The Mystery Boxes activity was designed for teachers to use with students. It’s supposed to demonstrate the way science works. The Science Museum gets feedback from teachers who’ve used the activity. Students generally enjoy it, but they wanted to see how practising scientists would react to it. So the Science Museum asked a bunch of scientists if they’d be willing to be filmed trying it. Several of us turned up yesterday to do it, with a considerable amount of trepidation since a key element of the activity is not to know anything about it in advance.
It turned out that another colleague in my group had volunteered for the filming, so we walked over together. We were pleased to go in through the Director’s Entrance, where a big orange sign at the front desk helpfully informed us that the threat level was ERNIE. I mean, SEVERE. We walked up a wide staircase and entered a large, high-ceilinged anteroom flanked by armchairs, only two of which were occupied. The buffet table sat at the far end. The place had clearly been designed to facilitate the entertainment of a great many more people than were scheduled to arrive. We poured ourselves some Exotic Juice (Tesco brand), took some sandwich squares and sat down facing the imposing double-doors that led to the room where the filming was to take place.
At two minutes past noon, we were ushered into the Fellows’ Library. I would have loved to have had time to stroll around and inspect all the beauties lurking behind the glass-fronted cabinets and to ascend the spiral staircases to the walkway around the balcony level. Alas, there was no time. The eight of us sat at the long tables under the lighting rigs and awkwardly introduced ourselves. Two of the participants worked at the Science Museum, one of whom was an ex-chemist. The remainder, aside from my colleague and me, were biologists and medics.
We were given a brief introduction to the purpose of the filming and a few orders about how to behave. We were to ignore the cameras and the microphone boom. This turned out to be a lot more difficult than I thought it would be, particularly when one camera was filming in front of us, one was behind my shoulder and the microphone was directly above my head. Additionally, we were asked to repeat ourselves a good deal to so they could get different shots. Pretending to be shocked without being overdramatic? Not as easy as it looks.
Just in case anyone wants to try the activity in future, I’m going to put the description of it behind a cut. We were divided into groups of three. Each group was given a sheet of paper divided into six squares, with a post-it note attached to the paper next to each square. Each group was presented with two sealed, numbered aluminum boxes. The group member with the neatest handwriting had the task of recording observations in biro in the squares and then writing the conclusion in Sharpie on the post-it note. We were given two minutes to experiment with each box, after which we had to decide what was inside based on our observations. Once we’d been through all six boxes, we shared our conclusions with the other groups and tried to come to a consensus as a whole.
This is a pretty crude method for determining what’s inside anything, of course. We weren’t allowed any tools other than our senses. Something as simple as a magnet would have made a big difference to our conclusions. We relied on sound and touch alone. Our consensus relied on a good deal of verbal discussion.
I was fascinated by the way we reacted to the activity. First, we fell almost instinctively into roles. My partners, both male, were a biologist and a medic. I took the job of recorder since I had the neatest writing, but it’s a job I would have gravitated toward anyway. The medic, Brett, tended to be the first to pick up the box. He would shake it and make observations quickly. Seb, the biologist, tended to be the first to propose a suggestion for the contents. I tended to wait until after the two of them had come to their conclusions, then pick up the box myself. I could then weigh in with agreement or disagreement.
Second, we immediately tried to guess the most sensible properties we could determine based on the evidence we had. We guessed shape (e.g. Does it roll? Does it have sides?), size (e.g. Does it fill the box? How long does it take to roll/slide from one side to the other?) and material (e.g. Does it clink or make a dull thud?). We also assumed that the boxes would contain common household or office items. Since the boxes could contain absolutely anything that would fit into a 3”x3”x4” space, that probably wasn’t the best assumption, but it was the most rational way we could narrow down our identification of the objects.
Third, while the three of us came to a fairly uniform agreement about the contents of each box, the nine of us couldn’t manage it with all the boxes. Some people stuck really firmly to their dissenting opinions. For instance, we all managed to agree that one box was filled with rice, probably in a plastic bag. But another box was thought to contain either a pencil sharpener or a plastic die, and neither group would budge on their convictions. (I agree with the pencil sharpener conclusion, by the way, because the motion of the object was irregular - not consistent with a symmetric shape like a die.) This was one of the best illustrations of the way research works, I felt, and I hope it makes it into the film.
Finally, I reacted with surprise and frustration like the others when first told that we weren’t going to find out what was in the boxes. However, that was pretty much immediately followed by further experimentation and whispered discussion about the boxes in front of us. I wasn’t willing to give up just because we weren’t going to be told the answer. I wanted more tools and more time to work on the problem. So did the others in my group. And that, I think, is the most powerful illustration of a near-ubiquitous (See my caveat. See it.) trait among scientists.
Once we were finished with activity, they asked each group a couple of questions and filmed our answers. What did you like best about the activity? Do you think it reflects the actual process of scientific research? The answers to the first question seemed to be most reflective of the personalities of individual participants. I was rather pleased to observe that I’d ended up in the group that valued our cooperative abilities the highest. The second question produced a universal yes, though we all agreed that the experimental methods were far too crude and that it could be improved by adding a stage where certain measurement tools could be earned through proposals - e.g. I think this is a metallic object and I would like a magnet to test this hypothesis.
It was a lunchtime well spent and it added an option to my repertoire of outreach activities. I’ll post a link to the video when it appears on the site. I would claim that I’m going to be a Famous Nerd, but I think it’s more likely that I’ll just be Famously Nerdy.
On a different note, if you’re wondering how to disable the option to repost to Facebook or Twitter on your own journal, you can find very clear instructions for doing so - with pictures - here. I recommend it.