Quantum Mechanic

Content from 2013-02

Science as told by comedians

posted on 2013-02-22 20:37:08

Lately, I've had the good luck to find a number of science shows trying to bring modern research and understanding to a wider public than the scientific communities.  I've been suffering through a long dearth of employment that I'd like to write about as soon as I understand it better myself.  Yesterday, I went on a search for new podcasts to fill my copious free time and found this! It's sort of in the same vein as Dara O'Brien's Science Club, and Neil DeGrasse Tyson's Star Talk.  Like Science Club, it's out of Britain, but has a tone more like Star Talk.

The format that all of these shows have in common is that some scientists and comedians try to make science more accessible and present. Billy Bragg, a legendary British punk who wrote many songs about labor movements and sexual politics, was in an episode I just listened to, which was exciting for me, as a fan of his music.  Unfortunately, part of his contribution to the episode was making the science as a type of faith argument, which I find very dull and not at all worthwhile.  That said, I hope to sort my feelings on that out into words sometime soon and put it up here.  Some of the episodes of these shows are naturally better than others, and I am grateful to the astronauts and scientists who take the time to go on them and be excited about their present work.  Getting to hear the cutting edge of science from the people who do it makes it all the more real.

This is, I think the greatest thing these shows can bring.  Even if you don't understand Quantum Chromodynamics, or Cosmology, or Computational Biology, you can always relate to someone who is excited about what they're talking about.  I know I certainly wouldn't know nearly as much as I do about the revolutionary-era history of southern New York if it weren't for my father's devouring of books on the subject and consequent sharing of plentiful facts on family trips, or even while driving around Westchester County, where I grew up.

Then, we come to the other part of these shows which, I think, is the biggest difference between the three examples above: The comedic foil.

This is where The Infinite Monkey Cage stands out more from the others, in that its comedic personality, Robin Ince, is willing to further conversation much more so than, say, the comedians who frequent Star Talk.  In saying so, I don't mean to slight Eugene Mirman, or the others on Star Talk any more than to say I think TIMC is doing it better.  Their jokes are much more on topic, keep moving, and don't have the feeling that I'm in the back room of a bar in Brooklyn somewhere.  This is probably a particularly unfair comparison, since I think most of them are comedians out of Brooklyn, but there is a certain style of disconnected exposition I've seen in such places that definitely comes out in their work on the show.

TIMC is also willing to make science jokes, which has been pretty refreshing in a way.  I think it also reflects the different attitude of the comedy they do, in that the comedian is in on the jokes.  In comparison, Star Talk's banter often has a slightly confrontational edge.  It's often as though the comics feel like they need to one up the scientists somehow, and I think Dr. Tyson's personality as both an enthusiastic scientist and public speaker only confounds the problem further.

Despite any criticisms I might have of aspects of these shows, I'm very happy to see them all popping up, and look forward to seeing how they grow and evolve over time.  I worry that some of them remain niche entertainment and don't make it to a wider public that doesn't have friends who are scientists and might force a new podcast on them, but it certainly won't get out to people if the shows didn't exist at all.  Go check some out and let me know which you like and why, I would really like to know!