Firing up science

Joyee Chan

Teacher Tom Pringle acts out experiments in a fun, vibrant way

Joyee Chan |

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The on-stage laboratory of Tom Pringle, aka Dr Bunhead, is a science teacher's nightmare: his desks overflow with bottles, he puts flammable foam on his bare palm and sets fire to it, and pours liquid nitrogen into hot water bottles until they explode.

Worry not. Pringle's experiments may have an element of danger, but they are always under control. Last week, he brought his action-packed science stunts to Hong Kong for the first time.

Pringle studied chemistry for 10 years before getting fed up of the solitary life of a researcher, buried in the laboratory. Nor was he satisfied with the limited impact of teaching science.

A chance to demonstrate science theories to primary-school students helped uncover Pringle's talent for the stage, and that's when his career as a science communicator took flight. He became a familiar face on British TV, and appeared at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe with his fire tornados, makeshift rockets and exploding soft-drink cans.

"It's multiplying the effect I [would] have with teaching to a classroom of students. It's much more rewarding," Pringle told Young Post after a rehearsal for his show, Dr Bunhead's Blast Off, at the Academy of Performing Arts.

"It's a very powerful way to get people ... interested. You can't teach much in one hour ... but [the audience] can learn a little - enough to feel clever, get motivated to dig deeper ... and gain a different view of what science is."

Pringle's the person to go to if there's an abstract, complex science problem that you can't grasp. With simple experiments, he makes everything click instantly.

For example, have you ever wondered how a balloon filled with mere hot air is powerful enough to carry two dozen people?

During our interview, Pringle explained. He completely immersed an inflated balloon in a tin of liquid nitrogen with a temperature of minus 200 degrees Celsius. The balloon shrunk and flattened; but when it was removed from the container and came back to room temperature, it bounced back to its original size.

"At low temperatures, molecules move slower and huddle together," he explains. "When warmed, they move faster. With fewer molecules in the same space, hot air weighs less than cold air, and that's what makes it float."

Pringle was never the mischievous child who meddled with chemicals in the kitchen. In fact, his passion for science didn't grow until he met an inspirational chemistry teacher in secondary school that "made it come to life". He recalls how the teacher's clear explanations helped him understand immediately the relationship between pressure and boiling point.

"[My teacher] placed a cup of water at room temperature into a vacuum jar," he says. "When the air was sucked out and the pressure lowered, the water started to boil. I watched cold water boiling just by dropping the pressure. As soon as I saw a demonstration, the concept made sense ... It's hard work to read, but demonstrations make concepts easy and memorable."

Pringle's polished performances are the result of trial and error: burn marks in his kitchen are proof of how things can go wrong at the planning stage, and he's set fire to his hair and scorched his hands before. While he hopes to foster an interest in science, it's clear his stunts are definitely not ones to try at home.