Playing with fire

Dr Bunhead’s Recipes for Disaster at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival

Jennifer Rohn 17 August 2005

Dr Bunhead igniting children's interest in science

When was the last time you witnessed the concept of ‘the null hypothesis’ being explained, successfully, to a five-year-old?

I know this is supposed to be for kids, but I’m surprised to find that my palms are sweating as Tom Pringle, a.k.a. ‘Dr Bunhead’, calmly ignites the column of hydrogen-filled soap bubbles clinging to his bald head like Marge Simpson’s blue hair-do. In fact, I think I look even more scared than the children in the front row, who – giggling, squirming and poking at their siblings – are too young to worry about things like fire codes, safety goggles or litigation.

Tom Pringle is an independent professional science communicator who tours the world scaring the pants off kids’ parents, and has also been seen on the television program Brainiac. Attired in a white coat emblazoned with dozens of hazard warnings and armed with a table covered with gas canisters and potentially lethal household items, he previewed an abbreviated version of his upcoming Edinburgh Fringe show last weekend at the Dynamic Earth Museum.

And the gist of his show was blowing things up.

Dr. Bunhead has a wonderful way with kids. The science behind his manifold explosions is explained in a brisk manner that’s cheerful and simple but never patronizing, and he slips in various innuendoes for the older folk. And some of his patter conceals lofty pedagogical ambitions. A good example of this was a little lesson about the scientific method. When he polled the children as to what might happen when he placed an air-filled balloon into liquid nitrogen, all answers were praised as being plausible: the balloon might explode. It might shatter. One prophetic little girl shyly hypothesized that it might get smaller.

"It’s possible, but I think it’s a silly prediction," Bunhead told her. "Yet…because I think it’s silly, it’s very important that I prove you’re wrong."

Stupendous – when was the last time you witnessed the concept of ‘the null hypothesis’ being explained, successfully, to a five-year-old? Of course, the little girl was right and the balloon duly shrunk; afterwards, a Pringle’s can roared skyward; a hot-water bottle was blasted to bits; and for the terrifying grand finale, Bunhead made chips by firing a potato at two-hundred miles per hour through a tennis racquet. Though the front row had been evacuated, fragments of potatoes still rained over the cheering heads behind.

After the show, the kids all crowded round and Pringle patiently answered questions and let them dabble a bit with the liquid nitrogen. When it was my turn, I asked him how on earth he got his stuff through security at American airports when he was on tour.

"The trick is to make your implements out of household objects and keep them dismantled in your suitcase," he revealed.

Dr. Bunhead’s Recipes for Disaster will be playing from 24-28 August at the Pleasance Grand, Edinburgh, Scotland.