Tag: The Age

Science plus entertainment equals…?

After five years of doing science comedy, it looks like my pocket genre is finally getting some attention!

First there’s the Telegraph’s article “Science doesn’t make good comedy? You must be joking…” Seems science is becoming a topic for comedians; the article references the work of comedians Dara O’Briain, Robin Ince and Australian now big in the UK Tim Minchin. The article loses points for trotting out the usual stereotype in the first paragraph – supposedly comedy’s historical interaction with science is limited to “mocking the other-worldly white-coated geek with his test tubes, Dungeons & Dragons and no sex life”. Er…what? That’s a stereotype found in film and television – Big Bang Theory and Lab Rats, I’m looking at you – but not in stand-up comedy. Later the article suggests the best new comic application of science is finding new people to mock – those who are passionate but wrong. That’s fun, but I would hope more people will be like Minchin and Ince, who both point out there’s comedy to be found in relating the human condition to the biggest concepts in science. It’s also true that most science in comedy comes out in support of rationalist, humanist thought – and therefore as a counterpoint to religion.

Closer to home, mathematical comedian Simon Pampena and doctor-turned-improviser Sean Fabri – both friends and colleagues – are two of the comedians featured in the latest Age Comedy Festival article, “Stand-up guise“. (Being the major festival sponsor, there are a lot of these sort of articles, including the old standards “Can comedy be political?” and “Are women funny?” – the answer to both is, naturally, “yes”.) It contrasts the “day jobs” (or, in Pampena’s case, ex-day job) of the comedians with their on-stage careers. Pampena’s last show, Maths Olympics, was a corker – never before has the stage seen such a passionate attitude to the magic of mathematics. Super Mega Maths Battle for Planet Earth looks set to be just as explosive. Fabri, meanwhile, doesn’t take medicine on to the stage – but you can bet that if the audience suggest a scene about anything vaguely scientific, he’ll know all about it. (He’s playing with Impro Melbourne for Late Nite Impro.)

If nothing else, all this suggests the time might be right for a new Man in the Lab Coat solo show – and there’s still Science Week and the Melbourne Fringe Festival later in the year. Watch this space… In the meantime, don’t forget the Melbourne Museum Comedy Tour in this year’s comedy festival!

Cat people and crinkly foreheads are not inevitable

Today’s Age has that rare thing – a news story about science. Specifically, astronomer Dr Alan Boss’ assertion that the existence of extraterrestrial life is “inevitable”. (ET? There goes the neighbourhood, Richard Alleyne of The Telegraph, Chicago; printed in The Age, February 17 2009.) Dr Boss is from the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, and they don’t have any such announcement listed as news; Dr Boss does have a lecture scheduled for early March, however, talking about this idea in the context of his new book, The Crowded Universe…but while there’s a shade of self-promotion, I think we can assume it’s all for science.

Dr Boss (and his students must love that name) reckons the aliens must be out there because of “the new belief that there is an abundant number of habitable planets like Earth” – according to the article, there could be “100 billion trillion Earth-like planets in space”. The most interesting bit – why this “new” belief has come about – is entirely absent from the article, so all we get is a retread of the old “well, if there are so many planets out there, there must be life on some of them!” routine. That argument may hold some water (if you’ll excuse the pun, which you’ll get as you read on), but as I’ve been reading in What Does A Martian Look Like? (Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart, Ebury Press, 2002; I’ll be talking more about it on my book blog) this is the least interesting reason to believe life is out there.

The standard idea in astro-biology is that life can exist on planets in the “habitable zone” around a star: that is, the range of orbital distances in which the temperature variation allows water to exist as a solid, liquid and gas. This is rubbish for a number of reasons, not least the fact that the existence of water in various forms is dependant on a vast number of things beyond just a planet’s distance from the star. In our own solar system, now that Mars has proven barren, Jupiter’s moon Europa is the most likely candidate for extra-terrestrial life, with it’s liquid ocean safe below the huge ice-sheets on its surface.

