Health and Unsafety

Over the last couple of days the following video has been doing the rounds amongst fellow science presenters. Thanks to Matthew tosh and Paul McCrory for pointing it out. It has received quite a lot of press in the UK’s media too. As Paul says, “you may prefer to watch this through your fingers.”

The original video is no longer available so I have retained a copy of it. The description of the original video said, “The Australian presenter Natarsha Belling almost fell victim to a risky experiment carried out live. During the broadcast of the Studio 10 program on Thursday morning, the woman attended the scientist Jacob Strickling, who mixed Coca-Cola with liquid nitrogen, according to Yahoo7 Be[sic]. A third participant of the program was observing the experiment remotely.

In the video you can see how Natarsha holds the soda bottle while the scientist pours the nitrogen into it. At that time, the presenter looks a little confused and not knowing clearly what to do with the bottle. Suddenly, the woman drops the container, and it goes off in the direction of his head. Natarsha manages to avoid the impact of the bottle, whose strength and consequences could be deduced when seeing how the branch of a tree breaks.

Despite how dangerous the experiment was, Jacob Strickling assured viewers that it is “safe,” [translated from Spanish]

As a lesson in how to be responsible, this is about as bad as it gets. There appears to be a total disregard for the materials being used; the competence of the volunteers and safety of everyone in the vicinity. He delights in the risks he creates; caught up in his own excitement.

Now I’m the first to admit that things do go wrong on stage and demos can go bad. I’ve personally experienced incidents on stage, including this explosion at the end of a Science Showoff in London. But at every stage, everything is under control. This incident, a result of malfunctioning equipment, happened in the safest place, with access to appropriate equipment and with warnings. Sure I could have been more vigilant and I learned from that. There are even times when I have deliberately designed and rehearsed aspects of a set so that they appear chaotic and dangerous. For instance, at one event, I made a play of using a child as a human shield in a hydrogen balloon ignition. At no point was there a potential hazard that was not managed to remove the risk of something bad happening.

And this is my point: Accidents happen and you can be prepared for them; danger can be staged and managed, but to deliberately and repeatedly place people at risk is utterly unacceptable. 

But it goes beyond this. Now most people will not have access to liquid nitrogen at home and are unlikely to try to recreate it, but what sort of message does this send out about the approach of science performers. Are we all as reckless as Jacob Strickling? Are we trying to communicate a message that placing yourself in danger of serious injury is a legitimate aspect of modern science and to be treated with nonchalance? This kind of behaviour brings science communication into disrepute.

So why did he do it? Call me a cynic, but is it because he has just launched his second book aimed at encouraging children aged 8 to 15 to carry out science experiments. I’d suggest caution to all parents out there before you ‘get Christmas sorted’. Thankfully, it’s unavailable at a popular online retailer.