Excited State: Brian Mackenwells & Jess Thom

In this episode, we share two stories of "excited states," from a science communicator's ride on the "Vomit Comet," to a woman's experience with Tourette's syndrome. 

Part 1: Brian Mackenwells tries to smuggle an unauthorized piece of whimsy onto a zero-gravity spaceflight.

Jump to Brian's story>>

Brian Mackenwells currently works at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics as the Public Engagement Officer. For the seven years before that he worked at "Science Oxford," an Oxford-based science communication charity, developing and delivering science shows and workshops to all ages of young people. In his spare time he acts and directs as part of an amateur dramatics group, and co-writes the monthly audio-drama podcast "Action Science Theatre". He has also derived E=MC^2 live on stage in the back room of a pub, floated in zero gravity, and has only made two children cry in the course of his public engagement career to date.

Part 2: Jess Thom learns the best way to explain her Tourette's to someone new. 

Jump to Jess's story>>

Jess Thom is co-founder of Touretteshero and may or may not lead a secret double life as a superhero. Artist, playworker, and expert fundraiser, Jess currently helps coordinate a large play project in South London. Jess has had tics since she was a child but wasn’t diagnosed with Tourettes until she was in her twenties. With some encouragement from her friends, Jess decided to turn her tics into a source of imaginative creativity and the Touretteshero project was born.


Episode Transcript

Part 1: Brian Mackenwells

Thank you very much. I was pretty nervous before the flight because I didn’t want to be one of the people who threw up and this flight had a bit of a reputation for that. Its nickname was "The Vomit Comet," although NASA, who run the flights, they don’t like you to call it that. They did however give us three top tips for getting sick on this flight.

The first tip is to remember that NASA is a publicly funded organization so it has to get its supplies from the lowest bidder so it is very, very important that you double-check that your sick bag has a bottom before you need to use it.

The second thing that they warned us about had to do with why this flight was special. NASA used this plane to create short periods of weightlessness for research and training purposes. It does that by going up and down and up and down and up and down. At the up bits, the peaks of this, basically everyone in the plane gets flung upwards and it simulates what it’s like to be in space and you get about fifteen seconds of that.

If you get sick during that bit, the thing to remember is that the vomit doesn’t come out and float there. The surface tension will make it stick to your face like the world’s most disgusting beard. So it’s very important that you hold the bag all the way around your mouth if you do want to get sick.

The third part, the third tip of getting sick on this flight has to do with the bits where it pulls up because it goes up and then down. When it goes down, it has to pull back up and in that pull-up phase, you get about two Gs so you feel twice the weight. If you decide to get sick during that bit, it’s very important that you remember the vomit is going to fall at twice the force as you were used to so you have to hold the bag very tightly. You can imagine how they came to learn all of these facts.

But by the time I go out to the physical plane, I wasn’t nervous anymore. That’s mostly because they give you an anti-nausea shot, which makes you feel real weird. You're kind of light-headed, and [it's] a bit like being drunk but the level where you are quite good at pool. The thing is, once the plane takes off, then the adrenaline kicks in and then all of a sudden those side effects go away and you can go back to worrying about getting sick again.

The next bit of my talk is pretty good. I wonder what it is. Hmm. Oh, yeah... That wasn’t the most nerve-wracking part of the whole experience for me. That had actually happened the day before on the ground and it was the inspection, and I want to be clear on capitalizing the T and the I in that.

This was when the pilots got a chance to look at all the equipment that was being brought onto their plane because there were eight different teams. A hundred different research scientists of one kind or another wanting to do experiments in zero gravity and so there was all sorts of weird and wonderful equipment. And these two guys were responsible for the safety of everyone on that plane so they had complete veto over everything that got brought on there and so you had to show them that you were taking this seriously. "Taking it seriously" was the general theme of the whole week. The NASA flight operations crew who run the plane are fantastic, but they're very clear that you’re not on a jolly. You’re not supposed to go up there and have fun. These flights are actually quite expensive, and all of us to a greater or lesser extent were there on U.S. tax payer dollars. So, basically, they didn’t want to hear anybody saying, “Whee!” when we were up there. These two pilots... the inspection was sort of like that feeling times about a million.

