post I published in June 2020 during the pandemic, while
starting up my Honeycomb
Dome sales venture]
you deliberately walk on fire? Can you imagine yourself
walking barefoot across a bed of coals
glowing at 500ºC? I’ve done just that (see me in the red
shirt below) - but was it a religious rite, motivational
seminar or science experiment?
For me it felt like a science experiment. Yet I found it
I was manager of the Glasgow Planetarium (you can see the
dome behind me) and the company we booked for the charity
fundraiser emphasised the scientific aspect of walking on
fire and not the more popular woo-woo nonsense.
So, if it was carefully explained to you why skin
doesn't burn over short fire walks of 3 to 4 meters, would
you attempt it?
Fire walking is popular because it helps us realise many of
our beliefs are self-limiting ie.
🔥 if you believe
the coal will burn you, you will never walk on fire
if you believe
it’s necessary to conform to society’s expectations, you’ll
never do anything positively disruptive with your life
if I believe
I can only earn a living visiting
schools, I won’t succeed selling social distancing domes to
restaurants during pandemics.
I’d LOVE to know:
➤ have you walked on fire?
➤ would you like to walk on fire?
➤ have you ever turned down an opportunity to walk on fire?
An Unexpected Honour
On 20 October 2018 a colleague and I delivered a double dome
immersive experience at the Royal Academy of Arts (London), for
an evening event called Cosmic
The Royal Academy of Arts is based in Burlington House,
Piccadilly - which is also the home of the Linnean Society
(established 1788), a learned society dedicated to the study of
natural history and taxonomy.
Our domes were set up in the Reynolds Room, where, on 1st July
1858, research papers by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel
Wallace were presented, and the world first heard about the
origin of species by natural selection.
When I saw the commemorative panel in the room I couldn't
believe my eyes (and my luck!), and photographed it with one of
my projection boxes in front of it.
Interestingly, botanist and explorer Joseph Dalton Hooker (who
when the papers were delivered) wrote that after the
presentation 'the room was awestruck and completely silent, with
a lack of discussion about the papers, possibly due to the
subject being too novel and ominous'.
Even more interesting, the president of the Linnean Society at
the time clearly had no idea what momentous changes this
discovery would bring, writing in his annual review: "The year
which has passed ... has not, indeed, been marked by any of
those striking discoveries which at once revolutionise, so to
speak, the department of science on which they bear."
How astounding that visionary, brilliant people are so often not
appreciated by those around them at the time.
A Prestigious Lifeless
On the evening of 5th November 2009, I suffered a 'fatal heart
attack' and a public 'autopsy' was performed on me in the Royal
Institution Lecture Theatre (London) - the prestigious
auditorium where Michael Faraday first demonstrated
electromagnetism (1831) and where the annual Christmas Lectures
have been held since 1825.
My wife Ruth was Public Engagement Manager at the Royal College of
Pathologists, and I had volunteered to be the 'cadaver' at a
Pathology Week event involving a mock autopsy. It was called
Heart Attack: Behind the Scenes, was held in partnership
with the British Heart Foundation, and after my mock autopsy it
included the dissection of a real pig's heart.
By now I had become quite
good at lying perfectly still for an hour or more (while having
my body drawn on with coloured markers). Ruth had launched the
very first National Pathology Week the year before, and so I'd
experienced a number of 'autopsies' at the hands of various
pathologists around the country before this particular event.
The secret to lying perfectly still is to 'zone out' and
either focus intently on the lecture, or something else
altogether (while keeping away from certain topics of course).
The most challenging part is ignoring dozens of imaginary (and
occasionally not-so-imaginary) itches and prickles that clamber
The following year I performed at another unique venue, London's
Old Operating Theatre, Britain's oldest operating theatre
dating back to 1822. As you can see from the feedback,
apparently I was uncannily convincing as a corpse.
Sharing a Stage with my Heroes
In June 2006 I was invited to be a speaker on the Tea, Talk
series, hosted by the School of Physics and Astronomy of
the University of Birmingham.
