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Last Updated: Tuesday, 8 June, 2004, 12:13 GMT 13:13 UK
The hidden comedy of science
Trying to persuade people that science is funny could be a miserable task on a par with learning the periodic table for kicks. But that's the task Timandra Harkness and Helen Pilcher have chosen for themselves.

Timandra Harkness and Helen Pilcher
Timandra Harkness and Helen Pilcher
Most people think that science is about as funny as a night in with the mother-in-law and that e=mc2 has the comedic potential of a sack of spuds. But they might just be wrong.

Imagine an experiment designed to test the hypothesis that science can be funny. Picture identical audiences locked in identical rooms. One listens to a pair of science-savvy comedians cracking a blistering set of research-related gags. The other doesn't. Which audience do you think will laugh loudest?

Our two-woman stand up science comedy show, the Comedy Research Project, has so far had promising results. Willing spectators have not only laughed but joined in with the chemical formula for nitric oxide, donned our patented Neurotransmodulator™ for an informal brain scan, and sung along with Albert Einstein. It seems we are not the only people to think that there's more to humour than beer and farting.

Our project was born, not out of a high-minded mission to make the masses love science, but out of desperation to tickle the cerebral cortex along with the funny bone. Two stand up comedians, united by a common interest in all things scientific, we know that the difference between the sexes doesn't boil down to shopping and map reading, but to the SrY gene.

If we find this stuff interesting, there must be other people out there who do too. And it seems we are right. Numerous experimental trials have shown that Multiverse theory, genetically modified animals, the principles of flight; nothing is too scientifically obscure to be the object of a bad pun or a visual gag.

Friendly bacteria

Of course, we're not the only people to get laughs from the lab, but it's disappointingly rare to face competition. Many people believe the public are wary of science, and are turned off by jokes with long words in.

Get it?
We have sometimes found people nervous of being preached to, but when they realise that, like them, we're just after a good time, the laughs start to flow. Still not convinced that science can be more than the bespectacled geek at the comedy party?

Science tends to mix the startlingly new with the familiar in unexpected ways - the very stuff of comedy. Back to the familiar premise that men are good at reading maps while women excel at shoe shopping.

While science has yet to discover the female Imelda Marcos brain region, neurological scans have shown that men's brains light up when treated to an upside down Ordnance Survey map of West Glamorgan. So there may be kernels of scientific truth in some of the old stereotypes. Scientists are currently studying women's perceived inability to understand the offside rule.

Infinite chickens

There's a rich vein of comedy in pushing the "what if?" to extreme conclusions, and science throws up plenty of "what ifs". Mulitiverse theory asserts that an infinite number of universes exist, and that every possible variation on our own Universe is happening somewhere out there now.

Theoretically, every "what if?" joke ever written is actually happening in a universe slightly different to our own. An infinite number of chickens crossing an infinite number of roads for an infinite number of equally unfunny reasons.

So - science can be funny. But are our results reproducible? There's only one way to find out (details under Internet links). You won't be covered by Home Office animal welfare regulations, but they will sell you beer.

Timandra Harkness is a freelance science writer, and Helen Pilcher is a journalist for Nature. They are performing at the Science Museum's Dana Centre on Tuesday night.

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