It’s August and it’s Edinburgh. What else could there be to write about but the festivals?! In particular the Fringe festival, which has had an amazing number of maths and science shows on this year. I’m not sure if they’ve always been there and I’ve not noticed them, or whether something special has happened this year. Putting on a science show at the Fringe seems like a brave thing to do: you need both a very talented (and preferably funny) performer/scientist, and also an audience who are enthusiastic about the material. This year both of these requirements have very definitely been met!
And actually, it’s the second of these two things that I have been most surprised by. I’ve met many talented science communicators over the years, so that’s certainly not a problem, but I’ve been pleasantly shocked about the enthusiasm of the Edinburgh audiences for all things scientific. Again, I don’t know if it’s something special about Edinburgh (which is definitely a city full of well-educated and intelligent people) or whether science communication efforts are starting to pay off in a big way across the country.
My favourite example of experiencing this enthusiasm was when I went to see a show by Alex Horne called Odds. The blurb for the show does mention ‘numbers’ and ‘the universe’, but Alex himself has no scientific training and his comedy is not being branded as anything educational. In his opening pitch, he told us that he would talk about golf (which got a small, slightly confused, “yay”), gambling (slightly louder “yay”) and quantum mechanics (giant cheer!). I think that even he was taken aback by how excited the audience was about some physics being in the show! And he did indeed get an awful lot of science, and especially maths, into his 1 hour. I was at my most impressed when, in the space of 3 minutes, he managed to fit in a description of Hilbert’s hotel and its infinitely many guests. Definitely a brave thing to try!
The only specially dedicated maths show of the Fringe is Your Days Are Numbered: The Maths of Death by Matt Parkerand Timandra Harkness. It’s a breathtaking whirl through the subject of death statistics and the humour and fallacies that accompany them. Did you know that you have a 0.01821% chance of dying by falling out of bed? A 0.06584% chance of dying by “foreign body entering through natural orifice”? Or simply a 0.000043% chance of dying during the show itself? (You can actually get various clothing items with these fun facts on! I’m very tempted…) In their hour on stage, Matt and Timandra teach us how to interpret statistics in the media, how to decide how dangerous something is (using death measure the ‘micromort’) and what things we can do to live longer (drink more alcohol!), as well as killing off the audience bit by bit. And of course there is a very funny finale, which I won’t spoil in case anyone is still planned to see the show!
A staple of my festival diet this year has been Skeptics on the Fringe, which is an offshoot of the ‘Skeptics in the Pub’ movement and which I’m surprised not to have known about before. During the Fringe they have been hosting a series of intelligent and often funny talks about all things skeptical, such as debunking psychics and ghost stories, explaining why so many people believe in the paranormal and exploring human psychology more generally. Simon Singh talked about libel reform, Richard Wiseman discussed his research on luck (on Friday 13th!) and Matt Parker showed that coincidences are less rare than we expect. Not only have I enjoyed the talks, but I’ve also been glad to get to know the organisers and other skeptics in the pub afterwards. I guess I’m a bit reluctant to label myself as anything, even a skeptic, but I definitely feel it’s important to educate the public about pseudo-science and to give people an appreciation for how much more amazing real science is! It might be fun to believe in the paranormal sometimes, but I think it’s much more exciting to learn about the human brain and how/why it tricks us into believing such things.
Some more science-y shows on during the Fringe are:
- The Universe: a User’s Guide by Yianni Agisilaou. Fun and intelligent show with a terrible strapline (“Physics gives me a raging hadron”).
- Mould & Arrowsmith in 3D, a nerdy but very funny comedy show where the 3D Avatars try to take over the world!
- It is Rocket Science V2 by Helen Keen discussing space travel.
- Carl Sagan is Still My God by Robin Ince (who is also doing two other Fringe shows); comes highly recommended although I haven’t seen it.
- Songs for Modern Loving by Helen Arney. A musical exploration of falling in love, especially with geeks. Contains plenty of mathematical words.
A lot of these shows are free and the rest are pretty cheap, so if you’re in Edinburgh and you haven’t been to any of these shows, then there’s really no excuse! The annoying thing is that there is no dedicated ‘science’ section at the Fringe, so it’s hard to search for these kinds of shows if you don’t know about them already. But the skeptics group, together with the organiser of the PBH Free Fringe, are going to try organising a special science fringe for next year, which would be great. We just need to convince some pubs that science shows are very popular and would pull in large crowds! From what I’ve seen of this year’s festival, I’m glad to say that that is entirely true.