All of the teams, the eight teams, we all... the inspection happened in this roped-off part of an aircraft hanger. Each of the teams had two trestle tables, and we had to lay out every single thing that we were going to bring onto the plane. Then we all stood around the edge, all hundred people, and waited for the pilots to turn up.

Then, when the pilots did turn up, I was actually quite pleased because they are exactly how you would like U.S. Air Force pilots to look. They were wearing jumpsuits and they had close-cropped hair and they were wearing sunglasses indoors, but they had clipboards and they were serious.

They came over to our team, at this long table, the far end of the table. They started at that end and were like, “What’s that? What’s that?” Our team leader, Tom, had to stand up in front of all these hundred people and justify every single nut and bolt that we brought with us.

It was around then that my stomach dropped because I realized what I had done. I was standing at the far end, and right in front of me on the table was the thing I had added to the inventory, which was a Rubik’s Cube. And I did that for no reason.

I liked the Rubik’s Cube and I thought, “Wouldn’t it be fun to get a picture of it floating in zero gravity? Maybe get a retweet from the official account?” That would be cool, but I didn’t in that moment think that those two guys would value that the same way I was valuing it.

As they were working their way through, I had to desperately try and think of an explanation that wasn’t stupid. I thought, "Well, we were allowed to have a mascot," so maybe I thought, “Oh, maybe I could justify this. This is our mascot. It’s a mascot. It’s a mascot, a Rubik’s Cube, a very common mascot.”

But at that point, they had just finished interrogating the cuddly Peppa Pig that was our actual mascot, and so I realized that my Rubik’s Cube didn’t have a justification. This was a completely unauthorized piece of whimsy that I was bringing onto this plane.

They got closer to it and closer and I got into a cold panic sweat. I felt like I was going to get sick, rather appropriately. They got closer and closer and closer, and then they got to the Rubik’s Cube and then... they didn’t mention it, and I don’t know why. Looking back, I suspect it’s because NASA is so full of nerds there’s probably Rubik’s Cubes all over the place and they probably don’t even notice it anymore. It’s like furniture is my best guess.

By the time I was actually on the plane, the difficult part was over for me. When we got out above the Gulf of Mexico, we had a short period of time to get into position, into our different areas of the Vomit Comet plane flight. In order to indicate to all of the flight operation crew how seriously we were taking it, as soon as we were given the okay, we took off our seat belts, those standard airplane seat-belt things as quickly and efficiently as we could. Stood up as quickly and efficiently as we could and walked in really efficient straight lines to our different areas, because we were taking it seriously.

I think that’s one of the reasons actually I was so worried about being sick. Not just because getting sick is the worst thing your body can do as part of its normal operations, but because getting sick seemed sort of frivolous, I guess? Like emotional or something? It’s certainly not rational. It’s the physiological equivalent of going, “Whee!” 

But we went over to our area and we had a reasonably simple setup. One of us lay on the ground, the other team members sat around them reading off numbers from the tissue oximeters that we were testing so I was laying down the first time I experienced weightlessness.

It’s a bit of a weird experience to explain. The closest I can get is that it’s a bit like floating under water except there’s no water, but this means there’s sort of no resistance the same way you get in water. So when you thrash around or move, you don’t really move around that much, but if you do happen to hit something, you will ping off in a crazy direction. It’s very easy to completely lose control of where you are going.

I didn’t get sick, you will be glad to know. Thank you. Oh, thank you, thank you. There’s not many rooms you’ll get an applause for that. So I didn’t sick. One of our team did, but I won’t embarrass Nick by telling you it was him. But it wasn’t even a big deal when that happened because apparently it happens all the time.

But a more interesting physiological response happened during the flight. That was, as soon as the first peak hit, everybody started laughing. Then, throughout the rest of the flight, everybody was giggling and having fun and catching each other’s eyes and going, “Oh my God, there’s more floating.”  It’s impossible not to have fun.

The flight operations crew were sort of... I expect they knew that would happen because they got slightly relaxed about it once we were up there. The thing is, even though we all had fun, the work still got done, and I think that’s a mistake we often make especially in science, is in confusing seriousness with solemnity. Like you couldn’t possibly be doing good work if you are having a nice time or getting sick.

