Science don’t always come across as a laugh-a-minute subject, but then somehow, comedy trio Festival of the Spoken Nerd have have managed to find the funny in the formulas and the mirth in the mathematics. In the group’s latest DVD they manage to turn recursion into a mind-boggling journey of jollies, explore the dangers posed by consuming vast quantities of banana, and estimate pi, with, well, a pie.
We chat to Steve Mould, Helen Arney and Matt Parker about the new show, science songs and delicious numbers.
What’s the most expensive or significant thing you’ve destroyed in pursuit of a good experiment?
A 6.6 carat diamond, in the shape of a Blue Peter badge. I burned it in liquid oxygen live on TV – to prove it was real diamond! And to celebrate Blue Peter’s diamond anniversary.
Diamond is made of pure carbon so when you burn it all you get it carbon dioxide – a gas. So the whole thing seems to just disappear! I had to rewrite the risk assessment five times but it was totally worth it.
What’s the best experiment I could do as soon as I get home?
Get hold of a new plastic £5 note and a laser pointer – it doesn’t need to be fancy, the one inside a presentation clicker will do. Shine the laser pointer through the queen’s face onto a wall, and it makes a pretty pattern!
The question is, is it a security feature or just a coincidence of the way the Queen is printed. We may never know! Canadian $50 notes have a maple leaf on them. No surprises there… But if you shine a laser through this one, it projects “$50” onto the wall.
Who is the nerdiest member of the group?
In order, it’s Matt Parker first, then Matt Parker second, with me and Helen tied in third place.
In the show you ask the audience when they have nerded out to the max – when have you nerded out to the max?
I proposed to my wife via a geocache – with a note written in binary. She said “1”.
Musical comedy is hard enough, how have you managed to add science into the mix as well?
My favourite kind of musical comedy always has a human story at its heart, as well as music and jokes. Science is fundamentally a human endeavour: it’s done by humans, for other humans to understand.
A lot of it is about how humans work, how we fit into the universe, or exists because someone has followed their human curiosity. So with every science topic, you don’t just get fascinating factual stuff, you also get a relatable human story hiding in there somewhere. That’s where it all overlaps for me, and I can turn into something like this Cryonic Love Song.
Are there some concepts in science that naturally lend themselves to song?
My background is physics, so I love delving into space science where the stories are great, and the views are even better. Remember how dramatic things got when Philae tried to land on a comet?
The most satisfying kind of song to write isn’t one that simply strings together a load of rhyming facts, but one that takes a concept and incorporates it into the structure of the song itself, like trying to sing a Googolplex (spoiler: you can’t), or creating a love song with just search engine algorithms (spoiler: delete your search history now).
In the show you sing the whole of the periodic table, do you have a favourite element?
Ooooh good question! It changes all the time. Right now it’s Curium, the radioactive element named after Marie (and Pierre) Curie. It’s like a bonus girl-power element on top of the two that Marie won a Nobel Prize for discovering: Radium and Polonium.
It also glows purple in the dark, but I don’t recommend using it to help you read under the covers at night… eventually it’ll make your hand fall off. And probably your eyes as well.
What’s the funniest science joke?
I nominate Matt’s flat earth joke from the new show. Mostly because the set-up involves custom coding in Linux, a top-of-the-range spherical camera and a megapixel image of planet Earth. The punchline is totally worth it.
Is there a mathematical formula for comedy, or a particularly funny equation?
There is not one formula for good comedy, but comedy can certainly be pull apart logically. Much of comedy is giving the audience enough data to extrapolate to what they think will happen next, and then the comedian subverts those expectations.
I mean, purely algorithmic comedy would be pretty tedious – it needs the personality and quirks of the creator – but an analytical mind can certainly help to write comedy.
Actually: there is one mathematical formula for comedy: dogs + making them balance things on their head. Always comedy gold. Sorry, I forgot about that one.
There is a lot of talk about Pi in the DVD, is it the most delicious number?
ERROR cvc-type.3.1.4: Element ‘pi’ is a number type, so it cannot have taste attributes.
Who’s the best at ‘science’ (or dare I ask comedy)?
Helen’s won the most awards for comedy, but Steve has performed more science experiments on Blue Peter. As a mathematician I am above this messy quantitative approach. All my jokes can be derived from first principles, so I simply leave all my punchlines as an exercise for the reader.
What’s the most entertaining thing you can do with a calculator?
Many a school student has tried to pass time in class by playing with their calculator, trying to invent games it can be used for. With the invention of graphing calculators, which can run some simple programming languages, now students can actually code their own games.
Boredom and calculators have inspired a generation of programmers! (Although in my experience, most students program a fake crash screen and use that to try and get out of doing their work.)
My favourite trick with a calculator is to get someone to hit the same number key three times so they have entered something like 333 or 777 and then divide that number by the sum of the three digits (so 333 ÷ 9 or 777 ÷ 21). The answer will always be 37. This is great because it initially freaks people out like some kind of mathemagic trick, but then gets them wondering why the answer is always 37.
Oh, wait. Sorry, I forgot: the most entertaining thing you can do with a calculator is to balance it on a dog’s head.