From Puppetry to Pi: Richard Robinson and the Brighton Science Festival

By Jenni Davidson | 15 February 2011
a graphic showing a brain-shaped balloon with a ship slung beneath it
Brighton Science Festival 2011 focuses on the brain - Use it or Lose it!© Brighton Science Festival
Festival: Brighton Science Festival, various venues, Brighton, February 13 - March 6 2011

The move from puppeteer to science festival-founder doesn’t seem like an obvious career progression, but  Richard Robinson reckons it’s all about education.

The man behind Brighton Science Festival, Robinson started off as the hand behind some of the characters in TV shows such as Spitting Image, The Riddlers and Puddle Lane. What tied these shows together he says, was that they all shone a light on serious topics. He would have been very unhappy making puppets that didn’t have an educational purpose.

“The Riddlers were basically scientists,” he adds. “They were trying to work out how the world worked.”

a photo of a smiling man in a cafe
Richard Robinson © Photo Jenni Davidson
After taking a science degree, Robinson started out as a street busker, and it was while busking that he was offered a part in Spitting Image. However, a visit to a London museum with his children led him to combine science and entertainment. He looked at the displays and felt he could do a better job.

“I thought, 'They have better props than I have, but the patter was terrible.’”
He started visiting schools as a science busker, aiming to inspire children to be interested in science.
“If you want someone to build a boat, you don’t give them a hammer and nails and wood, you first inspire them to want to go to sea.”

He also tried to take the emphasis away from being right and wrong, sometimes just giving the children some props and leaving them to figure out what to do.

“If you say ‘here’s the stuff, get it right’ they’re going to be wrong, but if you say ‘see what you can do with it’, it’s going to be rightish.”

a photo of a smiling child
First and foremost the Festival is meant to be fun and entertaining© Brighton Science Festival
Robinson found that while science busking worked for younger children, the real problem was young teens. They would start off interested in science and grow to hate it. He describes it as “a rung missing from the ladder” and it was this desire to engage older children that led him to start the Brighton Science Festival in 2005.

Another of the aims is to get parents interested in science. Kids mimic what their parents do, he says, so it’s about inspiring parents to take an interest. But first and foremost the Festival is meant to be fun and entertaining. Robinson was horrified when one article described Brighton Science Festival as being for people who like doing calculus.
The theme of this year’s festival is the human brain, subtitled “Use It or Lose It”. Apparently it not only looks like sausages, but is made from the same ingredients. Certainly not just for those who can recite pi to 20 decimal places, the Brighton Science Festival really does have something for everyone.

What’s on at Brighton Science Festival – some highlights of 2011.

a graphic showing a fish made out of cabbage leaves.
Play with Your Food takes a fun look at the chemistry behind cooking.© Brighton Science Festival
  • To coincide with half term, there are two family fun days: Bright Sparks on Saturday February 19, featuring hands-on experiments for all the family, and Play with Your Food on Saturday February 26, taking a fun and interactive look at the chemistry behind cooking.
  • Big Science Saturday on March 5 is a full day of short talks for adults on a variety of subjects, from The Magic of Bubbles to Do you Think You’re Clever? Plus there is a chance to see The Toaster Project. Thomas Thwaites decided to build a toaster from scratch. He mined the iron ore and refined oil into plastic in his kitchen. It took 18 months and cost £1,500. Go along and see the finished article.
  • Far from being an alien race in Doctor Who come to wipe out the planet, neurons are nerve cells that transmit electrical messages around the body. Expect some audience participation if you attend Of All the Nerve on Sunday March 6. This intriguing event charts the life of a neuron in six acts. You can’t understand a neuron until you’ve been a neuron!
  • For those who prefer chewing the fat to dissecting it, there are plenty less hands-on events. Café Scientifique (February 17) will examine circadian rhythms: what is it that makes up sleep, wake up and gives us jet lag.
  • Pecha Kucha (Japanese for chit-chat) will be a rapid-fire series of slides on a variety of science topics (March 2), while the Catalyst Club nights (March 3) enjoy the funnier side of life and discuss the science of sex, movies and politics.
  • City Books is also hosting two author events at the Ropetackle Arts Centre in Shoreham (February 21). The authors of The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone looks at the science of happiness and Professor Robin Dunbar asks How Many Friends Does One Person Need?
For full listings and information see
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