December 7, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Unconventional scientist Fran Scott on whether science demonstration and DIY science are really that different ...


When I met Fran Scott and picked small wooden splinters from her jumper, I could tell she wasn’t your ordinary science communicator. She develops scientific demonstration for various outlets including TV, radio and books. Simply put, she makes big things that go BANG, SPLASH or ZZAPPP!

But these demonstrations don’t just make noises; they have an underlying message to them.

Doing science yourself is something that Fran is passionate about. From a young age, she used to try to replicate demonstrations from science books, but this didn’t always go according to plan: “It would say do this and do that, and you do exactly as it said, and it wouldn’t work,” she explains. “And I took it as ‘I can’t do that’, rather than ‘it’s not working.’”

So now Fran has taken it into her own hands to build new demos, and redesign the old ones so that they work for everyone. I was curious to see if there were any similarities between making things that go bang and designing a scientific experiment.

A scientific experiment follows several steps. First there’s the theory, then the predictions based on that theory. Following this, data sets are collected and analysed before conclusions are made, and finally the results are peer-reviewed and published.

In Fran’s case, she has been designing a Van de Graaff electrostatic generator. The Van de Graaff, with its distinctive metal dome, is a common sight in labs and classrooms. However this is one you can produce with everyday materials that “really require you to understand the science before you can make it work.”

So, theory: check!

Step two is about making predictions: “I look at objects, not what they are intended for, but what they could be used for.” So Fran has to be able to predict which materials would be able to do the job. And she finds most of them in her local supermarket.

The Van de Graaff contains a rubber belt running across two rollers, which need to be different materials. Fran has been working with pencils wrapped in PVC electrical tape for the top roller, and Teflon tape for the bottom roller.

The dome, which accumulates electrical charge, needs to be large, round and metallic, with a hole in the bottom. This could be made from a casserole pot, a stainless steel salad bowl, or a football wrapped in aluminium foil with a bit cut away from the bottom.

Predictions: check!

Next is assembly and testing, which comes with all the frustrations of a scientific experiment: “Nine times out of ten, they don’t work,” Fran says. “Or they do, but something else has gone wrong.”

Data collection: check!

Once Fran has finalised her demonstrations, she ‘publishes’ them by demonstrating them to an audience. This could be compared to peer review: if the audience likes it, great! If not, it’s back to the drawing board.

Publication: check!

These demonstrations may not be designed to discover new science, or create new technologies only available to the trained scientists. However they do allow anyone near a supermarket to have a go at some DIY science.