But that’s assuming you even need water for life to exist. And why should you? Just because Star Trek and Star Wars prefer aliens who look like humans with ill-conceived cosmetic surgery or anthropomorphic animals, it doesn’t mean that’s what life will look like. Stewart and Cohen argue that astro-biology is really just the application of Earth-based biology on other planets. It’s parochialism on a grand scale; the galactic equivalent of travelling the world but spending the whole trip in “Irish” pubs and eating at McDonalds.

How do we get past this? Jack&Ian (this is how they refer to themselves in the book) say we need a new discipline, “xenoscience”, to properly consider what aliens will be like. An essential ingredient of xenoscience is imagaintion, and in a sense this is where science fiction, or at least the popular kind – where the “science” really translates to “physics buzzwords and folk biology as window dressing on a fantasy story” – has failed us. Yes, some authors have thought about what life might really be like, but mostly the point of an “alien race” is just to act as a stand-in for some aspect of human culture. For my money, the biggest proof of this is that no-one stops to think about what it really means to have half-human half-Vulcans. Even if alien life did, impossibly, look very similar to us, it doesn’t mean we can shag it, marry it or build a picket fence and have 2.4 children with it; that people accept this in Star Trek is a clear sign they don’t really think of Vulcans, Klingons and the rest of them as truly alien; I’m sure if you suggested the same sort of “first contact” or “close encounter of the fourth kind” with a more realistic ET, you’d probably be blocked by the Great Australian Internet filter.

I’m not quite finished the book, so I can’t tell you what Jack&Ian reckon a Martian would look like. But whatever life does exist out there, odds are it will be incredibly unfamiliar to us; truly “alien”. If we’re to recognise it when we see it, let alone have any chance of conversing with it, then we need to embrace the imagination we have. Imagining something doesn’t make it possible, but science is about change, about difference, and about possibilities. Often it works by eliminating possibilities – but we can’t eliminate them if we don’t at first consider them.

It’s the end – but the moment has been prepared for…

Yes, the Comedy Festival is over, and so is . For now, at least. The Man would like to thank everyone who made Science-ology possible, including Lynn, Cath, Keiran, both Emmas, Neil, Fifi, Paul, Emily and everyone else at Comedy @ Trades, Scott Gooding, Melanie Kerr and a bunch of other people who are too numerous to mention.

Until the Man returns (and it’ll happen soon), you can relive the glory and the passion by reading these reviews, even the bad one (as a scientician, I must be fair and present all the evidence).

  • The AgeTim Richards from The Age rather enjoyed Science-ology.
  • The Groggy Squirrel – the Squirrel reviewed Science-ology in both its incarnations: Lisa Clark saw it during the 2006 Fringe Festival, and Daniel Sheppard saw it in the Comedy Festival this year.
  • The Funny Tonne – in their bid to see as many MICF shows as possible, both Dani and Nathanael saw and reviewed Science-ology, and both gave it 8 out of 10!
  • The Pun – the annual comedy review magazine, distributed for free during the Festival, sent Brewster Hipik along to Science-ology.
  • Chortle – for an opposing view to those above, check out Steve Bennet’s review for the UK-based comedy web site, Chortle.

The Age review

I won’t pretend I’m not excited to have my first ever Age review, especially when it tells the world that Science-ology “successfully sticks it to The Man in a vibrant, educational and funny show”.

Just for the record: yes, I was uncool, geeky and bullied in primary school – Craig Wellington (of Wellington Who, which is awesome – go see it) had it easy when the kids called him Doctor, they called me “Doctor Who freak” and chased me across the playground, mockingly chanting the chorus from “Doctorin’ the TARDIS”. By the end of High School, however, I was totally cool. I’d starred in the most popular school play ever, won a bunch of Eisteddfod prizes for the school, and – as part of our farewell year 12 extravaganza – played my first rock gig with a student band, singing Spiderbait’s “Old Man Sam” to a packed assembly hall. We rocked.