31 March 2016

So a Scientist Walks Into a Bar: The Importance of Comedy in Science

Posted by Shane Hanlon

This is a guest post by graduate student Sam Nadell, in what will be the first of a new series of posts where we ask students to share their experiences in science communication. 

Bill Nye, one of the most recognizable and funny scientists in the world today, once said, “Humor is everywhere, in that there’s irony in just about anything a human does.” I’ll save exploring the irony of human existence for another post, but I want to focus on the first part of the quote: “Humor is everywhere.” Comedy is not limited to inherently funny things like slipping on banana peels but instead works best when contrasted with the dull backdrop of a monotonous task or seemingly tedious and drab career field.

It doesn’t take a professional comedian to find humor in everything, either. Everybody is capable of pointing out anomalies within the reality of their daily lives, and that’s all comedy is. So what’s holding back the scientific community from using comedy to our own advantage, to rally people together over scientific issues?

Sam NadellThe biggest roadblock in my opinion is the apparent opposition of the scientific community towards all things funny. I know there are plenty of individual scientists and researchers who use comedy, but the general trend appears to be that science is a “serious” subject. People assume there can’t be creative expression if there’s hard data and terms like “endocytosis” floating around.

I noticed this first-hand at the latest AGU Ocean Sciences Meeting. Hundreds of researchers gave impassioned oral presentations, and yet none that I saw were particularly funny, which I attribute to presenters feeling they couldn’t break seriousness in a room full of fellow scientists without being seen as gimmicky. As a student presenter, I certainly didn’t feel comfortable trying to make my audience laugh because none of the experienced scientists who went before me tried to. Yet the talks I remember most were the plenaries, when it seemed more socially acceptable for the lecturers to be cracking jokes.

There are (unfortunately) a limited number of examples of professional intersections of science and comedy. Bill Nye’s show, Bill Nye the Science Guy, is probably the most noteworthy. It was a funny show, featuring a real scientist who presented fascinating scientific results as well as the more gritty scientific process. But we didn’t watch this show because it was informative. We watched it because it was funny, and our interest in science followed. This is why comedy can be so effective, as it piques the interest of an audience and then allows them to explore a topic on their own. A funny introduction to a serious idea is more inviting than straightforward data and facts. Comedy doesn’t get lost in translation; jargon does.

So sneak comedy into your science. Whether you’re a professor adding a funny picture to a lecture slide, a PI including a clever comic on their lab website, or a student writing a blog post (when he probably should be preparing for a class in thirty minutes), there’s room for, and benefits from, humor in the field of science. And when you think about it, what’s more ironic than a funny scientist?

-Sam Nadell is a Master’s student at Cornell University, studying oceanography and, more specifically, biophysical interactions in the Hudson River Estuary. In his free time, Sam enjoys performing with his improv comedy group, The Whistling Shrimp, and performing stand up comedy. Following his experience at Cornell, Sam plans on becoming a very silly PhD student.