- The 13TH International Pharos Chamber Music Festival: Crisis fails to stop international music festival : Crisis fails to stop international music festival
- bailout : BoC caught in the crossfire
- Opinions : Our View: CyBC should not expect the taxpayer to cover loss of...
- coercion : House was ‘coerced’ in Laiki rescue
- bailout : Troika team arrives to monitor developments
- AGM : BOC’s restructuring must be a priority, top businessmen say
- addes : Neophytou suggests removing CyBCs rights to sell ads
- Cyprus : Early ‘parliamentary’ elections in the north
- APOEL : Police gear up for cup final
- Cyprus : New parole board sworn in
Science without the boring bits
The song may say love is all around you but ZOE CHRISTODOULIDES meets a man who has given up teaching to try and persuade that it is actually science
“This looks like rubbish right?” The animated man before me pauses, takes a step back and proceeds towards his hidden treasures. “Most people think I’m carrying rubbish around with me.” Then commences a mad rummage through the contents of a black wheelie suitcase, the man hunching down, arms flapping about in the air as objects fly around the room. Yes that’s me, I do science with rubbish,” exclaims the person better known as Viken Tavitian, looking down upon his suitcase as if it holds all the answers of the universe.
“Do you love science?” he pries. Viken is now seated in a slightly more comfortable position, but seems to be on the defensive, as if about to be pounced on by a mob of hooligans. His arms are firmly crossed, his kind brown eyes sheltered by a thick brow nervously darting around the room, as if, perhaps, the answer to his question will be uttered from somewhere within the walls or worse still, that someone will shout out that science is boring. “No one cares about science here,” he utters with a sulk that has almost taken on the proportions of a desperate plea for attention. “But you now,” he says while moving in closer, “now you will fall in love with science. You will really really fall in love.”
Out comes an empty wafer can from the mysterious black suitcase and all of a sudden begins an onslaught of wild banter about the concept of kinetic energy. Viken enthusiastically rolls the cylindrical can towards the other end of the room. “Come back,” he then commands, his booming voice resonating. The so called “naughty” can remains stationary. Out comes another identical can and the same procedure follows. “Come back,” he calls out to the second tin, having rolled it with the same vigour. And this time it works, as the tin comes right back to him. “Kids think I’m working magic with my commands,” he says with a knowing grin. “But of course, that’s not what I’m doing.”
At this point Viken opens the second Caprice can, and points towards a hidden interior rubber band across its length with heavy metal nuts attached. “Now you see ah? This is how I demonstrate a very simple concept. It shows the law of the conservation of energy where the forward rolled can develops potential energy and by the band unwinding backwards it gets converted back into kinetic energy. And the kids listen, they really listen because it’s fun.” And this, it seems, is what Viken is all about; a man who devotes all his time and energy to hundreds of random experiments and demonstrations that aim to give common people and kids a clear grasp of science without, as he puts it, “all the blah blah.” Heaps more experiments ensue, one of his most popular demonstrating the law of Archimedes with a ketchup sachet floating inside a plastic bottle full of water.
Having recently started the Vikexploratorium show, he travels wherever he is called around the country - be it a school hall, university amphitheatre or birthday party - armed with his prized suitcase, a passion for science and a touch of humour that some may deem bizarre, while others may well find utterly fascinating. Whatever the case, Viken is on a mission. “Learning must be fun and entertaining,” he blares out. “The moment you show kids a fun experiment they are hooked. There are no stupid kids. Just stupid teachers and stupid systems.”
Viken is now a little more relaxed, having let go of his experiments and instead speaking up against the dependency on text book learning. He declares he is totally against education systems worldwide. “Of course you need the books, I’m not saying that you don’t need the books, but you also need experiments, lots of experiments.” Speaking from his own experience following work as a teacher here in Cyprus - a role which he decided to quit - Viken is totally disheartened by the learning system in place today. “When you look at a recipe book it’s full of recipes you want to cook. Science books should be like that. But instead you’ve got kids rushing to earn a bunch of As and Bs and Cs and then what happens after the exams? Most of the knowledge is gone, totally lost.”
