Marcus Weber is the founder of “Physikanten & Co.”, a team of scientists, actors and presenters. They have already enthralled more than one million spectators with their spectacular and funny science shows. They perform at company events, conferences and schools in Germany, Europe, in the middle and the far east. Physicist Marcus Weber and his team have created many scientific programmes for TV. The impact of the Physikanten’s activities is regularly acknowledged; they were awarded a medal for scientific journalism, presented by the Deutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft and won – three times already – the best demo competition of the British Interactive Group.
Can you describe something that has recently amazed you? How did it make you feel?
In recent years I have been amazed by the beauty of vortex rings in any sizes and forms. I rarely go swimming without making vortex ring bubbles under water. It’s really easy. Lie on the floor of the pool, look upwards and breathe out a sudden “puh”. With a little bit of practise you will manage to make a closed ring of air that majestically travels upwards.
Last week I bought an electric cigarette (and a bottle of the non-toxic basic liquid) because I urgently need to learn to produce smoke rings.
Where do you think our sense of wonder comes from and what can we do to cultivate it?
I think it has a lot to do with our willingness to see wonders. If you gave a group of people the task to walk around and find wonders, the participants would find one or even many. The shape of a leaf, a bird singing, the way the sunlight makes shadows and so on. However, the more experiences you have the more you can be amazed, I reckon. For instance, I consider a wonder that Paul Dirac postulated the existence of antimatter and that it was found thereafter. He just put together two basic equations and interpreted the result. Marvellous!
The same probably holds for music and arts. The more music you have listened to, the deeper is your understanding of the rhythms, the melodies, the harmonics.
Can you give me a brief sketch of your career? How did Physikanten & co come about?
As a student I did all sorts of shows as a juggler. Street shows, wedding parties etc. I really liked to entertain people with my tricks. When my time at university ended, I got the idea to bring scientific experiments and my stage experience together. Together with a friend of mine we founded the “Physikanten”. We got help to write a business plan and won two start up competitions, which helped us to invest in our equipment. Apparently we have found a market gap and ever since the Physikanten have been delivering shows to more than one million people at schools, public events and conferences.
What’s quite unique about what you do is that you work with adult groups rather than a typical science communicators audience of children and families. Was that a conscious decision?
It is true that there is a majority of adult audiences we perform for. However, we also do loads of shows for children and family audiences. It is probably quite unique that we do many shows for corporate events. That helps us to offer our shows for lower prices to schools and at STEM events.
It was a conscious decision to make our show look and feel ‘classy’. We put some effort into making the props look nice and we don’t use simple tables provided by our customers. We rather bring our own smart stage trollies. Apart from that we make use of sounds and light to make the show look professional.
How do the adult audiences react? Is there a childlike wonder? What would you like your audience to walk away thinking and feeling?
In our shows it is probably the most important bit to provoke wonders. In an educational context like school shows it is essential to really impress the pupils rather than teach equations. I see our mission to improve the attitude towards science and to enable the audience to make long lasting experiences. If they understand and keep the scientific background in mind, that’s even better, but not our first aim that we would put in front of all others.
How close is your work to a magic show?
Not really close as far as the content is concerned. We sometimes use little magic tricks like the red glowing thumb or a wrist twisting routine but we only use them as gags for a laughter. I find it very important to make it evident that those tricks were only tricks rather than scientific demos.
In other respects we use loads of techniques that magic shows use, too. We use sound and light effects, we try to use jokes, we make use of volunteers etc.
Could you describe a ‘typical’ show?
A typical show is delivered by two characters: An entertainer and a professor. The entertainer does a little warm up routine where he or she spins a full champagne glass on a tray that hangs on four strings. Then the professor is introduced and they present their first demo. Often that is our laser bass. A beam from a laser pointer throws its light on a solar cell which is connected to a guitar amplifier. The laser beam, however, is interrupted by a rubber band. When pulling the rubber band a tone can be heard on the amplifier. The two presenters then play a musical piece on the laser bass, accompanied by playback music. After this relatively noisy start there is usually a very positive mood in the audience and we carry on presenting a couple of more or less well known, but usually large demos like a fire tornado, an imploding oil barrel, large vortex rings, a human electric chain and liquid nitrogen demos.
The explanations are scripted. It turned out that the combination of entertainer and professor, although using stereotypical roles, works really well to explain the science behind it. The Prof does proper science while the entertainer connects what he/she is saying to the audience’s world.
What are the practicalities of touring a large science show like yours?
There are so many things to consider: writing bids, advising the customers, setting up contracts, booking of freelancers (presenters and technicians), making all the necessary arrangements (helpers, catering, hotel, stage, electricity, sound, light), eventually rent a van, write the demo orders, check the demos, load the van, and finally do the show.
Luckily there is a great team in our office that has become very experienced in managing our shows.
Most science shows have a small budget, present small demonstrations and have low production values (lighting, set, backstage team etc.?) Do you think as a profession, science communicators need to be more professional?
It depends very much on what you want. The shows that we offer ourselves are too expensive for small schools, as the effort that we are carrying out is too large. However, we offer, in collaboration with two freelancers, inexpensive shows for primary schools, too. These shows travel with a very compact set of demos, very much like classic school shows in Britain, I guess. I suppose that you can’t really deliver a high class science show with large demos and sophisticated sound & light to smaller school audiences and still be economically successful at the same time.
Where does your inspirations come from?
I try to keep my eyes open. I must admit that a lot of inspiration comes from the internet. A great source of ideas is, of course, the exchange within my team and among colleagues. Especially fruitful is the British Interactive Group and there BIG Event once a year where all sorts of science show people meet. Ideas are shown, discussed, developed and celebrated.
Something that helps a lot to develop new ideas is silence. Taking a walk on my own with nothing special to think about sometimes sends me new ideas. Or when I wake up in the middle of the night and can’t fall asleep again I sometimes start thinking about new demos or variations of classic ones.
What’s your dream for the future?
To be happy!
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