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“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” – Neil Armstrong (1930-2012)

Fresh Reads from the Science 'o sphere!

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Exclusive Interview With Dr. Bunhead

Just visited the X-periment! 2009 venue this afternoon and it was a blast!

I caught Dr. Bunhead's 2:30pm performance and managed to grab a hold of him after the show for some totally impertinent questions.

The sort of questions YOU would ask him!

But first, a quick overview of the whole exhibition:

Compared to last year's event, this time round there are even more activities for audience participation at the booths.

Here are some visitors assembling electronic parts...

... learning about instant snow...

... learning how to constructing model molecules...

... making model molecules with lots of soapy films (which seems to be a hit among the kids) ...

... creating rainbow-coloured layers of sugary stuff...

... or playing a virtual version of "Human Tetris".

And it's not just the kids who are curious about the exhibits!

Our old friend the non-Newtonian fluid is back, this time as a glob of green-dyed cornstarch on top of a subwoofer speaker.

If you set the conditions right it can appear like a disgusting clump of teeming worms, but this glob here doesn't look that wormy.

Not sure if that is a good or bad thing.

In addition to the booths from various research institutes, this year there are booths set up by other organizations as well.

One of them is the Science Centre, which brought over some of their exhibits. Here, a girl and her mother play with a device that creates moving pictures.

A volunteer amuses a couple of visitors with a set of classic visual illusions.

The Singapore General Hospital has set up a booth too. This young lady is practicing laparoscopic surgery using a surgical trainer.

Oh NOES! Which hapless furry animal is at the sharp end of her merciless tools?

Whew... she is only trying to manipulate a furry wire through a series of metal loops.

She might have a future in suture!

And now - time for Dr. Bunhead's show!

He actually has a different show for a different timeslot, and some members of the audience have followed all of them.

"How many of you have seen four of my shows?"

A number of hands went up.

For this show, Dr. Bunhead introduces the audience to... LIQUID NITROGEN!

Uri Abusikov would have been proud.

Очень хорошо!

"Its temperature is -196 degrees, which is so cold that it's hard to imagine how cold it is. Does anyone want to touch it?"

Any brave volunteers?

When the cup of liquid nitrogen is lightly touched, it boils at a faster rate.

"Let me put it nearer my microphone so that you can hear it."

*fizz... pop pop... fizz...*

When you blow carefully into a container of liquid nitrogen, the water vapour in the breath condenses into a mist of water droplets.

"Look, her face is in a cloud!"

Next, Dr. Bunhead blows a long orange balloon and asks: "What would happen if I dip this into liquid nitrogen?"

Kids: "I KNOW! I KNOW!"

Will it become hard? Will it explode?

Let's see...

*squeek squeek*

Hmm, it didn't explode.

Let's squeeze it in there for a little while longer.

*squeek squeek SQUEEK!*

Oh my... it shrank!

Whoa, it's starting to expand again...

Next, what would happen if we put this piece of cut rubber tubing into liquid nitrogen?

It becomes hard enough to drive into a plank of wood!


"It looks hard now, but it's not a good idea to make nails out of rubber. Unless you can keep the entire room in a very cold environment."

Which means that you CAN make nails out of rubber... on Pluto.

NASA never tried this!

Ho ho, is that a banana?

Dr. Bunhead actually gave the banana a name, but I forgot what it is so I'll call it "Mr. Banana".

I think I can see what's coming...

"I need a volunteer to check if Mr. Banana is firm and muscular."

"Mr. Banana is a very grumpy banana. You must approach him carefully, like you would approach a tiger."

Slowly... slowly...


Rabid banana on the attack!

"And now it's time for Mr. Banana to go bungee jumping into the container of liquid nitrogen!"

"Are you ready Mr. Banana?"


Sounds painful.

Mr. Banana is now hard enough to drive a metal nail into wood.


Oh NO! Mr. Banana's head has fallen off!

Dr. Bunhead picks it up with a pair of tongs.

