Saturday, 9 August 2008

Funny Science (part one)

The stereotype of a scientist doesn't usually include a lot of laughter, unless directed at the poor unfortunate nerd. But that's not necessarily an accurate representation of the truth. A lot of us can be quite funny if we put our geeky minds to it. Have you ever seen what happens if you fill a latex glove with dry ice, and then let it expand till it's as big as a medium-sized pig? No? You haven't lived.

Anyway, given that science and comedy are two major interests of mine, I've decided to present for your viewing pleasure snippets from three fairly contemporary scientific TV comedy efforts. First up we have Lab Rats, a new offering from BBC2. Set in a British university lab that seems to change its research focus week by week, according to whatever odd requests are made of the staff, it's got quite a cartoony, surreal feel to it. It's certainly not going to feature in my 'Top 10 list of most funny sitcoms ever' but I do feel like championing it a bit, if only cos it's the only programme I've ever watched being recorded in a studio. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I can testify that the laughter isn't canned, although now I do understand why it can sound like it. The series does seem to have improved as it's gone on, but here's a clip from the first episode (the one I saw being filmed), showing Cara at her most deliciously daft:

Second, across the pond to The Big Bang Theory, which is kind of like Friends or Will and Grace but with physics geeks. The Women in Science blog didn't seem desperately impressed by it, and I can understand why. There are only really two female characters, one of whom is a gorgeous fashionable blonde, the other a speccy, curly haired deadpan type. Guess which one is a physicist, and which one is the love interest from across the hall? Having said that, the guys don't exactly come out of it looking like fine specimens of social aptitude in action, so I feel more inclined to be affronted on behalf of sciencekind, rather than womankind specifically. Here are Sheldon and Leonard engaging in a very geeky kind of macho posturing:

My last offering (for now) is Look Around You which beats the other two hands down in its commitment to pure scientific endeavour whilst simultaneously presenting a big old heap of nonsense. It ran to two series, the first of which parodied Open University-style schools programmes, whilst the second targeted Tomorrow's World and the like. I gave a DVD of the latter series to a friend of mine who's just qualified as a science teacher - I hope he shows it to his pupils someday. But not the first series - to the untrained brain there is just too much potential for confusing fact with fiction. Here's what the Look Around You team have to say about MATHS:

So there we have it. I have to admit, although I can quite happily watch all three, I do wonder to what extent they might appeal to the general, less nerdy, public? Do the 'science bits' seem off-putting, regardless of how (in)accurate they are? Can science and comedy mix? I'll come back to this another time and explore a few more examples.

Finally, I do realise that it is totally necessary to suspend a certain amount of reality when it comes to TV shows of any kind. But there is one inaccuracy I really can't tolerate in all of the above. How on earth did Cara, Lab Rats' tiny technician, manage to get a lab coat that fitted her perfectly? When I was an undergrad, the smallest lab coat the uni shop sold still required me to roll up the sleeves. Maybe we'd get more women into science if the safety equipment actually fitted them. ;-)


Anonymous said...

The BBC video isn't available to me for copyright reasons. The BBC hates any reminder that the UK once gave half the globe cricket and the rule of law.

The geek interpersonal dynamics were quite funny. The sweet spot in our living room is also claimed by the family geek.

The educational film was painfully realistic, so much so that I wonder how long it would take a roomful of thirteen-year-old to switch on and start laughing. But I think you are right - most people (including me) aren't quick enough mathematically to realize when an equation is funny hokum. Our eyes glaze automatically.

Didn't Stephen Hawking's publisher have a formula to calculate how many sales would be lost with each additional equation in "Brief History of Time"? (I got to the first equation and then skipped to the end to find out whodunnit.)

The funniest nexus of science and humour is Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman's "Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman" and its sequels. If you haven't read them, please do, immediately, even if it means you stop blogging in the meantime. It must be glorious to be a physicist.

Lab coats? Why don't you just cut the sleeves off and turn up the hem with a stapler or packing tape? Nobody ever washes the things. Do they? Or, you could find a nice boy who's doing Textiles and Nutrition, and ask him to turn them up with his sewing machine ;-)


Ginger said...

Darn the BBC! Unfortunately Lab Rats hasn't been popular enough for anyone else to bother putting clips up, which is a shame, as there were some rather good bits in the most recent episode.

Feynman's great. Reading that book was the only point in my life that I've wanted to be a physicist! There's something wonderful about polymaths, even if they do make the rest of us look quite dull.

I'll let you into a secret... most scientists don't wear lab coats at lot of the time. I wore one on a handful of occasions when I was doing my PhD. I've even seen senior scientists who never set foot in the lab any more taking fresh new ones out the wrapper and donning them for photo shoots. Any genuinely worn lab coat tends to look too grubby for promotional shots!

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