Edinburgh International Science Festival: The Science of Comedy
Comedy has long had a nerdy side, but in recent years there's been an explosion in humour with a strong scientific flavour. At the forefront of this movement are two shows that will be represented at the Edinburgh International Science Festival: Uncaged Monkeys, where Robin Ince leads the likes of Brian Cox and Ben Goldacre; and The Festival of The Spoken Nerd, which includes mathematician-comedian Matt Parker and Blue Peter's science guy, Steve Mould. The popularity of these shows must be baffling to those who don't find quantum mechanics intrinsically hilarious.
Robin Ince will be appearing as part of the Humour Me show where, along with evolutionary biologist Robin Dunbar and psychologist Richard Wiseman, he'll be delving into the mysteries of why people laugh. "We're going to try and tackle quite complex issues in a way that's fun and accessible," says Ince. "There are some interesting issues but ultimately, with humour, if you analyse it too much it stops being funny."
Matt Parker, who will be performing via the very 21st century medium of Skype, says, "The great thing about comedy is that you're allowed to talk about anything as long as you make it entertaining. So my strategy is to talk about maths but using the techniques of stand-up comedy to make it entertaining for the audience."
Ince also agrees that science is a perfect medium for comedy. "All comedy comes from some kind of shared experience. Observational comedy only works if the audience knows what you're talking about. It's the same with science, and if people just feel the same kind of joy that I feel, then it can be wonderful."
While in Edinburgh, Ince will also perform his 2011 Fringe show Happiness Through Science. It's a a kind of postscript to The God Delusion, looking at how science doesn't just offer dry answers but can provide real hope, joy and hilarity. "The point of that show is to leave the audience with the same kind of passion for science that I feel. It doesn't offer any enormous answers but it's hopefully a springboard into people getting interested in quantum physics, human genome mapping and the like. These things are wonderful.
"Comedy can be very cynical so I love it when a show is about something positive. Whether it's me with science or my friend Josie Long talking about politics, you can really connect with an audience when you're passionate about something. The only drawback with this is that when someone says, 'I don't agree with what you said', you can't just shrug and say, 'it's only a joke mate'. You have to say, 'that's a pity, because I really believe that'."
It seems that passion is the common denominator between these 'boffin comics' (as some folk call them). And audiences around the country would agree that when they let rip on a topic about which they care deeply, the results are pretty funny. Science can definitely contribute to comedy, but what about the other way around? Can comedy contribute to science?
"I can't think of any scientific ideas that were advanced by comedy," says Parker, "but a few bad ideas have been pulled apart by it. If a homeopath claims they can dilute dolphin sonar and put it in a pill to treat illnesses, that is probably better discussed from a comedy stage than wasting proper scientific discourse on it.
"That said, the best use for comedy in science is as a celebration of knowledge and geekiness. Humankind's achievements through science are incredible and what better place to celebrate than in a comedy club?"
A valid hypothesis if ever there was one.