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Science Is Everywhere in Entertainment—But Are We Smarter for It?

Live shows blending science and entertainment have spread from Boston to New York and beyond. Do they inform as well as they entertain?

ByEthan GilsdorfNOVA NextNOVA Next

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On a Tuesday night in December at the Oberon Theater in Harvard Square, for a program called “You’re the Expert,” an unusual experiment is being performed.

Three comedians and one witty host are combined, on stage, with one world-renowned scientist in a petri dish called live performance. Unrehearsed, the funny-men and -women attempt to guess what the person studies. Then the expert scrutinizes just how wrong are their analyses. One of several shticks is called the Jargon and Acronym Game, wherein comedians try to guess the meaning of various terms relating to the expert’s field. For this particular show, the expert is Margaret Geller, a professor at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and MacArthur Fellow who studies the formation and evolution of the universe.

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"You’re the Expert" and other science-themed shows are often performed in front of live audiences.

“What does CCD stand for?” says Chris Duffy, founder and host of the hybrid science-comedy show.

“Cut the Crap, Darkstar,” offers stand-up comedian Bethany Van Delft.

That’s not correct, of course, but Van Delft gets a laugh from an audience sipping drinks and seated at the Oberon’s cabaret-style tables.

“I’m going to assume it’s ‘Cosmic Certain Death,’ ” says Christine Cuddy, another comedian on the panel.

“No, no,” Dr. Geller replies. “A CCD, it stands for ‘charge-coupled device.’ And I bet every one of you is carrying one around, whether you know it or not.”

“That’s really none of your business, Margaret,” Cuddy quips.

When the laughter dies down, the audience learns from Geller that a “charge-coupled device” is used to detect light. Cameras in some cell phones have them, but for her purposes, an astronomical CCD detects “these ancient photons that have been traveling through the universe for hundreds of millions and billions of years. They plop into the detector, and we read the history of the universe,” she says. “Pretty amazing.” By the end of the evening’s show, the 150 or so attendees also understand a little more about the mysteries of the universe.

A Formula for Funny

In bars, theaters and nightclubs, scientists seem to have found a formula for funny. “You’re The Expert” is but one of several events that fuse science and comedy and explore the intersection of research and performance. “I thought it was a wonderful way to present science to the public,” Geller says, after her first appearance. “It goes down easier with a little humor.”

“I want to make something funny, but I want to use comedy as a tool,” says Duffy, a comedian, journalist, and former fifth-grade teacher. “Comedy breaks down barriers and makes us equal.”

Duffy brainstormed the idea for the show, which debuted in 2012, while riding the Boston’s number 1 bus, which links Harvard, MIT, the Berklee College of Music, and Symphony Hall. He remembers thinking, “Someone on this bus is going to win the Nobel Prize, and I won’t get to talk to them.” Now, with “You’re the Expert,” he can. The show, which is also recorded as a podcast and available for download, has since spread to New York City and will make a foray into San Francisco and Los Angeles in early 2014.

Dr. Robert Eccles of the Harvard Business School along with "You’re the Expert" founder and host Chris Duffy and comedians Myq Kaplan, Zach Sherwin, and Robert Woo, on stage in April, 2013, at the Oberon Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

What explains this trend of comedy-infused science content? Perhaps we need to “funny up” and dramatize academic research to make it more accessible and exciting. It might be that society itself is simply more interested in science, in all its manifestations, than ever before. Yet beyond the impact of shows like “Big Bang Theory,” which have proven that nerdy humor can grab a big audience, is some other mysterious force at work? And does all this pop science activity actually increase science literacy?

A Growing Cast

“You’re the Expert” isn’t alone. Science as live performance is popping up in cities across the country. Programs like The Story Collider (both a radio-like podcast program and a touring show), and Radiolab (also recorded live and heard on more than 450 NPR stations), do for science what The Moth has done for oral storytelling: showcase great narratives. There’s also plenty of informal science-minded programming: lists more than 1,200 groups with more than 270,000 members nationwide that self-identify under the categories “Geeks & Nerds” and “Science.”

