Can Physicists Be Funny?

Scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research are taking improv comedy classes so they can better explain to a nervous world that the new Large Hadron Collider will not, in fact, create a black hole that could end life on earth. Physicist Bob Stanek and improv pioneer Charna Halpern talk about helping scientists communicate better.


On Wednesday, scientists in Geneva will switch on the Large Hadron Collider, which is the world's largest particle accelerator. Now, I'm sure you've heard of a doomsday scenario that once the collider cranks up, it'll create a black hole and that's it, it'll devour the entire world. Well, of course, that's unlikely, we hope.

But these scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, which is known as CERN, C-E-R-N, are probing some of the deepest mysteries of the universe, including black holes, extra dimensions, and an even more crucial question: can a scientist really be funny?

That's our question this week on Science Out of the Box.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: Bob Stanek is a physicist at CERN in Geneva. He thought his colleagues might have an easier time explaining their work to the world if they had some training in improv comedy. So, he brought in Charna Halpern, the founder of the Improv Olympics and the creator of the Chicago IO Theater, and we have them both on the line with us now. Thank you for coming. Welcome.

Ms. CHARNA HALPERN (Founder, Improv Olympics): Thank you.

Mr. BOB STANEK (Physicist, CERN): Thank you.

LYDEN: This idea that the Large Hadron Collider might actually create black holes, how does comedy help you explain that?

Mr. STANEK: It remains to be seen, of course, but I'm thinking that at least it shows physicists that they need to think out of the box and that maybe training and improv will help us get rid of this negative attitude that most physicists tend to have, and where we will say yes.

LYDEN: Well, saying yes, that's the great old rule of improv, isn't it, Charna?

Ms. HALPERN: Yes, it is. Yes, the end. It's saying yes to each other's ideas and building on it. And what you need to know is it isn't just about comedy. Comedy is just a byproduct of improvisation. If you use our skills, you are going to be funny, but more important, you're going to be an excellent communicator.

LYDEN: We might need you at some NPR editorial meetings. What kinds of things did you go to loosen everyone up?

Ms. HALPERN: Well, to loosen everyone up we did some warm-ups, like, working together to form letters using the physical bodies just to form a B or a C or a T, where there was no chance to argue with each other. They just immediately had to start moving and make something together.

LYDEN: Bob, I have to ask what letter of the alphabet did you help perform?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STANEK: We did a whole bunch of letters. And the hardest part of that scene was actually figuring out what the letter looked like. For example, I mean, we was an L, so I laid on the floor and my partner was the upright. And you had to think quickly.

Ms. HALPERN: Well, the idea there is that there's no time to say, no, no, you do this. It's immediate acceptance and building on each other's ideas. And then when you know your idea's going to be accepted, you're more spontaneous to give out more ideas.

LYDEN: Bob Stanek, I hear that you're doing monologues now actually at the IO Theater, the improv theater in Chicago. Can you tell me a good science joke?

Mr. STANEK: You know, I don't know any science jokes. I went to look on the Web for particle physics jokes and there's, like, two. So, I think that has to tell you something about what we do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: Well…

Mr. STANEK: So, what was the joke? Two protons walk into a black hole - and that's the end of the joke.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: Well, it's been great speaking with both of you. Improv pioneer Charna Halpern joined us from the studios of WBEZ in Chicago, and physicist Bob Stanek was on the line from Geneva, Switzerland. Good luck with the Hadron Collider on September the 10th.

Mr. STANEK: I think we're going to need it.

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