From Pop-Sci to Puppets – Quest For Wonder

Kylie Sturgess

Can puppetry encourage a love of science? With a long running podcast, The Infinite Monkey Cage, and a popular app, The Incomplete Map of the Cosmic Genome, it seems a curious side-step to create puppet versions of Dr. Brian Cox and Robin Ince—and then make a video series about their fictional adventures in a science museum.

But creativity is the watchword for both Trent and Melinda Burton, and it’s not the first time that the plush-and-felt clones of the science stars have been given an outing. They’ve appeared as cute advertising for tours and projects before—but this is the first time the puppet duo have had their own series. The series, Quest for Wonder, was launched at the start of April and is releasing episodes weekly, featuring a number of guest scientists.

Kylie Sturgess: What exactly does Quest for Wonder involve? When I first clicked on the YouTube video … to find out more about it, the first thing I did was laugh. I don’t know if that’s a good review or not.

Trent Burton: That’s always a good start. I guess Quest for Wonder is a new six-part web series that we’re making with Professor Brian Cox and Robin Ince. It’s sort of a science comedy show with puppets for all ages—[that] is probably the best way to describe it.

Kylie: What got you into puppetry? I know that Brian Cox and Robin Ince already have a massive reputation as science communicators. They’ve got the podcasts, the TV series, they tour everywhere—why puppets specifically?

Melinda Burton: I have been very passionate about puppetry since I was a child. Jim Henson is one of my all time heroes, and as I’ve gotten older I’ve kept my interest in puppetry and over the last few years have actually done something with that. I started to volunteer with a puppet theater and making puppets and performing puppetry, all that kind of thing.

Then through our work with Robin we started to think about how we could incorporate puppetry into our work with science and comedy and science communications, so we came up with the idea of creating puppets of Robin and Brian, and thankfully they were happy to let us go ahead with it and that’s were it started.

Kylie: It’s a six-part series, and as you said it’s something that can appeal to all ages, but how do you achieve that? I know puppets are very zeitgeist-y at the moment—but there’s a lot of people you’re trying to communicate big concepts to…?

Trent: I suppose the level of science that we talk about in the series is not going into the depths of quantum physics or anything like that. It’s kind of introducing concepts and ideas, which is probably more for a younger audience.

We think a lot of Robin and Brian’s adult fans are going to come and watch the show because it’s Robin and Brian, and the show has the same kind of interplay between the two.

Kylie: What was it like creating the story? Here you have two people who have got a very established reputation—what have you got the puppets doing in their stead?

Trent: Robin and Brian have already got kind of their on-air personalities, if you will, that people identify with, so we wanted to make sure that when we did something with the puppets, it wasn’t just a case of putting that coming out of puppets’ mouths, because otherwise what’s the point? We might as well have the real people!

We came up with a story for the series that I think is something unique to the puppets; you couldn’t really tell this kind of wacky story without puppets. You couldn’t do it with real Robin and Brian! Essentially Brian has lost his wonder. He’s meant to be heading onto TV to talk about all the things he talks about and point at mountains and stand on volcanoes and be all wonderful and Brian-like.

But he’s lost his wonder, in this case in the show his wonder is actually his little friend, who you will have seen in the trailers—it’s a little blue ball of fuzz. His wonder is his little pet that goes everywhere with him and she’s escaped—so the story of the show is really those two coming together to go on a quest for wonder to get Brian’s pet wonder back.

Melinda: Wonder is like the personification of Brian’s wonder. She’s the thing that makes him feel inspired, and without having her around he finds himself not able to be curious and interested in things in the same way as when she’s around.

Trent: That’s kind of what we really wanted to do with the show. There’s so much high-school and late primary school science that is fairly cut-and-dry: here is the periodic table, here are the solubility rules, here are the parts of a flower—“remember that, that’s what makes science.” That was something we really wanted to get away from and make a kids science show that wasn’t just about “facts and the boring bits.” Science is about wonder, curiosity, discovery, and the future, and enthusiasm that is vital to science.

Melinda: The musicians that we’ve been working with are a lovely band called Simone and Girlfunkle who are also from our hometown of Perth; we worked with them to create the flavor of music that runs throughout the show, and I think it really adds a unique character and emphasizes the fun and the silliness of it. After all, it’s a science show, but it’s supposed to be fun too.

Kylie: There’s been a lot of talk about effective science communication recently. The World Science Festival was held in Australia for the first time with Alan Alda turning up on our television, telling us about how we should be combining art and science in order to reach out and be more imaginative with teaching science concepts. Is this kind of project a step in that kind of direction? Do you get questions about the potential of “dumbing down science”?

Trent: I think we’ve certainly got that in the past, and I think even Brian when he does his big landmark shows gets criticized for “dumbing down physics.” Well, if you’re going to make a mainstream kind of show, which is what we’re doing, of course you have to dumb down quantum physics because not everyone has a doctorate in quantum physics. I certainly don’t!

Melinda: I think that’s linked to the way we describe the Cosmic Genome site—the top place online for the scientifically curious. The creature in Quest for Wonder is called “Wonder.” What we are all about is inspiring curiosity and wonder about science, which hopefully spurs people onto then go and look at more in-depth concepts, and they’ll be less daunting.

It’s engaging; it’s fun; it’s a bit silly, but it’s with people that you know, and hopefully it makes people feel interested and not deterred by the fact that it’s quantum physics we’re talking about!

Trent: I think a key thing is—one of the things Robin often says is that just because you don’t understand it fully doesn’t mean that it’s worthless.

Part of the fun and part of the enjoyment is being confused along the way. The scientists themselves in all these fields don’t have all the answers, and that’s kind of the point. If you can make if fun along the way, then it’s the same as anything else. Science is no different to learning about music or art or sport or whatever it is. It’s just something fun and interesting.

Melinda: Any topic is complicated and detailed and difficult, but it’s the way that you talk about it—and so the way we talk about it is in a fun and hopefully engaging way that makes it less scary.

Trent: I’ve had more success explaining quantum physics to people than I have explaining the rules of Australian Rules football to people!

New episodes will be released each Thursday, and the entire series will be available free on the Cosmic Genome site.

Kylie Sturgess

Kylie Sturgess is the host of the Token Skeptic podcast and regularly writes editorial for numerous publications and the Token Skeptic blog. She was the co-host for the Global Atheist Convention in 2010 and 2012. An award-winning Philosophy teacher, Kylie has lectured on teaching critical thinking and anomalistic beliefs worldwide. In 2011 she was presented with the Secular Student Alliance Best Individual Activist Award and presented at the World Skeptics Congress 2012.