Breaking the mojo barrier

Antonia Quirke learns about the science of the mosh pit.

Material World
BBC Radio 4

On Material World (26 August, 9pm), the So You Want To Be a Scientist? finalist Sam was on the line from Manchester talking about his pet experiment: monitoring precisely where the crowd is most intense at music festivals. He's long had a hunch it's somewhere a few rows back from the front - known in the trade as "in the middle". He'd just been to a festival in Denmark with his mentor, the university professor Geoff, to prove the theory. Geoff sounded supportive, if fagged out. "Have you now recovered from the Danish heavy-metal fans?" asked the presenter, Quentin Cooper. "Just about," chipped in Sam. Quentin immediately enquired about his equipment. "We used a prototype vest. But we sprang a leak. It's complex."

Geoff - who'd never been to a gig before, let alone a festival - said he had been most concerned for the safety of Sam's three female assistants. "They were being bounced about all over! I'd never experienced that sort of thing." Quentin, you felt, was at home. "And how did they fare in the throbbing, bobbing crowd?" he asked, clearly relishing the image of girls with science on their minds, wearing padded vests. "It was a surreal experience," Sam conceded. "The vest increased the . . . warmth they felt and . . . we got a few funny looks."

Geoff stepped in to talk deep science. There was mention of a "mojo barrier"', correlations and systems. Cooper - usually indefatigable on our behalf - was doing his best to sound intrigued, but this was scarcely Operation Intercept, when Ronald Reagan tried to wipe out marijuana in an ingenious attempt to get everyone back on Valium and alcohol. I mean - the whole padded vest/feeling warmish quest wasn't exactly juicy, even if the girls were. And had Sam even accumulated the data he needed to support his theory? "In some ways, yes," he said wistfully. "But I still need to process it all. I'd love to go to more festivals and get more data. I wish the festivals were interested in this kind of thing and got involved . . ." "More next week," interrupted Quentin. "Along with our snail swap experiment."

A few days later, a documentary about how inaccurately science is represented in films opened with the words "I think it's fair to say scientists don't generally hang out with Hollywood types" and went into an interview with someone involved in the Terminator series saying: "Scientists blow our minds. They're stimulating." He sounded pretty Hollywood - but in that slow-blooded, amiable, American way that called to mind the image of him sitting next to congealing sandwiches in an editing suite, going entertainingly over release plans and the various ways his new movie was impacting on the marketplace. Album. Board games. Toys. Gotta renegotiate the backend.

His advice on how to set up sci-fi was to "throw quantum in front of everything - it sounds sciencey", but even he knew that sometimes that's not good enough. Take Jeff Bridges in Tron. I mean, how d'you teleport someone into a computer in the first place? "Apparently that would be kinda possible if the following circumstance happened - being broken down on a molecular level and reconstructed in a kinda . . . avatar state. A vial of carbon here. Some steam. Some atmospheric water there. Y'know - they had a whole way worked out. Yeah, our minds were blown."

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The Pope on Trial