When liquid nitrogen turns into gas, it expands about 700 times in volume.

"This bottle contains about 100 ml of liquid, which will expand into 70,000 ml or 70 litres of gas, which is a much bigger volume. Normally this is difficult to see, but we can see this by attaching a balloon to the bottle."

The balloon starts to fill up...

... getting bigger...

"Maybe I should stand over here instead..."


"Did that balloon pop scare anyone? Good, because I am going to try something bigger!"

"How many lumps should we put inside this bottle?"

Strange that Dr. Bunhead says "lumps" instead of "cups".

"... and one more lump - just to scare me."


"Hey, the balloon is not expanding. What's going on?"

The kids in the audience are all pointing to the liquid nitrogen container.


"Will it work if I take the bottle out?"

Wow it is really expanding!

In fact it's expanding a bit too quickly.

"Should I be holding this?"

Kids: "NO! NO!"

"All right then. Do you want to hold it for me?"

Kids: "NO!!! AHHH!"

Children retreat anxiously as Dr. Bunhead scouts unsuccessfully for a volunteer.

Maybe cooling it in this pail of water will slow the expansion...

"YIKES! It's expanding even more quickly! What should I do? What should I do?"




"And now for the finale I will attempt to make the biggest cloud in the shopping mall!"


"Thank you everyone!"

With that, the show is over and it's time for the kids and their parents to pose with Dr. Bunhead for photos.

And time for me to ask Dr. Bunhead some questions!

Here goes:

1. Can you tell us a bit about your experience as a grad student?

Dr. Bunhead: "I applied to work with someone whose research I really liked, but he had no money. So I had to go to another supervisor, but I hated the project. We were fighting right from the beginning. The research work was repetitive and very precise, such that a small mistake could ruin three months of work. I found it very boring, very tough and very lonely."

2. How did you first get the idea to perform as a stunt scientist?

"During my PhD I was invited by a friend to do a chemistry show at a local school. It was just to help him out really, but they liked it and the school headmaster invited me back. Gradually, I did more and more shows, and less and less research. At first I was doing the shows for free. Then one day I met someone who was explaining some difficult physics concepts to an audience. I was impressed by his explanation. He gave me his namecard - 'Adam Selinger, Science Communicator'. Up till that time I had no idea that such a career existed; I was 30 years old and didn't know what to do. That was my Eureka moment."

3. Of the other Brainiac presenters, who do you like the most - Richard Hammond, Jon Tickle or Vic Reeves?

"Richard Hammond is my favourite. I think that Brainiac is most suited to him. He enjoys doing it and brings a cheeky enthusiasm to the show. I try to learn from him; when he speaks, his delivery is compelling, like David Attenborough. I feel that they are two of the most compelling science presenters in the UK."

4. How does the Brainiac production team manage to find so many sexy women for the show?

"I'd like to know that myself, actually *laughs*. And why they always get assigned to Jon Tickle. I am more handsome than he is!"

5. On the Brainiac show you are always unsuccessful when you try to use science to get a date. Were the women on the set really unimpressed or did you manage to work your charms on some of them?

"Actually, in real life about half the women responded positively. I was shown to be unsuccessful to make the comedy work. When we were making 'Pub Science with Dr. Bunhead', there was this lady who said that, yeah, she would go on a date with me after the show. But the production team wanted her to say no, and she protested 'why should I say no?'. In fact, this incident later became the inspiration for the "Dr. Bunhead on the Pull" segment. So, it does work in real life. I mean, how many men will walk up to you with a fire tornado?"

So there you have it. All your questions about the big mysteries that beset mankind, answered right here on Fresh Brainz.

OK, that's not really true, but you can still send your other questions about the Universe by tweeting them to @ProfWhy.

Don't miss your chance to win an Apple 16GB iPod Touch!

Would you like to know more?

Last year's event: X-periment! 2008

Other fun science shows:
- Kids Science Fest!
- Science in the Gardens