October 18, 2013 1:14 pm

Helen Arney: You’ve got to laugh

‘It’s no longer enough to be at the cutting edge of research – now science has to be entertaining too’
An illustration by Lucas Varela depicting Archimedes, Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton©Lucas Varela

Last month Cern, home of the Large Hadron Collider, hosted its first ever comedy night. OMG! (or Oxygen Magnesium for the periodically inclined among you). Put down those Nobels. 2013 will now officially be remembered as the year that physics learnt to laugh at itself.

It’s no longer enough to be at the cutting edge of research, slicing through the mysteries of the universe like a laser through Emmental (Cern’s fondue parties are as legendary as its research). Now science has to be entertaining too.

The theory is that laughing and learning are complementary. We all know that time flies when you’re having fun, though if you’re going to be scientifically accurate this definition of “fun” must involve travelling at close to the speed of light. This explains why Einstein never made it as a comedy promoter – it’s lucky he had his theory of general relativity to fall back on, really.

And it’s not as though humour in science is new. Take a look at the historical evidence:

● Archimedes’ bath time “Eureka” moment ended with a naked fun-run through ancient Syracuse, inspiring giggles as well as his eponymous law.

● When Galileo Galilei championed the theory that Earth is not actually the centre of the universe, Pope Urban VIII laughed him all the way to the Roman Inquisition.

● And the jury is still out on if Newton’s falling apple was an early attempt at Chaplinesque slapstick to explain the nature of gravity.

But modern science is a whole different ball game. Or wave game, if you’re a quantum physicist. “If quantum mechanics hasn’t profoundly shocked you, you haven’t understood it yet,” said Niels Bohr, who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1922. He was right. Twenty-first-century physics is stacked full of counter-intuitive ideas, complex mathematics and cats in boxes. Trying to understand it makes most of us feel like the village idiot. So when you’re grappling with more outlandish theories than you can shake an elongated hexahedron (or stick, in layman’s terms) at, it’s a relief to know that you now have permission to see the funny side.

Take the Higgs particle. Elusive for nearly 50 years, you can’t open a newspaper today without reading about how it’s changing our understanding of physics, solving the mysteries of the universe or twerking at an awards ceremony.

Oh the Higgs! The particle that gives us mass! I always thought it was the Greggs that gave us mass, but no, and a Higgs is a lot harder to find on your local high street. Looking for one sounds a bit like looking for a four-leafed clover. A single four-leafed clover in an enormous field full of multi-dimensional invisible clover. Not to mention a field where that clover exists for only a few fractions of a second before changing into other types of clover that can easily be mistaken for yet more similar-looking clover. All this while spinning around a Swiss bunker at nearly 300,000 metres per second – minding the fondue set as you go. You really do have to laugh.

By now, I expect I’ve drawn a dividing line between people who are enjoying this column and people who are not. For reference, that line is 27km long and under Geneva. Either way, the data are collected and the evidence is there. Science is getting funnier and, because every action must have an equal and opposite reaction, comedians are also starting to get their geek on.

Universally appealing observational comedy will be phased out, in favour of appealing comedy about the observable universe. Faster than a panda can sneeze on the internet, the old gags about airline food will be gone, replaced by jokes about Nasa funding a 3D food printer to make space pizza. Don’t worry – it still tastes awful.

I’ll bet my Bunsen burner that within a year, no self-respecting comedian will dare leave the house without a five-minute set based on Many Worlds Theory. And if that doesn’t sound like it would float your Archimedes-principled boat, be safe in the knowledge that – in a parallel universe – you’ll absolutely love it.

Helen Arney is a comedian and science presenter, on tour with Festival of the Spoken Nerd from January 2014; www.helenarney.com; Twitter: @helenarney

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