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From science to comedy to science comedy

We all do both all the time, says Helen Arney

Almost all the songs I sing are about, or inspired by, science. No literary soirée is complete nowadays without a love song about cryogenic freezing, a rhyme for the Heimlich manoeuvre, or a succinct summary of 2001’s foot and mouth epidemic.

I feel lucky to be writing and performing right now, in what feels like a new golden age of public engagement with science. It’s pouring out of books, it’s on TV and radio, there are more live events and festivals than ever before. It seems that the geeks will inherit the earth, and I’ll be waiting here at the piano to write us a new national anthem.

I’m not the first to combine science and maths with music and comedy. Tom Lehrer, Tim Minchin and others have already trodden this narrow path, and hopefully I won’t be the last to do it either. It’s very similar to the buzz I felt the first time I understood the concept of Schrodinger’s Cat, read about the extraordinary sex life of the angler fish, or saw the detail of a distant galaxy captured in a photograph. The process of combining songs and science is the closest I get to a synaptic supernova.

Sticky labels

For most of my life I’ve felt frustrated at having to choose between science and music. While still in education, it was possible to do them in parallel so I graduated from Imperial College with a degree in physics and grade 8 on two (musical, not scientific) instruments. But for my first proper job, the bright lights of the music industry outshone the lasers in our department’s basement, and for most of the next decade I threw myself into the arts. I completely disengaged with science, and accepted that I’d made an unhappy, but inevitable, choice.

Tragically, I’d fallen for a myth that simply isn’t true: that art and science are separate disciplines, using different parts of the brain, and that you’re either a ‘creative’ person or a ‘science type’. Science is awash with creativity and lateral thinking, and art is moulded by the methodical treatment of abstract ideas. We all do both all the time, to a greater or lesser extent, but the labels of ‘artist’ and ‘scientist’ are sticky and it takes a lot of determination to wash off whichever one has been tacked onto you – or whichever one you have tacked onto yourself.

Hybrid inevitable

It was actually comedy that brought me back around to science.  When I joined the circuit a few years ago as a stand-up, I saw people like Robin Ince, Chris Addison and Helen Keen doing the kind of comedy that I loved, and doing it about science. Intelligent, enquiring comedians were looking at the world and seeking to make sense of it with comedy. At the same time intelligent, enquiring scientists look at the world and seeking to make sense of it with the tools of science, and a healthy dose of good humour.

When you look at what inspires both comedians and scientists, a hybrid of the two disciplines suddenly becomes inevitable rather than unusual. Following that bombshell is a realisation that the audience for this new breed of sci-comedy is enormous. I’m pretty sure some of them are reading this article right now.

So what I do is write comedy songs about science. I know it’s not ‘real’ science. It’s not that big, and it’s not that clever. Occasionally it’s not even very funny. Sometimes it’s a bit rude, and according to a few people it’s wholly inappropriate… but if it gets a few pulses racing and a few heads humming with scientific ideas, then I’ll keep on doing it. 

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Helen Arney
Helen Arney is one third of the comedy show for the insatiably sci-curious, Festival of the Spoken Nerd: In December this year she’s touring Manchester, Bristol and London with the Uncaged Monkeys: Robin Ince, Brian Cox, Simon Singh and Ben Goldacre: Watch a video of cryogenic love song ‘You & Me & Walt Disney’
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