Laughing matter - Museums Association

Laughing matter

Have you heard the one about the actor, the musician and the stand-up comic who try to make science funny? Jonathan Milton on the Dana Centre's comedy team
Jonathan Milton
Science and comedy are usually thought of in the same way as water and oil: they don't mix. Or at least they don't ordinarily - and quite rightly so. Science is a serious business and should be treated with the reverence it deserves, and any association with the frippery of comedy should be strongly discouraged.

If this is your point of view, you're really not going to like the rest of this article.

Punk Science is the resident comedy team at the Science Museum's Dana Centre - the adults-only venue for creating dialogue and debate on contemporary science topics. We also do shows for other adult audiences and recently performed at the Edinburgh
Festival and have been to Greece, Lithuania, Holland and Malta.

We're part of the Science Museum's drive to make science exciting and relevant to everybody. We like to think we're pretty unique in that we combine science education with entertainment to make the strange hybrid of 'edutainment'. But we're not for children. I know what you're thinking: 'Education targeted at adults: what's the point? Adults don't sit tests. Adults don't have to pass exams, so why educate them?'

But just because you're not in formal education any more doesn't mean you stop wanting to know things. Reaching adulthood doesn't suddenly render you intelligent and equip you with everything you need to know to live an erudite and informed life.

Punk Science doesn't preach - we prefer to use interactive demonstrations and experiments - and we've even included real scientists in our shows.

Science can be difficult to understand and is often reported in the popular media in a pejorative way, so it's understandable that people shy away from it. We try to make it less scary, which doesn't mean avoiding difficult subjects such as theoretical physics, but we do try to make them more accessible.

We are not scientists, but performers - namely an actor, musician and stand-up comic - Dan Carter-Hope, Bradford Gross and me. If you are recoiling with horror at the revelation that we aren't scientists, I must apologise.

I should have broken the news a little more gently. But we feel that not having science backgrounds actually helps us when we're writing the shows, because we have to break the theories down so that we understand them.

Our aim is to give the people that come to our shows a 'pub understanding' of science - a level of knowledge that will enable them to explain the theories in our shows to their friends at the pub. That's why we add humour to the mix, so it's not a lethal dose of science. A lot of people are put off science because they find it too difficult to
comprehend; it appears to be made up of an encrypted series of terms that they can't engage with.

But those of us who don't live for biochemistry or astrophysics should be given the opportunity to join the club of the slightly better informed.

It's not easy though because science isn't inherently funny and you find yourself constantly battling with your judgement as to whether you should put in a safe knob gag, or actually search deeper into the subject matter to draw out something inspirational.

Anyone who has seen one of our shows and is reading this article is probably thinking, 'Hang on, there are always knob gags in Punk Science shows' - but then they are quite funny. In a recent show, we froze Dan's penis in liquid nitrogen to show how cryogenics does and, indeed, does not work.

Some of you may be flinching, but I must stress that a sausage is used as a substitute; any attempts to actually freeze genitals in liquid nitrogen are strongly discouraged.

In the show, we focus on interactive demonstrations that force the audience to take part. This may sound a little intimidating, but it's a really important element. So to demonstrate what Brownian Motion is, we bombard the audience with beach balls. The audience become the molecules in a liquid keeping the particles (beach balls) in
constant random motion.

Punk Science: Know It All? is our latest show, which arrives fresh from a successful four-week run in Edinburgh. The show answers the big, small and ridiculous questions. But we didn't pull the questions from the ether (not that it exists), but by surveying the general public. We try to uncover what the average person on the street wants to know - everything from 'How will the universe end?' to 'What is the best martial art (scientifically speaking)?'

Jonathan Milton is one of the members of Punk Science, the resident group of comedians at the Science Museum's Dana Centre in London.

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