ED2015 Columns ED2015 Comedy

Lieven Scheire: Revenge of the nerds

By | Published on Sunday 16 August 2015

Lieven Scheire

Science stand-up and “Belgium’s funniest physicist” Lieven Scheire is at the Fringe this year promising to talk you through “from the special relativity of Einstein to Belgians being the hobbits of Europe”. But first, he takes a few moments out to celebrate the new era of science as entertainment, and the increased stage and air time once again being given to the nerds.

Once upon a time, science ruled the world of entertainment. Stage performers built entire shows around electricity, demonstrating sparks, glows and making the hair of a person rise with static electricity, for a captivated crowd. In massive herds, the audience at fairs and traveling carnivals were drawn to the tents of these inventors. Like high-priests they showed science to the crowd, as if it were pure magic. Science was more scintillating than pole-dancers and more invigorating than football.

Alas, times have changed. Science, as we get to know it as children, is personified by pale, mumbling teachers in dusty classrooms. Gone are the high-priests and empty are their tents. Where did we scientists lose our verve? Why has science and technology, for broad audiences, been the least popular topic in school and something nobody really wants to discuss outside of education or the profession? Who killed the fun and the amazement in science?

I suspect it was an inside job. With a touch of Poirot, I shall now dramatically point my finger at the most loyal and essential servant of science: the scientific method…

Richard Feynman said about research: ‘The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool’. The scientific method was designed to test (in every possible way) whether the researcher who is aiming to find out the objective truth is fooling him or herself. A scientist must be as unbiased as possible, in order not to involuntarily steer his or her results away from the objective truth.

This also means they have to be unbiased and unfazed by the intriguing and spectacular. As essential and productive as this rigidness has been for research, somehow it has spilled into the way science is communicated to the masses. The passion and zeal of those Nineteenth Century inventors has been replaced by a bleak presentation of objective results, in the form of Excel spreadsheets and graphs. Quite often passion and zeal in scientific communication have been frowned upon and even criticised by the more serious professors.

But still, the fire kept burning, with outbursts once every while. When men made it to the moon, the entire planet seemed hooked to their TV screens, watching every move of these God-like astronauts. And now, in the second decade of this still new century, the world is seeing an unexpected army marching across our stages, websites and TV screens, striving to bring science as a topic to its rightful place in entertainment…

It feels like not so long ago that we all crawled out of our dark basements and attics to organise a new dawn in science communication. Our faces pale, as they had seldom met daylight, our eyes, used to the soft glow of computer screens, now blinking in the sun. Slowly but steadily we are regaining the interest of a general audience. A testament to this shift in public opinion is that nerd glasses have become a fashionable statement. In our cavalry ride Brian Cox, Neil Degrasse Tyson, ‘QI’, Dara O’Brian, Tim Minchin, ‘The Big Bang Theory’… showing that science is once again becoming more than merely interesting. It is becoming entertaining.

Science comedy is gaining its place in the broad world of comedy genres. Comedians and performers are taking once more to the tents and stages, to spread the word and the magic of science with a brand new vigour. Behind them, in the dimly lit backstage, you can perhaps see some of the old school teachers and professors, with crooked backs and pale faces, gleefully snickering over each new soul being won over by science. And with every link on social media tagged ‘science porn’, every Sheldon Cooper joke and each new, widely covered space mission, we come closer to the joyous future, where science communication will rule the world of entertainment once more.

‘Lieven Scheire: The Wonderful World Of Lieven Scheire’ was performed at Gilded Balloon at Edinburgh Festival 2015.