Books and Arts

Nature 456, 709 (11 December 2008) | doi:10.1038/456709b; Published online 10 December 2008

Q&A: Helium walks into a bar...

Nick Thomas

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Science comedian Brian Malow is a regular performer on the museum and conference circuit in the United States. He explains why he finds science funny, and how he uses comedy to gain the public's interest.

ARTS REVIEWED: Brian Malow: The Final Frontier?

Next show at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Maryland
19 December 2008
http://www.sciencecomedian.com

How did you get into science comedy?

Q&A: Helium walks into a bar...

J. GILBEY

I used to be an astronomer, but I got stuck on the day shift. Actually, it was a gradual evolution. I just wrote material that made me laugh, without worrying what other people would think. The challenge was to find the like-minded audience: the adenine to my thymine, the guanine to my cytosine.

Are some topics funnier than others?

Anything that you can anthropomorphize is easy — such as insects and animals. And the more familiar I am with a subject, the easier it is. That's why I have a lot of physics and astronomy material. The other day, I had a frightening experience at a café when I noticed someone had put pasta and antipasto right next to each other.

What do you do when a joke fails?

Sometimes I say, “That joke was endothermic — it required the addition of a little energy from you to make it work.”

Do science jokes go out of fashion?

Unlike politics or pop culture, basic science is evergreen. Gravity and laws of motion don't go out of style. Then there's always new science to cover, such as the Large Hadron Collider. It has already proven science can get massive media coverage if it's rumoured it might destroy the planet.

Is scientific jargon a source of humour?

Absolutely. I did some shows for the American Chemical Society and prepared by studying a glossary of chemical terms. There's a lot of pun potential in chemistry. They wondered if I could be off-the-cuff and I said, “I'm so spontaneous I have a negative ΔG.”

And that helium?

Right. So the bartender says, “We don't serve noble gases here.” The helium doesn't react.

Interview by Nick Thomas, associate professor of chemistry at Auburn University at Montgomery, Alabama 36117, USA.
Email: nthomas@aum.edu

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