the pros and cons through the lens of my own experiences.
In a nutshell the big money provided me with big opportunities. Bigger audiences, bigger demonstrations, greater production values. However, money means power. The power is in the hands of the money men. But the creativity is in the hands of the artist. The more I engaged the money the more the money dictated the creative direction of my work. I eventually moved away from this model because I couldn’t create what I wanted without proving it would make enough money. I’m an educator not an entrepreneur. The clash in values became too much for me.
By way of some concrete examples, I performed my first theatre shows around 1996-97. By 2003, I had my first UK theatre tour of live science shows. The same year I started filming Brainiac: Science Abuse. I was seriously concerned that it was a step too far towards entertainment and would tarnish my reputation as a science communicator. However, when I started receiving emails from teachers telling me how much disenfranchised pupils had been so inspired by Brainiac that they now loved science I appreciated the value of this format. Six series later I am still delighted and honoured to have been a part of that fantastic team of creative, playful and anarchic individuals. They did something new with science communication and I love it. That’s what big money can do.
By 2004 I was picked up by a theatre production company and my show was soon performing in London’s West End. I believe this was the first West End theatre show in the live science ‘edutainment’* format. I’m really proud of this. I thank the big commercial company for this opportunity and the big tours that followed. However, I have now returned to smaller scale events where my focus can return to novel approaches to engaging audiences with science. Once again, I can do what I want, how I want. However, it’s only on the small scale that my finances can support and reaches equally small audiences. In my experience high production shows usually sacrifice size over substance. But there is plenty of room for them to buck that trend. Fundamentally, I believe in quality over quantity whereas commercial ventures tend to favour looking like quality whilst ensuring quantity.
*I dislike the term edutainment, but I don’t have a better one.
What is the future of science communication?
Wider incorporation of the arts. The arts have mastered the techniques of creating wonder, curiosity, awe and the whole palette of human experience in a predictable manner. This is where the laboratory of human expression is put to test. Science communication has been all about the science and largely driven by scientists and latterly science communicators. Wider collaboration with artists is a step forward. The greater step would be the training science communicators in artistic expression. A great place to begin, I believe, would be wider teaching of applied improvisation skills. But there is so much more that could be done in this direction.
Why is meditation so important for you? How does it look in your life? And do you see any conflict between the science part of your life and what some would say is “eastern mysticism”?
I feel fresher, calmer and more content after I meditate. I do it every day, twice a day. I would say that meditation connects my still, silent inner self with the bubbling noisy outer world and allows them to co-exist. Scientifically I would say I was talking piffle. I find meditation enlivens my curiosity, wonder and ability to experience awe. Scientifically I would say “Prove it or shut up”.
So, yes, there is a conflict between my meditation life and my science life. Science has a habit of dictating what is accepted as known until it changes its mind based on compelling new evidence. I don’t know if science will change its mind about the nature of consciousness and the limits of the human physiology to fit my experiences. In the meantime, I just shut up and get on with my meditation each day and then do science feeling a little happier about it.
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