Reflections on collaborating with Tom Scott and the importance of making research accessible

One of our Senior Lecturers, Sam Rigby, recently collaborated with YouTuber Tom Scott

Two men in yellow high-vis jackets

We sat down with Dr Sam Rigby following his participation in YouTuber Tom Scott's recent video titled "No one knows how explosions work (yet)" to learn more about his experience, the importance of presenting your research in an accessible way, and how his work impacts his teaching.

What is your research about and what problems does it solve or seek to solve?

My research is about understanding the damaging effects of explosions, particularly when they interact with structures in close proximity. Historically, this region has been very difficult to measure in, so our insights here are quite limited, and we simply haven’t had the data to properly validate numerical modelling approaches.

How applicable is it to people's everyday lives and why is it important that its findings are easily accessible?

Thankfully explosions are very rare, but the devastating effects of the Tianjin and Beirut explosions in 2015 and 2020, and the ongoing war in Ukraine show that consideration of blast effects on structures is very much a requirement in modern civil engineering. It’s important that people know that in those types of events, engineers have done what they reasonably can to protect against that type of loading, and that’s why talking about my research in an accessible manner is important. Hopefully a blast resilient structure will never actually be tested for its resilience, so it’s crucial to also structure the conversation around just how much of an extreme, uncertain, and ultimately unlikely event an explosion actually is. I often say that in an ideal world I would be out of a job!

What aspects of your work are the most interesting to non-experts?

Explosions are quite an alien concept. It doesn’t help that in the Hollywood movies they are portrayed as big flashes of fire; in real life they look much less spectacular but are much more damaging. It all comes down to the timescales in which they occur: we recently published a paper where our pressure load lasted only 50 microseconds. For comparison, a blink lasts around 100 milliseconds, so over two thousand times longer! Explosions are quite rare too, so people aren’t very familiar with them and there aren’t many other things we can compare them to. This is a big challenge when trying to articulate the importance of our work to others. The need for it is quite clear, but the need for the scientific insight is much harder to convey!

How does your research impact your teaching?

I teach a final year MEng module called “Blast and Impact Effects on Structures”. As part of this I teach fundamental theory and concepts of blast, as well as industry-standard approaches for predicting the effects of blast and impact loads on structures. However, the course goes beyond this; I teach the students how to properly interrogate the methods, understand their assumptions and limitations, and how to supplement and improve them. 

This is where my research comes in, as a lot of what we are finding out as a research group ultimately helps to improve these sorts of predictive methods. I always tell my students to be sceptical, and this module is a very good example of the overlap between academic research and teaching: it teaches you that not everything is a known science, so being able to learn in that way is really powerful!

Why Tom Scott and what did you learn from this experience?

The video that Tom produced was quite different to what I would have produced. It was really enlightening to see that Tom (and his audience) were much less interested in the what, and much more interested in the why and how. As an academic, I more often than not focus on the what (What do we know? What does this mean?), so this was quite interesting. It also gave me confidence that we are doing good, interesting, and impactful research here at the university, and people want to hear about it!

Tom Scott is an educational YouTuber with approximately 6 million subscribers who produces videos across a range of topics, including science, technology and engineering. 

Sam Rigby and Tom Scott collaboration

Do you plan on changing your communication style going forward following working on this video with Tom and if so, what would you implement in your teaching?

I’m almost certainly going to show the video at the start of the course to all future students. Even when I’m close to retirement! I think mostly this experience has taught me that it is possible to talk about sophisticated topics to a general audience without dumbing it down and making it less interesting. It’s all about shifting the focus slightly.

What are the next steps for people who want to learn more about what you do and how to access your research?

We did put together a brief piece on what it is like to be a blast protection engineer, so that is probably where I would point people towards if they are looking for a nice, accessible way in.

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