Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Statistics, Space, Skateboarding and Stuff

Over the summer I spent some time working on a video project and article about skateboarding and physics with some of the awesome folks at Perimeter Institute (PI), where I work.

You can find the video here, and the article here. The photos of me throughout this post were also taken while we were putting the article together.

Sweeper, for Duane, Waterloo. Photo: Gabriela Secara

I'm not sure where the original motivation for the article came from, but it began for me some time in June (I think) when I was approached by Colin Hunter, the senior scientific writer at PI, who was interested in profiling physicists and finding out about our passions outside of work, and what makes us tick. Over the next few months we spent a number of mornings and afternoons working on the video and interviews and exchanging lots of emails. One of the most important things for me was getting across the right sense of what skateboarding is to someone from outside of it. Skateboarding has a really strong sense of itself and it's cultural identity. It's nuanced, and generally those of us on the inside find that people on the outside just don't get it. But what made me really stoked on this project and gave me confidence in the whole outcome was that from very early on Colin and I got along, and I could see he got it, and that we both wanted to make something rad that hopefully everyone, including other skaters, physicists and the general public, could take something away from.

(muted) Boneless, tranny to bank, Waterloo. I loved that crazy rainbow bandana. I lost it after (?) burning man. Photo: Gabriela Secara
Stand up, with additional finger pointing action, Cambridge. Photo: Gabriela Secara

I've left the writing of this blog post a bit too long, so I can't remember what I was going to say. Apologies for the rambling.

One of the best things that came out of working on this piece for me was getting feedback from some of my skateboarding idols. The first person I wrote to was John Rattray. John (look at me, pretending we're on first name terms) is a Scottish skateboarder who studied astrophysics at university. I studied for my undergraduate degree in Scotland too, which is already a great connection. The first section I've linked to there is from when John was pro on a (sadly now defunct) British skateboarding company called Blueprint. Blueprint defined what it was to be a skateboarder on these drizzle-covered isles in the early 2000's, and everything they put out was hugely influential on me growing up. Most of it wasn't my style, per se, me being a bowl skater and Blueprint being pretty heavy street, but it didn't stop me loving what they did. John's section from Waiting for the World was inspirational beyond words, and still one of my favourite sections of all time. He had fun (and skated bowls), and skated to an awesome song by the Seahorses (I bought their album on the strength of it, but the album didn't have that song on and generally sucked. You win some...). John then "made it" and went pro for Zero, Jamie Thomas' power company from the USA. The second section I linked to is (I think) his first for them. Again, John kind of broke the mould of the other skaters on the video. They were mostly hammers and rails, but John came through with no complys (before they were cool again) and that same fun energy. Top boy.

Early grab in the slightly over vert pocket, Cambridge. You can see the PI filmers, Max and Craig, in this insta-filtered photo by Renée Hlozek.

I got in touch with John through a mutual Scottish friend (thanks Russ). I was so stoked that he replied to my email. It was another thing that gave me confidence we were doing something that mattered. John responded to some questions that Colin wrote for him. His replies were short, but they really helped me keep my feet on the ground. For example: "Studying physics is an intellectual pursuit and although the act of learning to do something physically complex and demanding can have intellectual benefits they are utterly different. Not to say they're not connected, I mean, they exist in the same universe, as far as we can tell." John's reply there made sure I didn't go ahead on my high horse and say anything stupid about connections between physics and skateboarding. I just stuck with my story, and how I feel about both.

The next person I managed to get in touch with, and who along with John completes the "skateboarders with a link to science dream team", was Rodney Mullen. I mean, holy shit, Rodney Mullen! Renée (the other author of this very blog) met Rodney at TED a few years back. He was really friendly, and came up to her wanting to talk about cosmology after her talk. We exchanged quite a few emails back and forth about this project, and there were just so many encouraging words of inspiration from Rodney that upped my stoke levels through the roof. If you're not a skateboarder, you may not have heard of Rodney Mullen, but then again, you may have. He's one of a few "breakthough" skateboarders that are almost household names. You'll see that from one of the links: the man's given TED talks. But that's not why he's important to skateboarding. Rodney invented pretty much every trick that modern skateboarding relies on: ollies, kickflips, 360 flips, and literally dozens more (there's a section about this on his wikipedia entry!). He invented these tricks in the context of "freestyle," which is a kind of skateboard dancing, in the early 80's. At that time, everyone else was skating vert and doing big airs, but Rodney was skating alone in his barn and changing the world. It took another generation to adapt his style and take these tricks to the streets and to become modern skateboarding as we know it. But no Mullen, no dice. He had to break those barriers and show what could be done, and he had to do it his own way, outside of what was happening at the time.

Why did I think of him as a scientist? I can't tell you really. He's well known in the skateboarding world as being very intelligent, and also being super nice. I took a chance on contacting him, and it worked, and he had lots of awesome things to say. Again, something to make me confident that it was a good thing to be working on this project.

FS rock (to the hilt), Cambridge. If you haven't seen a dozen pictures of me doing this trick, we obviously aren't friends on facebook. Photo: Gabriela Secara.

Now, where was I?

Oh yeah, the filming and photos. It was super fun going on the filming missions from work. First of all, what red-blooded skateboarder wouldn't be hyped to have fully sanctioned days to bunk work and go skate in the sun? Well, as a postdoc I can pretty much do that whenever I want anyway, and I do, and I guess that was kind of one of the points of the video, but still: sanctioned skate-bunk! Me, Colin, and some selection of other PI video/photo types would jump in the car of an afternoon, put on some music, and head to a skatepark. Unless it was the Waterloo park, in which case we'd just get some drinks and walk over from the office. Having a park that close to the office is great: after work skates, lunchtime skates, all easy. Having work that close to the park is great too: somewhere to refill water and have a shower after a Saturday session before heading to the bars.

Taking these non-skateboarders into my world was a bit daunting at times. What if they didn't get it? Filming and photos could have been a show-stopper too. They know how to do their jobs, but what if they didn't get the shots that looked right from a skateboarders perspective? In the end, though, it all turned out really well. There was a good back and forth, with me suggesting angles and tricks, and then compromising when the light was wrong or a different background worked better. Max was also kind enough to let me go through his rough cut and suggest changes and different clips, and Ela let me select the best photos from her. Again, this gave the right balance of something professional that could relate to non-skaters and look good, and something I could be proud of as a skater.

It's hard enough bringing close friends who don't skate to skateparks, and then it's normally lubricated with a good number of street beers. This was work people, and could have been really awkward or weird. I let skateboarding work its magic for me, and just cruised around. I wanted them to see the relaxed side, and the natural side, nothing like "extreme" tricks or anything like that. Skateboarding, like physics, is playful. But, it was hard work shooting sometimes. Doing things over and over for the right angle and light. And it's only me with my shitty bag of tricks. I can't imagine how much more hard work it is for guys chucking themselves down stairs being asked to do it again. Mad respect. The hardest work was the 5-0 right below you. If you know me well, you know I suck at street, and I had to do this 5-0 at least a dozen times before we were all happy.

Street for the kids! FS 5-0, Waterloo. Photo: Gabriela Secara.

I'd better wrap this up. But we haven't even talked about physics yet. Watch this space for some more. Renée and I have been talking about roping in a bottle of Gin for this...

Thanks to everyone who has been involved in this. PI for paying me and everyone else, and publishing and promoting. Max, Craig and Ela for the patience and good work filming and shooting. Colin for being the gaffer and writing an awesome article, and Renée for coming along on a Cambridge morning for moral support (I needed it after that heavy slam).

Zig it up

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