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.”

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