More Thoughts on Comedy and History of Science

The success of last week’s “Life, Sex, Death (and Food): A Historical Look at the Science that Drives Us” offers a chance to think about how to pair the history of science with science and comedy to bring both science and history of science to a broader audience. One possible result might be encouraging students to take both more seriously. What I am thinking here is different from my previous Thoughts on History of Science in a Science Curriculum, which assume students in a science classroom. Using comedy would also differ from simply making history of science interesting. Both these projects are worthwhile and would pay rich dividends. Here, instead, I am thinking about how to use comedy to generate interest in science and its history in “sci-curious” general audiences as well as students in high schools and colleges.

Festival of the Spoken Nerd mixes comedy and science.

In addition to our local successes—both last year’s and last week’s shows along with the local Science on Tap suggest a robust local audience—the Festival of the Spoken Nerd offers further evidence that comedy and science make a fruitful pairing. Judging from the Festival of the Spoken Nerd’s list of past shows, the trio has been quite active over the past year or so performing at science festivals and other public venues, often to sold-out audiences. If you want to sample their show, see the podcasts they have posted.

What would happen if we combined history of science, science, and comedy and brought such shows to high schools, colleges, and other public venues? There is no shortage of handwringing about declining interest in science and technology—usually in the form “How can we attract more students to STEM?”—both in higher education and in industry. Maybe a well crafted program that makes science and its history amusing and engaging could be part of the answer.

Each show could be built around a particular question or issue. Begin with a historical episode, presented by the historian of science. Follow with a comedy skit (a sketch, improv, songs, or …?). Then have the scientist present more recent efforts to understand that issue or question. Finally, perhaps, end with another short skit. While I think nearly any question or issue could be made interesting and funny, some lend themselves more readily to such a program. What would it look like if comedians from the Philly Improv Theater joined forces with local historians of science and scientists?

Maybe it would be fun and effective. Maybe I’m just looking for a way to avoid grading final exams.
[Reposted from PACHS.]