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17.3.14

SMtv talks to Nat Geo's Tim Shaw about science, cars and graveyards



Tim Shaw is trying to make science fun in National Geographic's None of the Above. Buhle Mbonambi called him in London with some reveal-all questions

If someone said you can land a helicopter on eggs without them breaking, would you believe them? Or that custard could protect a watch from a hammer's blow? Right now I'm sure you are asking yourself how this is even possible.  It turns out it is, as Tim Shaw explained to me over the phone. 


Tim is the presenter of National Geographic's None of the Above, (Thursdays at 9.55pm), a science show which has Timgoing around the US, conducting experiments on the street that involve science, physics and engineering. Naturally, the interaction with the audience makes the show interesting, especially seeing how dumbfounded the people are when he proves how a Coke bottle can take more air than a bike wheel and a basketball. Or even better, fill an ice bucket with a bottle of bourbon, add in paper money and strike a match. Guess what happens? It burns; but the money is unharmed. For many of us, science wasn't our favourite subject at school. I preferred maths over physics. 


I watched a couple of clips of the show, preparing myself for the interview with Tim and all through my viewing I just shook my head in disbelief. How are some of these experiments even possible?  "It's the wonder of science," Tim said, laughing. The engineer turned award-winning presenter, is waiting for his daughter at a cemetery, he tells me. "Her school is close to a cemetery and it's the quietest place to do this interview, so I'm not being morbid." 

Awkward (and funny) moment over, he explains it's nearly impossible to crack an egg if you hold both ends and press hard. "That's how we do the helicopter experiment. We landed the heli on the eggs and none of them broke. Remember, the egg is a sphere and it's very difficult to break the egg if it's 'upright'.  "The trick is weight distribution. If you distribute the weight of whatever you want to put on top of the eggs, it all needs to be even."
Also, he says, you need a very good pilot who will land the heli on the eggs softly. "You can't crash-land on them. This experiment simply showed just how strong an egg really is."

And how does custard protect a watch from being shattered by a hammer? 
"Oh that's a fun one," he says. 
"It's all about solids and liquids. Once again, it's the wonder of science. 
"With home-made custard, the water goes to the bottom and the powder is basically left on top, essentially becoming a solid. It becomes a barrier that softens the blow." 


Wow, I say. 
"It needs to be pure corn starch though," he says. "In the experiment I used custard powder made out of pure corn starch." 

The coolest experiment, he said, was that you can make ice-cream with a fire extinguisher. "I loved doing that one. You simply need some cream, sugar and a fire extinguisher. Watch the show to see just how easily you can make your own ice-cream, even at work." 
I can't imagine sneaking out at work to make ice-cream, but I totally got what he meant. 
The ideas are part of National Geographic's current campaign to Entertain Your Brain and Tim thinks it's a great thing. 
"It makes science accessible to everyone. It makes it fun. I know many people who found science very tedious at school, but now, especially with my show, they are eternally curious about science.

"The experiments I do could easily be done at schools. I didn't make the show meta. I went as basic as possible so everyone gets just how simple science can really be." 
Not that it's easy for Tim to dumb things down. He is very intelligent. At 12 years or age he was certified as a "creative genius" in problem solving by the British Dyslexia Association. 
He also is one of three people in the UK to have received 100 percent in his A-Levels/GCSE exams. 

"My parents quickly realised then that I would be great as an engineer, so they encouraged me towards the field. I was lucky. 
"For a while I was thought to have learning difficulties, but whenever we had to solve a problem, I'd always find the solution faster than anyone." 
By age 16 he was designing products that are still on sale in UK shops - folding walking aids, fast-flashing break lights that illuminate when cars break heavily and many other creative inventions. 


"I did everything - from designing jewellery and clothes, to taking things apart. I love creating and finding out how things are made. I'm a creative person more than anything and that's what most engineers are. We love making and inventing things. Design is very important to me." 

Growing up in a home without a TV helped nurture his creativity, even though he now finds it ironic that he's doing TV shows. "My father was a doctor, and well, he wanted me to spend more time focusing on engineering. We still don't have a TV at our home. 
"I do wish though that this show would be used by schools to get more people into the sciences." 

Tim is also a car collector. "I have seven cars now and I've spent good money on them, fixing and sprucing them up. Modified cars are awesome and I'm putting my engineering talents to good use." 

Of course. There's an experiment that he does with a car and a vacuum cleaner that will impress petrol heads. "That's why I say people should expect the unexpected with this show." 

His daughter finally walks out of school and before he says goodbye, he asks if I'm really from South Africa. I say yes. "Well, I love your accent. It's really interesting and proper. Beats hearing a Brit accent everyday." And then he hung up.

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