One of those groups is Atlanta Science Tavern, which has 3,600 members. “I think that the prospect of meeting like-minded people with the possibility of forming friendships is much more the driver than dressing up science in different clothes,” says Marc Merlin, the group’s director. “They don’t need for [science] to be disguised, they just need for someone to create opportunities for them to enjoy it in fun, social settings.” Recent events include a plan for members to attend a performance by Tim Lee, a self-described scientist-turned-comedian, at Georgia Tech, and a presentation called “The Hidden Mathematics in Music,” put on by members of Atlanta Science Tavern.

Nerd_nite_photo 1
Nerd Nite founder Chris Balakrishnan reprises the talk that launched the group 10 years ago.

Boston is a key incubator in this space. Beyond “You’re the Expert,” the area has many science-oriented meet-up groups, including Nerd Nite, which was founded here exactly one decade ago this December. Since then, the monthly events where two or three experts talk about their expertise in a bar has spread from Boston to New York City and eventually to 70 venues worldwide, including Germany and Liberia. “The goal was to ramp up the informality, the drink, and be silly zone,” says Nerd Nite founder Chris Balakrishnan, at the group’s recent 10th anniversary celebration. Now a Professor of Biology at East Carolina University, Balakrishnan returned to Boston to repeat the talk that started it all, “Brood Parasitism in Indigo Birds.”

Ben Lillie, co-founder and director of The Story Collider, sees the proliferation of science-as-performance as “part of a rising tide.” Live storytelling and other off-line, in-person events, “in contrast to looking at things online,” are experiencing a renaissance. “It turns out that works in science as well.”

A Source of Science

Another reason this science-on-stage concept might be thriving: According to Susanna Priest, visiting scholar at the University of Washington and editor of the peer-reviewed Science Communication , once many people leave school, they don’t have a steady stream of science information in their lives. “They are not going to be reading journal articles in their spare time,” she says.

Further, when science isn’t put on a pedestal, it’s more accessible, and seen as something “normal” people can do. Performance-oriented science can “also intrigue audiences to find out more, and perhaps encourage them to ask challenging questions of scientists,” says Sarah Davies, a professor who studies public engagement with science at the University of Copenhagen. Audiences are free to ask why research is being done, and where it’s leading us. “As such, science comedy is not just a fun evening out, but a means of empowering people to understand and use scientific knowledge.”

That said, simplifying science has risks. The idea of “dumbing down” hides “a lurking nasty issue,” says Radiolab senior producer Soren Wheeler—the distinction between accuracy and depth. Any science communication, he says, “faces certain trade offs between clarity and comprehensiveness. Or clarity and precision. As one goes up, the other goes down.” Radiolab is not intended to be a “comprehensive” take on, for example, why Kenyans dominate long-distance running or what happens to your waste once you flush it down the toilet. Rather, it’s to “pique people’s interest,” Wheeler says.

But no matter how simplified the story becomes, science entertainers have to ensure the information is correct. “People will object if the science we present is wrong,” Lillie says.

Another danger? The jokes themselves. Comedy can be divisive, potentially sorting audience members into those who “get it” and those who don’t. “I don’t think it particularly needs to be pointed out that insulting part of the audience is bad communication practice,” says Hauke Riesch, a lecturer in sociology and communications at Brunel University, London who studies the effectiveness of science communication. “I can understand why scientists joke among themselves, but as an outreach strategy—specifically to an audience that isn’t interested in it—it may be counterproductive.”

A Public Service

Shows like The Story Collider and events like Nerd Nite may be equal parts entertaining and informative, but there’s another, more nuanced outcome that many audience members may not pick up on. “Many people in the science education community, and scientists themselves, believe that they have a civic responsibility to explain what they are doing and what benefit their research has to the general public,” says Scott Asakawa, an outreach coordinator for NOVA, which helps coordinate hundreds of Science Cafés. When the public feels that they have an active role in discourse about science, Asakawa says, “then they’re going to feel invested in science as a whole.”