Viken himself grew up thinking he was a bit stupid. “Until I was 14 I was a total idiot, a total loser at school but at least I had a great curiosity of things happening around me. Then one day, I fell in love with the idea of gravity and I just knew that was what I wanted to study.” And study he did, graduating from the Melkonian School in Nicosia and going on to the University of Illinois, specialising in laser spectroscopy. But what really encouraged him to think outside the box while growing up were the words of his grandfather insisting he would be a great scientist one day, despite his bad grades at school. “I always admired my grandfather, he survived the Armenian genocide, managed to escape and create a great life for himself. “When I was 6 or 7 years old, I had asked my grandfather what would happen if one leg of an astronaut is in outer space and the other is in the earth's atmosphere?” He pauses and does a little interactive presentation as if to illustrate the point.
“This impressed my grandfather so much that he used to go around boasting that it was a really great question and used to tell me that one day I will turn out to be a great scientist. Of course now I know my question was the childish one of a kid with a great imagination watching all the Star Trek movies at the time.”
Seems as though Star Trek had more of an impact than he could have even imagined, as Viken will never give up on showing the world his treasured - and rather quirky - experiments, intent on spreading the message of how to fall in love with science. Now taking on the mission as a full time job, it’s not just the kids that are pricking up their ears. Last year, Viken was invited to engage an adult audience as part of the TEDxNicosia Talks. Taking on a persona which wavered between vivacious scientist and stand-up comedian, Viken seems to get a real high from reflecting on his life as a teacher, researcher and traveller, all seen through the eyes of someone who can pretty much point towards just about anything and give you the scientific lowdown.
But surely, not everything can be narrowed down to a scientific explanation. What does Viken have to say about the more abstract things in life? What’s his take on emotions or feelings, things that some would claim just have no rhyme or reason, leave alone logic behind them? “Like the famous saying,” replies Viken, “for people who think, life is a comedy, but for people who feel, life is a tragedy.” He proceeds to point towards overwhelming times when feelings obviously do take over. “Without feeling any emotions, you would be cheating yourself. But let’s not forget that emotions are the outcome of different physiological effects happening in your body that can be explained in a scientific manner. And then, logic takes control. After all, 90 per cent of life is how you perceive it, how you react to it, how you interpret it, how you take it to heart.” And the other 10 per cent? “Well, that’s what you’re given.”
With our chat interrupted by one experiment or another designed to show nothing happens by chance, one can’t help but wonder what sort of reactions Viken has conjured up in the world around him. “The kids, they go crazy,” he smiles. “At the Pefkios Georgiades Primary School they were all shouting out for my autograph.” As for acquaintances and friends, they seem to be clued up about how he will react to a given subject before he has even uttered a word.
His passion has unsurprisingly rubbed off on his two boys, with the elder of the two - 11 year old Viken Junior - now intent on making his own discoveries. “One day after he came home from school, he had found some packing peanuts from a parcel I’d received,” he explains. “He rushed up to me to exclaim that he had made an important discovery. He said that those packing peanuts were being washed away in his hands while he was holding them under water. I totally didn’t believe him knowing that these things are made of polystyrene petroleum based products. There’s no way they would be soluble in water. But he forced me to come to the sink and check out the result for myself.” And with this, Viken goes on to explain the joy he felt when his son was right.
“Sure enough they are now using a starch based material to make these things so that when they come into contact with water it melts and washes away. It’s about being environmentally conscious. Now this it is part of my Vikexploatorium experiments and also Vikomedy show. So now you see, science is all around you, you don't need to be at a research lab or university to discover things.”
But not everyone is so very keen to embrace his passion, with the world of academia not always greeting him with open arms. “Schoolteachers often have their hands tied. They have to follow the syllabus and that hardly allows time for lots of experimenting,” he says with a notable sigh. Then of course, there are also the parents to contend with as Viken finds it hard to get them to embrace the idea of a science show as entertainment. “They usually prefer to take their kids along to the cinema or to football,” he explains. “But footballs, footballs, do you know how much maths and physics is involved in making a good football?”
Viken proceeds to dig even further through his bag of treasures. “Look at this,” he exclaims showing off a bright orangey yellow ping pong ball which he swivels in the palm of his hand. “Why this colour? It’s because the eye perceives this colour the best. And have you ever thought about why buses in America are yellow?” Needless to say, it all comes down to science. “But it’s such a shame, because most people perceive science as only being necessary for those people who want to be doctors or engineers or something.” And with that, Viken is packing up his plastic bottles, tin cans, and all the random things in between, hoping and wishing that more people realise the importance of science in just about every single thing in world around us. And if anyone needs convincing? Viken will be there with his little black suitcase to make them fall madly and deeply in love.
Tel: 99 673508, firstname.lastname@example.org