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“I heard this one the other day: What do you get when you cross a mountain climber with a mosquito?” asks Matt Parker, as he idly works a Rubik’s cube. “Nothing.” He pauses for effect, rotating the top layer. “You can’t cross a scaler with a vector.”
Helen Arney isn’t impressed. “See, this is the kind of elitist comedy we want to avoid,” she groans. (Not that Arney is one to talk: She’s practicing a song about particle physics on her ukulele.) Arney and Parker, along with a third performer, Steve Mould, are backstage at London’s Bloomsbury Theatre for their Festival of the Spoken Nerd, a “comedy night for the insatiably sci-curious.” Mould adds, “We want to mix science and arts in an accessible way.”
It’s an understandable concern: Parker is a mathematician at Queen Mary, University of London; Arney graduated with a degree in physics from Imperial College; Mould studied at Oxford before turning his “Guerilla Science” road show into a fixture on the U.K. festival circuit. Yet things seem to have worked out so far, with the trio having already appeared at London’s Theatre Royal Haymarket and Shakespeare’s Globe, the Edinburgh Fringe and the Green Man music festival in Wales.
And they’re by no means alone. Big-name British comedians Ricky Gervais and Chris Addison have both performed shows about science, while fellow comic Robin Ince has teamed up with physicist Brian Cox for the irreverent and popular BBC radio show The Infinite Monkey Cage.
“There’s been a sea change,” Arney says. “People now gather round the water cooler and talk about the wonders of the universe. Today, particle physics is something you discuss at the pub.” Parker, nodding in agreement, puts down the Rubik’s cube — each side now a solid color, of course. —MATTHEW LEE