That can certainly help keep money flowing to the sciences. Increasingly, scientists are understanding that connecting with lay audiences can change the financial stakes. “Science is often funded by the taxpayer,” says the University of Copenhagen’s Davies. “At the very least laypeople should be able to access and understand it.”

“You need to be able to communicate clearly and engage the public, not your peers,” says Brian Malow, a science comedian who works in science communications at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh. That effort includes explaining how taxpayer money is being used to fund research. Neil deGrasse Tyson provides an example of how this can work, Malow notes. Tyson, the director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, has used his position and fame to lobby for increases in NASA’s budget.

Accessible public events can also make research more open, transparent, and accountable. “Science comedy,” Davies says, “seems to me to be a great way of enabling this.” Humor can increase trust between science or scientists and the public, Riesch adds, and can persuade people “that science is worthwhile and worth listening to.”

Add to these results the simple effect of everyday people “getting” what scientists do. In Boston, for example, during “Science by the Pint” events held in the backroom of a local pub, professors give short talks—“The Biomechanics of Insect Flight”— then circulate along with members of their lab to chat with audience members. The researchers “enjoy being able to talk about their work with a diverse audience,” says Kelsey Taylor, one of the co-directors of Science in the News, the Harvard graduate student organization that runs the series. In turn, Taylor says, audience members often ask “interesting, high level questions.”

These more casual, one-to-one connections make scientists feel appreciated and their research valued and understood. And when laypeople can see what happens inside their minds—their successes and failures, their passions and poignant “Aha!” moments of discovery—they can feel closer to the story of science.

Making it Work

While science-as-entertainment seems to be succeeding at the theater box office, it’s something of an open question whether it increases science literacy. Brunel University’s Riesch says he is not aware of studies that specifically have examined if humor “enhances science learning,” but studies of humor in general education and communications literature show that the evidence is mixed. Results depend on the type of humor and its context. The jokes need to be relevant to the material, he says. “If the lecture is dotted with great but irrelevant jokes, then there is a danger that the students will remember the irrelevant bits.” In the same vein, “too much clowning” can “damage the credibility of the teacher,”  Riesch adds. The humor also needs to be targeted appropriately to the background knowledge of the audience. “If you make a joke about the Krebs cycle, people won’t find it funny unless they know what the Krebs cycle is.”

But overall, comedy seems to enhance the enjoyment people get out of the science lesson. Laughter and play make “serious” topics digestible. Experts also say humor also helps increase memory, retention, and alertness.

It all points to the need for “a new concept of science literacy,” Priest, of the University of Washington, says. “We need to get over an obsession with standardized factual tests and concentrate instead on giving people opportunities to better understand how science really works.” Enabling the public to understand, for example, that uncertainty always exists in scientific results would help eliminate controversies over issues like climate change policy. Science cafes and the like, Priest says, let the public “in on how science is actually conducted in a hands-on way that can actually contribute to research.”

Pressing Questions

Back at “You’re the Expert,” Margaret Geller is wrapping up her session. For a non-professional performer, Geller does a bang-up job. Duffy is the glue that holds the show together, waiting for a lull between the comedians’ retorts before asking Geller more serious questions to help the audience understand what she does and why, and getting at the heart of what drives her as a scientist. What gets her excited about her work each day? What makes scientists do good research? “Ask a question you can find an answer to,” Geller replies. “It’s not a good question if you can’t answer it.”

Yet not all Geller’s inquiries have easy answers. Towards the end of the evening, Geller reveals that one of her most pressing questions has remained unanswerable: the fact that scientists can’t actually detect so-called “dark matter,” the mysterious substance that hypothetically makes up most of the universe.

Stand-up comic Myq Kaplan is ready with the answer. “Have you thought about looking for a dark matter with a black light?”

No, Geller says, laughing. She had not thought of that.

Photo credits: You're the Expert and Ethan Gilsdorf