I delivered an illustrated presentation about aliens, sceptical
thinking and astrobiology, called Aliens
on Earth. I developed this talk while at Armagh
Planetarium and had presented it a number of times before.
Sceptical thinking and the possibility of extraterrestrial life
have always been two of my greatest passions.
The Tea, Talk and Telescope lecture series ran from
2006-2014 and featured a number of academics and researchers I
greatly admired - and even considered my heroes - like David
Malin, Brian Cox, David H. Levy and Prof. John Brown.
In 1999, on making the decision to emigrate to the UK from South
Africa, I very much looked forward to attending lectures by such
Therefore considering my humble origins, I never expected - only
seven years later - to be sharing the stage with some of these
renowned science communicators.
A Single Revolution
I published at 21:30 on Saturday 30th December 2000, in
Armagh, Northern Ireland]
Exactly one year ago, almost at this precise moment, the
wheels of my Virgin Atlantic flight lifted off South
When that moment came, and I felt the thud of the undercarriage
beneath me, I smiled and breathed a sigh of relief: I knew I had
succeeded in finally leaving that unfortunate, deteriorating
country - safe and in one piece.
Yet I also knew that a tremendous challenge lay before me. All
on my own, I was entering a new, unfamiliar environment. A
wintry world where I spoke funny and felt awkward and
The first two weeks were the worst. The very first entry in my
2000 diary reads: "Went to bed in a bit of a panic...asking
myself 'what have you done to your life?'".
Traveling to and from work on a bicycle in the middle of winter
during my first three months in the UK was no joke either. Yet I
stuck it out, marking days off my calendar until things
I'm really glad I didn't throw in the towel.
And tonight, sitting in my comfortable warm room, with the snow
lying thick outside, I can't believe that my diary once again
reads 30th December ... and that Africa is far away."
My precious one-way ticket out:
Do I miss South Africa?
The security of quality health care : when I look at my
ageing parents and notice how ill-health is creeping up on them,
I no longer worry about where we'll find the money to take them
to a private hospital (to avoid the pressing thousands of South
Africans queuing at state hospitals).
No bugs : when I switch on the kitchen light, I no longer
see cockroaches scurrying for cover (vermin that are always
there, despite your best efforts to keep a clean home).
No danger : when I look out my bedroom window at night, I
no longer see lurking people and threatening shadows in the
dark. There is absolutely no-one around - only the occasional
taxi that serves as transport for the neighbour across the way.
Finding the Key
On the outskirts of the 1000-year old Sicilian village Piazza
Armerina, there is a small olive grove called Sarafina.
It is the oldest and only remaining plot of the once more
extensive cultivated lands of the Di Maggio family. Many of the
olive trees (heavily pruned in 1990) are hundreds of years old.
In August 1997, while on a family visit to Sarafina, I
made a surprising discovery in one of the olive trees. Inside a
knothole in a tree just to the left of the ruins of the old
storehouse (below), something glinted in the sun.
On investigating, I pulled out a large, rusty key. It turned
out to be the long-forgotten storehouse door key, safe in its
hiding place for over 50 years.
I worked hard and did well at school. It was a welcome
escape from an unhappy life at home. I particularly enjoyed
secondary school, an all-boys school (then) called Alexandra
Academically I wasn't naturally brilliant, and English was
only my third language (on my first day at primary school,
aged 6, I only knew two English words: 'sorry' and 'toilet').
Nevertheless, I was a dedicated student and surprised myself
when I began doing well at secondary school - both
academically and in sport (basketball).
In my final year I ended up being the school Dux (top
academic pupil), and I had made the provincial basketball
I guess the most important thing I learned from my school
career is that natural talent is not a requirement for
success. Hard work and dedication can achieve the exact same
(my name at school was Mariano instead of Mario - an
error made by my parents [who didn't speak English] when they
prepared my birth certificate. I had my name changed to Mario
on my passport years later)