Stand-up science night puts the fizz into physics

Summary

The first Bright Club comedy evening in Brussels puts researchers from Flemish universities on stage – and asks them to make us laugh

The science of comedy

We don’t generally think of scientists as funny – at least not “ha ha” funny. But later this month, eight researchers and a science communicator from Flemish universities will deliver science-related jokes during a stand-up comedy night at the Rits Café in the centre of Brussels.

The event, completely in English, is organised by Brussels’ Expertise Centre for Science Communication and was inspired by the Bright Club concept of science comedy evenings in the UK. What started at University College London (UCL) now draws crowds all over the country.

The idea for Bright Club Brussels came up during the most recent “Let’s Talk Science!” summer school focused on science communication, organised by all five Flemish universities. One of the activities was a stand-up comedy workshop in which Flemish science comedian Lieven Scheire was involved.

Scheire, who will MC the Brussels Bright Club event, made contact with Steve Cross, the founder of the concept, when he was working in science communications at UCL. “We realised that stand-up comedy brings science to a wide audience in a way that is fun and accessible,” explains co-organiser Sofie Verkest of the Expertise Centre.

So the centre found eight researchers from the Free University of Brussels (VUB), the University of Leuven, Ghent University and Antwerp University willing to take up the challenge. One of the centre’s own science communicators joined them.

Since the acts will be in English, several participants are expats. “It’s a great opportunity to include more international researchers in our activities,” says Verkest.

It’s all in the timing

Most of the participants work in natural sciences, which is perhaps surprising as people working in this field are usually considered to be more introverted than social scientists. “It’s great that these researchers want to improve the reputation of their field,” says Verkest. “We need to attract more young people to these studies.”

During an extensive training session, Cross taught the participants the basic comedy skills needed to perform on stage. They learned about timing, attitude and how to structure a joke. 

Scientists often construct very clever, complicated jokes but forget to go for the easy laugh

- Sofie Verkest

“An important tip for researchers is not to avoid easy, silly jokes,” say Cross. “Scientists often construct very clever and complicated jokes but forget to go for the occasional easy laugh.”

Cross has a background in research himself, having a PhD in human genetics. “But that’s so long ago, a robot could do that work now,” he says, smiling. “These days, I enjoy showing people that science is not all about dry facts but also about the people who make scientific discoveries happen.”

After the workshop, participants received a – scientific – book about the reasons people laugh. For the event on 13 October, they must prepare an act that lasts about eight minutes. That day, they will rehearse in the afternoon, during which Cross will evaluate their acts. A few hours later, they will try their jokes in the spotlight, after MC Scheire has warmed up the crowd.

Nevena Hristozova, a Bulgarian molecular biologist at VUB, is looking forward to getting on stage. “I learned to let go of my inhibitions and allow spontaneous ideas to take form,” she says.

Awkward

For her act, Hristozova plans to focus on the atmosphere on campus and specifically on awkward social moments. “I often pass people in the hall who just look away when I say ‘hello’,”  she says. “But I persist, and, when they finally answer me, I take revenge by never saying ‘hello’ to them again – when they then expect it.”

On the other hand, Flemish scientist Ben Verhoeven, a specialist in computational linguistics at Antwerp University, will be concentrating on the content of his research. Verhoeven’s work deals with developing ways to determine the age and gender of anonymous authors.

“Marketing experts can use my findings to discover what sort of people have an opinion about a product and adapt their strategy,” he explains.

A third participant, Freya Blekman, specialises in elementary particle physics. Originally from the Netherlands, Blekman is a professor at VUB and works on projects at Cern, the European Centre for Nuclear Research in Geneva.

“Our research at Cern has a lot of surreal aspects,” she says. “For example, we have just about the largest machines in the world to work with the smallest particles possible.”

13 October, RITS Café, Dansaertstraat 70, Brussels, €5

Photo: A scientist on stage at University College London, where the Bright Club concept began
© UCL