That’s not true and we all know it’s not true. If you asked anyone, they would say it’s not true, but we all still act like it’s true, like you have to be stony-faced in order to be serious about something. If that experience taught me anything, it was how to throw up in zero gravity, but if it taught me a second thing, it’s that we should probably try and switch off the gravity a little bit more often. Thank you.

Part 2: Jess Thom

Nice job, <Biscuit!> thanks <Hedgehog!> <Biscuit!> <Biscuit!>. This is an adventure. I’m not going to stage dive. I mean, I can’t promise that. Front row, I’m sure you’ve got me. <Biscuit!> <Hedgehog!> <Cats!>. Hello, <Biscuit!> I’m Jess, <Biscuit!> I’m an artist, <Biscuit!> a writer, and a part-time super hero. <Biscuit!> <Hedgehog!> <Cats!> <Biscuit!> I also have Tourette’s syndrome <Biscuit!>, which is a neurological conduction, <Biscuit!> that means I make noises and movements I can’t control <Biscuit!> called tics  <Beans!>. They’re not called beans. <Salad!> Or salad. <Biscuit!> <Hedgehog!> <Biscuit!>

I’m going to describe myself briefly for anyone who might find this useful. I’m a nineteen-year-old antelope. Okay, I’m going to try and describe myself <Biscuit!>. I’m a thirty-something white woman <Biscuit!> of average build with curly brown hair and a very cool wheelchair. <Biscuit!> <Cats!>

There’s three things you need to know straightaway <Biscuit!> <Cats!>. Firstly, you’re going to hear the words “biscuit” and “hedgehog” <Biscuit!> a lot in the next ten minutes. <Biscuit!> <Biscuit!> Secondly, if I say something funny, you’re absolutely allowed to laugh <Biscuit!>. In fact, it would be a bit odd if you don’t <Biscuit!> <Biscuit!>.

Finally, several times a day, my tics intensify <Biscuit!>. <Hello, phone, it’s your mother checking up on you> I mean, it might be. <Biscuit!> <Hedgehog!> <Biscuit!> <Cats!> <Biscuit!> Several times a day, my tics intensify and I completely lose control of my body and speech. <Biscuit!> These episodes, which I call ticing fits, look seizure-like and need similar management. <Biscuit!> <Cats!> If this happens while I’m talking, <Biscuit!> entertain yourselves with a penguin. No, you don’t have to do that. Don’t worry. <Biscuit!> <Biscuit!> I mean, you can try. My support worker will come and help me, and Liz will take over… with that penguin. <Biscuit!> <Hedgehog!> <Biscuit!>

Tourette’s is one of the most frequently misunderstood conditions on the planet. <Biscuit!> Lots of people have heard of it, but most of what they know is based on myths and stereotypes <Biscuit!> so I thought I’d get a few of those out of the way first. <Biscuit!>  

Swearing <Fuck it!> -- it’s often characterized <Biscuit!> as the swearing disease. <Fuck a sheep!>. In fact, only ten percent of people with Tourette’s have obscene tics, <Fuck them!> I am one of them. <Biscuit!> <Biscuit!> But even so, I’m as likely to shout about domestic appliances, dinosaurs or B-list celebrities as I am to swear. <Biscuit!>

It isn’t a rare condition. It’s estimated to affect three hundred thousand people in the U.K. <Biscuit!>, but it’s on a spectrum so it affects each person differently. Some people’s tics are barely noticeable <Biscuit!>. Like mine <Biscuit!>. While others will behave in a way that makes them stand out. <Biscuit!> It isn’t just saying what’s on your mind. <Biscuit!> I don’t think about biscuits <Biscuit!> nearly as much as I talk about them. <Biscuit!> <Biscuit!> <Biscuit!> It’s a neurological condition, not a mental health disorder, and it’s not caused by bad parenting, nervousness <Biscuit!>, or demonic possession. <Biscuit!> So what is it? <Biscuit!>

