Festival of the Spoken Nerd – review (Brighton Sci Fest)

The Festival of the Spoken Nerd hostsThink of Festival of the Spoken Nerd as a geek supergroup. A trio of stand-up performers, each seasoned entertainers in their own right: Matt Parker is an ex- stand-up comedian and now the world’s only ‘stand-up mathematician’, Helen Arney is a musical comedian with a physics degree and the ‘geek songstress’ of the group, and Steve Mould is a BBC science presenter and the group’s ‘experiment guy’.

They knew each other from the comedy circuit and came together after realising they were passing the same audience between their respective solo shows during the 2010 Edinburgh Fringe. Matt suggested they combine their acts for a one-off evening at the end of the fringe, and although that never happened, later that year Helen suggested the group take over half of one of her comedy nights above a pub in London. That show sold out in a day – and Festival of the Spoken Nerd was born. The comedy show has gone from strength to strength ever since.

Never more a supergroup than last Saturday night during the Brighton Science Festival when they were joined by guest evolutionary biology geek and BBC presenter Simon Watt, probably best known for his part in “Inside Nature’s Giants”. Simon was recruited for a show all about Life, Oh Life, in which they shone a comedy spotlight on what life is, where it came from, and where it might be going.

How to cook… with a fire extinguisher

Festival of the Spoken Nerd BrightonAmong the delicacies served up on the night was a cookery demonstration of how to use a fire extinguisher to make ice cream, a whiz-bang demo of how super-absorbent polymers work, and Helen’s musical cautionary tale warning us about leaving certain young physicists alone with the family pet. Simon Watt’s contribution was a story of a house party attended by a range of our evolutionary ancestors. Mixing knowledge of evolutionary history and genetics with innuendo and toilet humour… let’s just say it wasn’t pretty!

My personal highlight was Matt’s tour of the mathematics of a zombie outbreak based on real infectious disease theory. We learned that the present no-zombie situation we currently enjoy is an ‘unstable equilibrium’ – confirming what zombie movie fans have known for years – that as soon as we go from ‘no zombies’ to ‘even slightly zombies’, we’re ‘all in a lot of trouble”. I’d love to know which science journal published that paper! (Try here and here – Ed)

The show was engaging on multiple levels: pulling in the audience through participation and the disarming charm of the nerds. The show is not merely nerds sharing in-jokes with a geeky audience – it’s a group of experienced comedians exploiting the inherent ‘wow!’ factor of science to craft a genuinely fascinating show which also manages to be riotously funny. Yes, it’s clever comedy, but never in an elitist way; it’s like a night out with some geeky pals. It was obvious that a whale of a time was had by all and I strongly recommend you catch them the next time they’re passing through your town. There’s a run of an all-new show in London this April apparently, and I might just get myself down there for a second helping.


Brighton Science festival
Festival of the Spoken Nerd

Image courtesy Brighton Science Festival

Article by Simon Makin

March 1, 2013

Simon Makin is an ex-post-doc researcher in auditory perception turned journalist. Follow him on twitter @SimonMakin.

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