Helen Arney – Cosmic Joker

Heard the joke about the physicist and the stand-up comic? It’s no laughing matter. Blending science and comedy, Helen Arney finds herself at the forefront of public engagement.

‘The first rule of comedy’, says Halen Arney, ‘is write what you are passionate about, whether that is observations about airline food or the Copernican view of the universe.’ As someone with a degree in physics from Imperial College London and a successful stand-up comedian, Arney is one of the few who can make us laugh and understand, something about both. She is one of a growing number of talented individuals – Brian Cox, Dara O’Briain – who are crossing the previously well-guarded borders between science and popular culture. 

Science Song

In truth, Arney’s talent lies not in having the courage or appeal to cross these cultural boundaries, but having the skill, imagination and wit to invent a humorous language of ideas that everyone connects with. Along with her science background she has a love of and training in music – up to grade 8. It was her music that led comedian Robin Ince to ask Arney to come on tour and perform her ‘science song’. Arney had no idea what song Ince was talking about. ‘It took someone else to point out that I was actually using my brain as a scientist and as a comedian,’ says Arney, ‘and using those two aspects of the same way of looking at the world. Scientists try and work out what is happening in the world under the surface and good comedians do that as well.’ 

Arney suspects that it’s this lack of having an agenda, or a message, that actually makes her work a more successful platform for public engagement with science. ‘My job is not to educate,’ says Arney, ‘it is to entertain and spark that curiosity you had when you were a kid when you would spend all day counting ants in the garden. Or the first time you worked out you could make a rainbow with the garden hose on a sunny day.’ The key purpose she says is ‘to entertain and spark that curiosity about the world’, which in simple terms is the ultimate form of education – inspiring others to stretch their curiosity and find out more.  

Scientists more open

Public engagement in science has increased for two reasons thinks Arney. Firstly compared to previous generations who could tune in once a week on TV to Patrick Moore or Carl Sagan or Jacob Bronowski, in 2013 you can click on a link and instantly be part of a wider community. ‘Now you never quite feel alone as there are other people out there who love this stuff.’  

Secondly all the funding and work that has been invested in training scientists in public engagement is paying off in a world that isn’t constrained by the limited reach of mainstream media. ‘The science community has spent so long and so much money on science engagement that it’s now second nature for scientists to open themselves and their work up to being accessed by the public, by comedians and by people who aren’t professional science journalists.’

Perhaps the most renowned communicator of science to the public was also a physicist – Richard Feynman – who also had a sense of the comedic and what Arney calls a ‘wild imagination.’  For Arney the key element of engagement is awareness of what’s happening out there among comedians, the context, which also enables you to be original. The originality grabs the audience. She believes it is vital that, just like in science, you ‘don’t do other people’s material. While you’ve got to see what everyone else is doing, you’re always striving to do something original to find out something about how the universe and people work.’