TV show tempts academics with custard and breasts

November 28, 2003

Some 150 scientists volunteered to take part in an anarchic television show that aims to inject student humour into the laboratory with experiments involving breasts, custard and explosives.

Despite the programme being billed as being to science what interior designer "Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen is to Aussie-rules football", the makers of Sky TV's Brainiac: Science Abuse were shocked by the responses from academics eager to defy their geeky image. An appeal to the scientific community netted 150 letters, said Stewart Morris, the show's executive producer.

Suggestions for experiments ranged from using fireworks to propel a person on rollerskates to firing serrated metal discs into animal carcasses. Mr Morris said few of the ideas had been taken up.

The show, fronted by former Big Brother contestant Jon Tickle and Top Gear presenter Richard Hammond, has featured items on making toast with a blowtorch and walking across a swimming pool filled with custard.

Among the academics who contacted the programme-makers was Keith Halsey, a computer scientist at Strathclyde University, who suggested testing how long it would take someone to pass out if they breathed in and out of a paper bag.

Jack Cohen, a biologist at Warwick University whose suggestions were, by his own admission, "too gross even for you lot", said: "Science should be fun: it is important to engage people at all levels."

A Nasa researcher emailed Brainiac 's producers: "I enjoy blowing things up with bottles of liquid nitrogen." An Australian biotechnologist wanted to sit on a perch in a chicken costume with a demolition ball against her nose before it was freed to swing away.

Keith Burch, a mechanical engineer at the UK Astronomy Technology Centre in Edinburgh, volunteered to be catapulted from a sled into a crash mat in an attempt to demonstrate Newton's first law of motion. "The idea of trying to get science across as fun sounded interesting and might undermine the geeky stereotype of scientists and engineers," he said.

Dr Burch was the only academic contacted by The THES who admitted seeing the finished product. But, after five minutes of watching an attempt to show that staring at a woman's breasts for 30 minutes was equivalent to a 20-minute gym workout, he switched channel.

Brainiac: Science Abuse is on Sky One on Thursdays at 8pm.

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