My favorite description <Biscuit!> comes from the Oxford Handbook of Clinical Medicine, <Biscuit!> <Ta-da!> <Biscuit!> You always introduce a handbook with a “Ta-da!” <Biscuit!> <Biscuit!> It describes Tourette's as irrepressible, <Biscuit!> explosive, occasionally obscene verbal ejaculations and gestures. <Biscuit!>

 It goes on. There may be a witty, innovatory, phantasmagoric picture, with mimicry, antics, and playfulness <Biscuit!>. And that’s the Tourette's I know. <Biscuit!> I’d like to play a quick game. <Biscuit!> Turn to the person next to you and say hello. <Biscuit!> Now, stare into their eyes and try not to blink for as long as possible. <Biscuit!> <Cats!> <Hedgehog!> <Biscuit!> <Cats!> <Hedgehog!> <Biscuit!> <Biscuit!>

Have we got any winners? <Biscuit!> <Hedgehog!> <Biscuit!> Have we got any winners? Round of applause for all our non-blinking champions. <Biscuit!> <Biscuit!>

I often use blinking <Biscuit!> as a way of explaining to children what tics feel like. <Biscuit!> I remember a lovely conversation with a child at work. <Biscuit!> We were sitting in the garden, near a pond. <Splash! That’s Theresa May falling in!> Okay, that didn’t happen in the real story. <Biscuit!> <Hedgehog!> <Biscuit!> <Biscuit!>

Shaded by a green canopy, <Biscuit!> patches of sunlight made their way through the leaves. <Biscuit!> The girl I was with was seven, and together we were looking into the water <Biscuit!>, discussing what might live beneath the surface. <Biscuit!> I had explained Tourette's to her before <Biscuit!>, like I have to lots of children <Biscuit!> <Biscuit!>, but she asked what tics felt like <Biscuit!> so I asked what her body did all the time without her noticing. <Biscuit!>

She couldn’t think of anything <Biscuit!> so I pointed out how she blinked. <Biscuit!> She laughed and said, <Biscuit!> “If I don’t blink, it hurts. I have to blink.” <Biscuit!> I said, “That’s a bit like how it feels for me if I don’t move or make a noise.” <Biscuit!>

She suggested we had a no-blinking competition <Biscuit!>, carefully pointing out that “Biscuits” were okay. <Biscuit!> <Biscuit!> We sat on the ground near the pond and stared at each other. <Biscuit!> London’s never felt so peaceful. <Biscuit!> She won. <Biscuit!> <Biscuit!>

Tics will feel slightly different to each person with Tourette's. <Biscuit!> Mine create a whole range of sensations <Biscuit!> <Like a bubble machine on a trampoline and it’s sat inside a porcupine’s bum!> I mean, that’s not exactly how I describe it <Biscuit!> <Biscuit!>, but my tics do often draw my attention to the world around me in a way that I’d otherwise miss. <Biscuit!> <Biscuit!>

My bed was cold when I got in it so I pulled the duvet tightly ’round me as I settled down to sleep. <Biscuit!> I hadn’t closed the blinds <Biscuit!>, but I didn’t want to leave my slowly warming bed so I lay looking at the familiar scene outside my window. <Biscuit!> <Biscuit!> It was a blustery autumnal night, <Biscuit!> the first since the seasons had changed. <Biscuit!> My tics were instantly drawn to the wave-like movements of the trees outside. <Biscuit!>

“You are waving like the sea trees. <Biscuit!> Are you a large tree or a sea anemone? <Biscuit!> Trees, the squirrels are so lucky you’ve given them whitewater rafting lessons. It’s an adventure.” <Biscuit!> <Hedgehog!> <Biscuit!>

The branches, still leafy, undulated and swelled. <Biscuit!> I drifted off to sleep watching them, shouting sporadically. <Biscuit!> Soon, they’ll lose their leaves and stop waving like the ocean <Biscuit!>, and if it wasn’t for Tourette’s, this seasonal shift would probably have passed me by. <Biscuit!> <Biscuit!> <Hedgehog!> <Biscuit!> You probably guessed it by now <Biscuit!>, but if my story has one take-home message <Biscuit!> is that you never put Theresa May in a colander, that nineteen percent of all orgasms look great in grayscale, and that trigonometry is the biggest adventure anyone can have on a Thursday. Thank you.