‘We juggle custard and eat fire to make science fun’

HOT HOT HANDSHAKE: Aoife Raleigh and Maria create a fireball of a handshake. ‘What’s on our hands is flammable gas trapped in soap bubbles — that’s what catches fire, not our hands,’ explains Aoife, who admits it feels very hot but only lasts three seconds

Fitzgerald Park will transform into Cork’s first Carnival of Science this weekend. Aoife and Maria aka Strong Women Science, tell us the magic they have in store, writes Helen O’Callaghan

Did you really smash the apple? Did you really break the golf club? Is that really custard? Can I see if your hand’s burned? Just some of the questions the girls from Strong Women Science routinely get asked.

Aoife Raleigh — one half of Strong Women Science, alongside Maria Corcoran — says children are the best scientists because they have so many questions. “If they can make up a question and investigate it, they’re really engaged.”

There’ll be questions flying at Fitzgerald Park this weekend (what makes rockets fly? Can you ever switch off a magnet?) when it transforms for two days into a science super-park for Cork’s first Carnival of Science. The London Science Museum and Phil the Stunt Frog will be in the Big Top exploring the forces that shape our world (with answers to those rocket and magnet questions). Imaginosity is in the Little Top with Dr Osity’s Full Body Science Show, an interactive workshop focusing on the magic of the body and how it works.

Through Saturday and Sunday, the STEM wonderland will be packed with demos, experiments, and geeky games — lie on a bed of nails, anyone? Help a baby dragon to fly?

“My hula hoop act gets a lot of oohs and aahs and the custard juggling’s very fun,” says Aoife, who’ll be there with Maria to reveal the scientific secrets behind their seemingly impossible tricks — how do you balance a chair on your chin, juggle liquid, and eat fire?

Aoife’s an electronic engineer who spent time in south-east Asia working with renewable energy systems. Maria’s a chemist who worked for a while in the State laboratory. But at university her main hobby was juggling so she joined the Juggling Society. And in Spain, where Aoife taught English for a while, the Mullingar girl did classes in acrobatics. The circus had come calling for both. Today, they each work with the Dublin Circus Project — Aoife’s the youth circus co-ordinator there, while Offaly native Maria also teaches circus with Cloughjordan Circus Club.

“The reason circus appealed so much was because of its technical nature,” says Aoife. “Engineering and circus are a lot about experimentation and being creative — coming up with new ideas and tricks. In engineering, you do a lot of exploring, using circuit boards and computers; in the circus, you explore using your body and circus props.”

For Maria, circus is about how empowered it makes her feel, to do things that seem totally impossible. Aoife agrees: “When science and circus come together, anything is possible.”

Like juggling custard:

It’s a liquid that doesn’t obey the rules. It doesn’t behave like normal liquid.

Maria balances a chair on her chin. Balancing objects is a very old circus trick, she explains. “You can do it with anything. We pick a chair because people love to see everyday objects. If we brought along our own item, they’d think it was a special one.”

Scientifically, it’s all about finding the centre of gravity of the object, she says — another prerequisite for keeping an item balanced is to constantly move as you do it.

Aoife says her mother, a nurse, was more shocked at her decision to join the circus than she was when her daughter decided, literally, to play with fire. With this stunt, what audiences see is a fireball on the girls’ hands. “We shake hands and it looks like a handshake in the middle of a fireball, but what’s on our hands is flammable gas trapped in soap bubbles — that’s what catches fire, not our hands,” explains Aoife, who admits it feels very hot but only lasts three seconds.

The little hairs on your arms get a bit singed so you can smell them sometimes.

Aoife has been doing the act since September and has done it probably 100 times between rehearsals and shows. “I don’t work with fire all the time. It can be dirty and smelly and it leaves you with smoke stains and the smell of paraffin. It’s an interesting element to work with but you have to learn to respect it and take proper precautions — wear a short-sleeved costume, do it on a suitable floor, not carpet, and ensure you’ve got a fire blanket and extinguisher close by.”

 The launch of the Cork's newest and free festival, Cork Carnival of Science, which will take place on Saturday 22 and Sunday 23 June at Fitzgerald Park.
The launch of the Cork's newest and free festival, Cork Carnival of Science, which will take place on Saturday 22 and Sunday 23 June at Fitzgerald Park.

For both women, performing for an audience is about showing their love of circus and science and doing so with “a strong female message”. Aoife, who graduated from UCD in 2009, says there were just two girls in her class of 25. “We were outnumbered for sure. Things have improved but it will take a long time to open the field. Opening that door and showing engineering isn’t just for boys is important to me.”

Maria “absolutely” sees herself as a role model for girls. “One particular mother said to us, ‘if there was ever a role model I wanted for my daughters, it would be you two’. It felt really good, like we were on the right track — we want to show that women can be strong, that science is for them too.”

Supported by Cork City Council and Science Foundation Ireland, Cork’s first Carnival of Science is being organised by the Lifetime Lab, Cork. On the programme is a diverse mix of entertainment that’s fun for every age. Visit lifetimelab.ie

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