Video

Too Hot to Handle: The Science of Fire Breathing

Fire breathing is not a hobby I’ve ever attempted to take up and that’s probably for the best – both for my own wellbeing and for that of those around me. However, I did recently have the pleasure of meeting Tim Cockerill – someone who has taken this up as a hobby and luckily is rather good at it. Actually, he’s ‘Doctor’ Tim Cockerill, because he’s also an entomologist, that’s correct, a fire breathing entomologist!

Anyway, we decided to make a short and simple film exploring the science behind his act, also known as the ‘human volcano’ – essentially a film that would look at the process of combustion and how this relates to the methodology of fire breathing.

We also made good use of our GoPro and strapped it to his head to get some awesome point of view fire breathing shots – you can see these in full below:

There was a bit of a struggle in deciding how to explain burning, we wanted to avoid the use of the ‘fire triangle’ – (often taught at school) because we didn’t want to make something resembling a dry educational film, but at the same time we didn’t want to get too bogged down in the chemistry of oxygen and how this relates to its reactivity.

In the end we settled for explaining what ‘burning’ really means – I think the word often leads us away from understanding / remembering what it means to burn something. Essentially it’s just the name we give to the chemical reaction between oxygen and a fuel, a reaction occurs and new products are formed (and energy is given off in the form of light and heat). In this case the fuel Tim is using is a hydrocarbon which he reacts with the oxygen in the air to form carbon dioxide and water (and the fire ball!)

So yes, we haven’t gone into the chemistry of oxygen and why it’s so reactive – but I think our explanation is sufficient for the purpose of the film – we wanted to attract people with the thrills of fire breathing and use this as an in-route to explain some of the underlying chemical principles.

I think it’s really easy to forget simple things like this and we often assume we know what we mean when we use an everyday term like burning. It’s only when someone calls you out and asks you to explain what’s going on that we may stumble and realise we don’t actually know as much as we assumed we did. The YouTube Channel Veritasium does a great job at highlighting common shortcomings and misconceptions when it comes to explaining everyday phenomena (watch the video ‘Misconceptions About Temperature’).

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The Plankton Chronicles

A creative mix of beauty and knowledge

Recently on the Ri Channel we featured a new collection of videos from the Plankton Chronicles – a gorgeous web-video project created by research biologist Christian Sardet working in collaboration with Montreal production company, Para Films. Although I tend to refrain from reposting content from the Ri Channel on this blog, I’m really captivated by the work this project is producing, it’s simply stunning – see below:

The series takes you down into the dark alien world of plankton, a category of aquatic life that encompasses an incredibly diverse collection of organisms; one which includes animals, plants, bacteria and archaea. Each episode delves into the life of a particular organism – from iridescent comb jellies to gelatinous zooplankton – all presented through a stunning mix of high definition video, abstract sound design and narration to guide you along. The project aims to illuminate the hidden world of these bizarre creatures and ‘magnifies our fascination for the wonders of underwater life’.

Easily the most attractive feature of this project is the incredible macro photography, with illuminated organisms scurrying across jet black backgrounds in exquisite detail. The sound design is also commendable, with synthetic bleeps and pulses underlining the ‘otherworldliness’ of this complex ecosystem (and is reminiscent of a particularly cherished episode from the BBC Blue Planet series). The videos have also been carefully scripted and tightly crafted for the ‘quick-fix’ web-audience, with episodes only running for around two minutes each. With this in mind it’s important to note that these videos are beautifully paced – allowing the content to breath and flow under its own rhythm, and providing a delicate balance between eye candy and information.

The videos are all presented across an interactive web-platform which pulls together additional information, imagery and extended links. The videos are also available in a choice of either French or English – opening up accessibility further.

We asked project founder Christian Sardet for a bit more detail on the project and I’ve reproduced some of his comments below:

What are the aims of the Plankton Chronicles and what are you trying to achieve with it?

The series was conceived in the context of the Villefranche sur mer Marine Station an ideal place to study plankton and the Tara Oceans expedition devoted to exploring plankton in all oceans. This scientific adventure definitely raises ecological awareness. Plankton Chronicles deal with biodiversity, but focus mainly on the visual splendor of marine organisms. The series magnifies our fascination for the wonders of underwater life.

What challenges did you face capturing your footage, and producing the videos?

Catching and maintaining species in perfect shape is tough. Luck and patience are keys to success. Filming animal behavior and movements can take hours of trial and error. Use of dark field macroscopy and microscopy help reveal the exquisite patterns of transparent and gelatinous organisms. Filming requires lots of light and  sensitive cameras. We benefited from the great new SLR cameras able to film in HD format which just appeared on the market when we started the project.

What role do you think the internet and online videos play in today’s communication of science and education?

A major role. It is possible to produce quality documents like the plankton Chronicles episodes on a shoe string budget and make them accessible to large numbers of viewers. The ability to create a site with complementary videos, texts and photos is also a great advantage provided by the internet.

What makes a great science communication video?

A creative mix of beauty and knowledge

The project is continuing to update new content on a regular basis – check out a selection of works on the Ri Channel or visit the Plankton Chronicles directly to browse the full library of videos.

TED Ed have also made a great short using footage from this project: