StrongWomen: 'Circus is a great way to visually represent scientific principles'

StrongWomen: 'Circus is a great way to visually represent scientific principles'

credit: Ian Georgeson

Aoife Raleigh and Maria Corcoran combine twin pursuits with explosive results at their family show

Though science and circus may seem an unlikely pairing, scientists-turned-performers Aoife Raleigh and Maria Corcoran are set to reveal the method behind their madness via some fiery degustation and custard juggling at the StrongWomen Science Show. Premiering virtually across the first weekend of this year's Edinburgh Science Festival, the show aims to engage families with younger children by highlighting the importance of ingenuity and curiosity that lies at the core of all scientific pursuits. And how? Through acrobatics and antics aplenty.

When they're not being StrongWomen, Raleigh is an engineer and Corcoran is an environmental scientist. But the underlying ethos behind their dual professions is remarkably similar. 'When I'm learning a new trick, I have to think quite analytically,' says Raleigh. 'I try the movement and if it doesn't work, I have to figure out what the problem might be, make adjustments and try again. This process continues tens or even thousands of times until you perfect the technique. It engages a similar part of the brain to logical problem-solving that we love so much in engineering.'

Equally prevalent in both disciplines is an emphasis on sticking the landing, as it were. A trick gone awry will bring a dampening hush upon the audience, and would we even know the names Edison, Curie or Einstein if not for their successes? However, the duo is adamant about highlighting the virtues of failure in their show. 'I love the saying "the master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried",' says Corcoran. 'There's a lot of emphasis today on showing your best side and displaying your successes, but that doesn't mean there is no failure leading up to that.' She points out how social media in particular, with its careful curation of appearances, can conceal struggles that go on behind the scenes. 'Young people need to know that failure is part of the journey and there's no way to reach your goals unless you're brave enough to fail along the way.'

They're particularly keen for their messaging to reach young women. Despite studies showing that school-aged girls feel equal enthusiasm for STEM subjects as their male peers, various systemic biases and structural challenges face women who wish to pursue careers in these fields, resulting in severely unequal representation in science and engineering. In order to create change, Raleigh believes we must start by encouraging creative thinking and questioning amongst girls, but also by questioning the biases we ourselves hold. 'The image of the male engineer creeps in subconsciously, and then women don't see themselves in these positions.'

So whether it's the spectacle of circus or the illuminating light of scientific enquiry, our imaginations are key to unlocking unseen possibilities. 'Creative thinking and experimentation are at the core of both circus and science,' says Corcoran. 'In order to make new discoveries, we need to imagine the impossible and ask questions that we don't know the answers to yet. Circus is about pushing the boundaries of what is possible with the body and with objects. Science is about pushing the boundaries of our knowledge and understanding of how the world works. Circus is a great way to visually represent scientific principles in an engaging way.'

StrongWomen Science Show and Workshops, Saturday 26 June, 10.30am, free. Both available on demand for 48 hours. Donations welcome.