You’re the Expert: scholars explain their work in a comic turn

Comedians and academics aim to make scientific principles exciting and fun

February 6, 2014

Margaret Geller is describing how, as part of her work at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, she studies how binary stars occasionally leave the galaxy. “That seems rude,” interrupts a professional comedian seated nearby.

This intriguing scenario did not happen at a dinner party, or on a train whose passengers are eavesdropping on one another. It featured in a new comedy show gaining popularity across the US that attempts to communicate complex academic research to a broader audience, live and through podcasts.

The idea came to Chris Duffy, the show’s creator and host, while he was commuting on a bus between the campuses of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University.

“I thought, someone on this bus is going to win a Nobel prize, but I’ll never get to talk to them about it, or even understand it,” Mr Duffy said. “I wish there were a way for me to get to meet them.”

Using comedy to do that was the next epiphany. As a comedian, Mr Duffy said that “it always felt like I would have people listening to me, and I would make them laugh, but what did they leave with? It seemed like a wasted opportunity.”

The result is You’re the Expert, which makes celebrities of good-natured scholars who trade barbs with comedians and engage in games and sketches to explain what they do, and how.

Although it is meant to be funny – Mr Duffy asked Professor Geller, for example, whether the five honorary doctorates she has received make her regret having worked so hard for the real one, and she also revealed that some people ask her for make-up advice when they learn she is a cosmologist – the show is part of an international trend to help make complex academic concepts more accessible to lay people.

“People don’t actually know what is going on in science, and as a result of that they don’t understand science as being necessary, and they don’t really trust [it],” Mr Duffy explained.

You’re the Expert”, he added, “is satisfying comedy, but on the kind of intellectually stimulating topics that people actually learn something from.”

The show is staged regularly in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and New York, and also visits other cities.

It has featured a range of experts, including hyper-achiever Jessica Meir, who is not only an astronaut but also a Harvard professor studying comparative physiology. (On that occasion, Mr Duffy recalled, one member of the audience said afterwards: “That was really interesting, but I feel bad about myself.”)

“It’s probably the oldest comedy dynamic in the book: the straight man and the comedian,” Mr Duffy said.

Academics are clearly happy to take part. “It’s fun, it’s good-spirited, there’s nothing low-minded or mean about it,” said Richard Weissbourd, a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, who was also a guest.

“There’s too much of a history of academics talking only to each other,” he added.

Erica Reisman, an audience member who has attended the show several times, said it had helped her to understand what scientists do “in an unintimidating way, so you don’t feel stupid”.

“In the end, you realise it’s not so hard to understand.”

Times Higher Education free 30-day trial

You've reached your article limit

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 6 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Featured Jobs

Most Commented

United Nations peace keeper

Understanding the unwritten rules of graduate study is vital if you want to get the most from your PhD supervision, say Kevin O'Gorman and Robert MacIntosh

David Parkins Christmas illustration (22 December 2016)

A Dickensian tale, set in today’s university

Eleanor Shakespeare illustration (5 January 2017)

Fixing problems in the academic job market by reducing the number of PhDs would homogenise the sector, argues Tom Cutterham

Houses of Parliament, Westminster, government

There really is no need for the Higher Education and Research Bill, says Anne Sheppard

poi, circus

Kate Riegle van West had to battle to bring her circus life and her academic life together