RICHARD Robinson is the director of the Brighton Science Festival, which has run annually since 2005. It was established to provide an interactive and entertaining platform for children to learn about physics, chemistry and biology.

This year’s programme is split into two halves, the first coinciding with half-term for schools and the second geared towards adults. Robinson, who has a background in the acting and puppeteering industries, talks to EDWIN GILSON about the festival and his passion for science.

Can it be difficult to find the balance between hard science and entertainment at the festival?

That’s always the challenge. We’ve got a gyroscope this time around, for instance. We’re playing around with it. It’s a toy, it hovers. If ever you think to yourself “I wonder why it hovers” you immediately break out into a cold sweat. It’s best not to think about it. It’s best to just say “it’s magic” and leave it at that. Because we’re going to schools, we are honour-bound to give an explanation. That concentrates the mind wonderfully. It’s interesting that we have to go beyond the simple idea of having fun and say: “Yes, but why are we having fun?”

In the press release for the festival you are fairly damning about the way science is taught in schools – what is your basis for this grievance, your own school days?

No, I used to enjoy science more or less. I had good teachers, and I think generally the teachers in schools are still good. More and more, though, the emphasis is on exam results. That’s fine if you’re already good at it. That’s a very dry side of it, though. You need to have the fun side too, where you get all the equipment out and make a bit of a noise and a smell. For example, we do a balancing workshop.

If you multiply the weight of something on one side of the fulcrum by the distance from the fulcrum, it will come to the same amount as the distance multiplied by the weight on the other side. Now, you just fell asleep in the middle of that, didn’t you? It’s boring to listen to that, but great fun to play around with it.

Is there a danger with such experiments that children focus only on the fun side and don’t learn anything about actual science?

There is a danger – it’s easy for that to happen. In the classroom it tends to happen the other way. Everybody is brilliant at physics in their everyday lives – we can all stand up upright, we can all balance things. All the time we are balancing things, we have an instinct for it. Passing an exam about it is another thing altogether, though. If we were forced to write everything we were doing as a formula, we’d struggle.

What’s your background in science? You were a puppeteer and an actor in a former life – did your love of science exist before these pursuits?

I think it’s just something you have. You can either do it or you can’t. That comes down to playing around as a child. Children make mistakes all the time. You set the house on fire and you learn about fire. All these experiments lead you to an understanding, providing you don’t keep on setting things on fire. The hands-on experience is a very important part of passing an exam.

Obviously science and technology moves so quickly these days that it can be hard to keep up with all the progress. Do you think that is a perpetual challenge for schools and science teachers?

I’m actually writing a new book, based around quantum physics for under fives. For an adult it can be hard to understand, so why not introduce children to it? When you go to school, you just get told there is loads of “stuff ”. Then later you get told that that stuff is made of particles. Then they say actually those particles are made of more stuff. Then they bring in quantum forces. Then they start talking about more weirdness. Each academic year, the teacher will tell you to forget everything you’ve learned before because it’s not quite right. Knowledge of science is like a crab growing up. You constantly have to shed different shells and learn it anew.

Sounds frustrating.

It’s very cumbersome. It would be much better to start properly and carry on from there. Just like it’s hard to get a typewriter to take proper shape. Do you know why the letters on a typewriter are arranged the way they are? It’s more or less random, but there’s one thing that is important. When they were selling them in the early days, it was important that the salesman could quickly type something on his machine to prove it worked. The word “typewriter” for instance. If you look carefully, the top row of the keyboard has the word typewriter written into it.

Talking of suddenly understanding things you never realised before, that seems to be the premise of Marty Jopson’s talk, which explains everyday science.

It makes much more sense of the things you do around the kitchen. A classic example is how do you clean the sink? You can buy special substances or you can just get a lemon. It does the same job. Anything acidic does the same job, in fact. You could use a grapefruit, or vinegar. I only came to that understanding quite recently.

One day my father picked up a kitchen scourer from the sink and put the kettle on it. The kettle’s noise disappeared. I thought, “these old folk do know a thing or two after all”. It disappeared because he’d put something absorbent in between the kettle and the kitchen surface. It was the tabletop that was making the noise. Another bit of everyday science.

Bright Sparks was very popular in last year’s festival. In line with the Horrible Histories children’s history book series, do gruesome and grotesque things hold a basic appeal to children? The event entails cockroaches and slime among other things.

If there is any gruesome element we go for it, yes. Science can be a pretty cold subject. You know a cockroach hisses, but when you learn why it hisses it makes it all the more interesting. The more you get familiar with the object, the more you’ll be telling your future children not to be scared of cockroaches. Everybody is full of bugs. There is more bacteria in your body than there is of you. There are thousands of things crawling around your eyelids.

Brighton Science Festival, Various venues, Brighton, Saturday, February 11, to Saturday, February 18, For more information visit: or