Why and how did you start to do science comedy?
I started doing science and comedy in parallel with no intention to combine them. While in grad school, I would work in the lab during the day, then perform in comedy shows at night. I thought science comedy had such niche appeal that it wouldn’t be worth trying to mix the two interests. At some point, however, I learned that while occupying a niche can pigeonhole you, it can also open up a world of opportunities specific for that niche.
Do you enjoy most the scientific part or the comic one? Why?
Tough to say. I enjoy both to the extent to which I wouldn’t want to give either one up. Obviously comedy is more fun in the traditional sense of the word “fun,” but science can be satisfying as well in a different way.
If you had to choose only one “definition “ would you consider yourself a scientist, or rather a comedian?
Luckily, I’ve never been forced to make that choice. For a long time, I feared that something would come along to force me to choose one definition or the other–a science employer would forbid outside comedy gigs, or maybe some performing opportunity would come along and force me to decide between it and a career in science. So far, neither thing has happened, so I’ve been able to use both definitions, and I’m happy to do so until there’s a good reason not to.
Do you have any particular hobby ? Is scientific comedy itself a hobby for you?
It’s tough to say where something crosses the line from hobby to more-than-a-hobby. Some people feel that if you make money doing something, it’s not a hobby. Others say that anything you do outside of a 9-to-5 job is more like a hobby. So maybe scientific comedy is a hobby, maybe it’s a parallel career, maybe it’s something in between. But to answer the first part of your question, I have other hobbies as well. Probably my favorite is pinball. I’m in a competitive pinball league, and sometimes I travel to national competitions and conventions. I wrote a book about pinball (Pinball Wizards: Jackpots, Drains, and the Cult of the Silver Ball), which was published by Chicago Review Press in 2017.
Do you think humor is an effective way to teach something, even when it comes to complex subjects, such as science?
Absolutely. Humor makes difficult concepts so teachable that it almost feels like cheating. Needless to say, you can’t use humor for everything, but now I’m thinking about all the times during my education when a teacher made a lesson fun, and they’re all easy to remember. Humor also forces you to communicate clearly–the joke doesn’t land if the listener can’t understand what it’s about.
Would you suggest other effective ways to communicate science to people?
A few years ago, I was asked to give a scientific talk at a high school, along with a few other scientists. Because this was a magnet high school for very intelligent kids, I (and we all) assumed we should direct the talks toward around an undergraduate level. But when we started setting up in the auditorium, we soon realized that most of the attendees, for whatever reason, were middle school kids and their parents. Suddenly everyone had to pare their talks down to a fifth-grade level. And you know what? It was one of the best series of scientific talks I’ve ever seen. The presenters, afraid of losing the attention of middle schoolers, were extra careful to communicate everything clearly and understandably, and it made all the difference. The lesson: Pretend you’re giving a scientific talk to someone with less knowledge and a shorter attention span than you might otherwise assume.
Which field of science would you consider comedy most suitable for?
I guess biology, since I’m a molecular biologist and can make many more biology-specific references than any other subject. But I’ve also spoken at an astronomy conference, a bioterrorism conference, and dozens of graduate schools with students in every subject.
Would you like to add any other comment, we would be more than happy to include it.
More than just making people laugh, science comedy has a nobler purpose: It humanizes scientists. So many kids reach 12th grade having met many science teachers but never having met an actual scientist. We’re mythical creatures, “mad” archetypes, and the butt of jokes about how we’re book-smart but always miss the bigger picture. For people to trust scientists, for people to want to interact with scientists, and for people to want to become scientists, we need kids to grow up knowing that we’re human beings. Nothing makes this point quite as effectively as humor.