Gal Science: When a Scientist Tries to be Funny -The Toast

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As The Toast searches for its one true Gal Scientist, we will be running a ton of wonderful one-off pieces by female scientists of all shapes and sizes and fields and education levels, which we are sure you will enjoy. They’ll live here, so you can always find them.

Science is often thought of as the antithesis to a language-based art like comedy. But I think there’s a rich overlap between the two, which is why I’ve spent a lot of the last year learning to do improvisational comedy: first by taking some classes, for the experience and the immediacy, and eventually forming a troupe to do shows. But I’m constantly seeing the tension between those two ways of thinking. I was at a standup gig recently where the MC for the night, as part of his opening patter, asked who wasn’t from Ireland. I was singled out for being American, and defensively adding that I do live in Dublin, and when the MC had nothing to say about my admittedly obscure home state of New Mexico, he turned to my job: physicist. I’ll admit that I bantered back, which made me a target for the rest of the night. The MC kept coming back to it, trying to think of science jokes to use on me. Because scientists are the butt of jokes, not the ones making them, right?

I was dreading the moment my fellow improvisers would find out that I’m a scientist. I still remember the look on my creative writing professor’s face when he learned I was going to grad school for physics and not literary criticism: either confusion or maybe relief. But scientists are people too. They can write bad poetry or mangle beautiful music or pretend to be actors just like everybody else. So when I was sitting on the tram with some of the improv people after a class, early on when we were still getting to know each other, and the only person who knew me from before outed me as a scientist, I was immediately on edge, scanning everyone for their reactions.

When my profession comes up at parties or talking to strangers, the most common reaction is, “Which one from The Big Bang Theory are you?” To which, “Leonard, but that whole show is a nightmare of racism, sexism, and rape apologia,” seems to open up a whole other can of worms. Other contenders include, “That sounds hard,” usually delivered with a wince, a wistful “You must be so smart,” and the classic, “Let me tell you about the teacher who ruined all of science for me.” Fortunately the people from my class were intrigued. They asked questions about what I do, and they’re curious about the sciences as creative problem-solving and as an exploration of the world around us. So once the people in my improv class knew that I’m a scientist, I expected them to shy away from playing scientists in improv scenes, and maybe to just avoid me in scenes altogether.

The thing about improv, though, is that generating ideas and supporting other people’s ideas requires a lot of honesty and openness. There’s no time to filter the way you might normally, and you end up bypassing rules about class or hierarchy or propriety in order to tell interesting stories. It’s a very vulnerable thing to do, but then again the other improvisers are all doing it too, and the good audiences are the ones that buy in to that vulnerability. An improv scene is a liminal space, on the edges of the places we feel safe and secure. So it’s hard to talk around an uncomfortable truth, hard to hide what you really think, and hard to fake anything for the sake of politeness.

Of course, lacking real world experience with scientists, most people start with tropes from movies or other media. Which is understandable; personally, my idea of what politicians do is entirely based on things like House of Cards or Battlestar Galactica. So I’ve watched improv scenes with mad scientists, technical advisors, and of course evil geniuses whose creations betray them. But that’s just background, because really the heart of any improv scene is the relationship between the characters. Establishing that a character is a scientist is often used to bring rationality and disconnection into that relationship, which can contrast with more emotional, intuitive characters to provide dramatic tension.

But what about the relationships between two scientists, when no one else is looking? Improv loves the harried research assistants, of course, struggling to collect tedious data or rushing to the scene of a lab accident. But any profession has its overworked underclass. One of the scenes which still stands out in my mind was between two scientists, a professor and a ‘lowly doctor’. It began as a power struggle between the two characters, with the doctor looking for acknowledgement of good work he had done, and the professor condescendingly putting it down. Things escalated, and the professor started trashing the lab and demanding that the doctor clean things up, on his knees of course. The scene was a lot of fun to watch, because status is a very rich comedic vein to tap, but it also tapped into the basic tension between collaborative and competitive science. I’m a firm believer in doing science collaboratively, taking advantage of people’s disparate backgrounds and sharing the load to do complex and creative research. However, I have to admit that I’ve witnessed that same power struggle between scientists: trading on status and seniority and trying to come out on top. And while there are lots of cutthroat workplaces, science is framed as a search for The Truth. If you are an established scientist, doesn’t that make you the guardian of the most complete form of The Truth? And if so, don’t you deserve a little respect?

The scene with the professor and the doctor was part of a game called Freeze Frame, where at any point an improviser not in the scene can shout “Freeze!” and then take the place of one of the improvisers in the scene to initiate something new. Watching the fight for dominance unfold, I was tempted to tag in to the scene as a nicer sort of scientist, to show that other dynamics are possible in science. But then the two characters agreed to bury their differences by “going to a park to make fun of stupid people”, and even as the identity part of my brain thought, “no, scientists don’t do that!”, the improv part of my brain thought, “this just begs for someone to tag in only to be made fun of.” So I came in as an ice cream vendor who struggled to remember the names of flavors and add up prices, which elevated the condescension exuded by the professor from the previous scene. As his character became more and more disdainful of mine, he started going on about “the chemical composition of ice cream” to show off. I’ll admit it was a struggle to stay looking clueless while thinking, “but that’s not the chemical composition of ice cream! LET ME TELL YOU ABOUT COLLOIDAL SUSPENSIONS.”

Which, of course, is me wanting to assert my own status as a Person Who Knows The Truth. Even as a creative and collaborative person in the sciences, I’ve become indoctrinated, and I instinctively cover my own insecurity by being exactly the kind of insufferable know-it-all that everyone thinks of when they think of scientists. Isn’t that exactly what I didn’t want to be, especially in a creative space like improv?

But the thing about science is that it’s often presented as objective, with scientists as the arbiters and gatekeepers of a truly external frame of reference. In some ways that’s accurate, as science represents an attempt to understand the physical world, and that world works the way it does no matter what we think we understand about it. But science is done by people, it is one way of looking at the world among many, and that means that science is inherently connected to the rest of society and culture. Both science and improv are flexible, and require a lot of willingness to adapt and experiment on the fly to make things work. And in both cases, it’s creativity and thinking outside the box that leads to the best results, whether it’s the best scene or the most groundbreaking research. But measuring a thing changes it, which is as true of scientists as it is of the things we study. And in both science and improv, it’s the relationships between phenomena and people, the messy things that happen at the interface, that are truly revealing of the world around and within us.

Next week: Ginny Perkey on the intersection between mansplaining and physics in popular culture.

Jessamyn Fairfield is a physicist, writer, and improviser who blogs primarily at Let's Talk About Science. She is also the lead writer for DART of Physics.

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