London, UK (Scicasts) - “Science is way too important to talk about it seriously,” announces Simon Watt, biologist and science communicator, as we are sipping our coffees on a rare sunny morning in a small café in south London.

“Moreover,” he adds, “not all people are persuaded by data. We need to hold a different kind of discussion here.”

For this very reason, together with comedian Rachel Wheeley, Watt decided to launch a new science podcast about the future of humanity and to make sure it’s fun.

Their podcast called ‘Level Up Human’ officially launched today at the Cheltenham Science Festival. The first three episodes of the show are already available online.

The premise of the show is simple. Surely, every one of us had a moment in our lives when we would stop and think “I wish that I could be like that!” – be it the super-human qualities like spitting spider web around the place, burning down villains with a single glance or the ability to freeze a handsome stranger in mid-air with a bat of your eyelashes.

I certainly do not possess the first two. But what if?

The decision about what latest developments should make it into the future of humanity, lies on the shoulders of a panel that typically consists of a scientist, a non-scientist (ideally, a comedian) and an independent judge.

Each member of the panel and the audience (the show is recorded at a live event) bring their suggestions for what ‘an improved human being’ should look like. Suggestions, often based on science news articles, are then debated and the judge is left to choose the most promising one.

“One of my suggestions for a future human being was to change our internal organs in order to make us more robust in space,” remembers comedian and archaeologist Paul McGarrity who took part in an episode of the show held at the Imperial College London in May.

“I believe that the next big thing for humanity is exploring the extra-terrestrial world, yet there is a number of complications that arise with long distance space travel – for instance, the deactivation of muscles or heart problems. We need to find technological solutions for this.”

Unfortunately for him and perhaps all of us, this suggestion failed to impress the judge.

For neurobiologist and memory expert Dr. Julia Shaw, this show was the first time she has ever taken part in a comedy podcast about science.

“I actually had a great time being a scientist on a science show,” says Dr. Shaw. “And I particularly liked debating futurology with people who were not in my field. It made me look differently at my own research and the way I deliver my presentations.”

She explains that weaving humour into the learning process is particularly effective as people will be more engaged and have positive emotions associated with it.

“Humour and entertainment help you get the information ‘through the back door’,” says McGarrity, a stand-up science comedian and archaeologist who took part in the same episode of the show.

 “Otherwise you are forcing your view of the world onto someone. At a comedy show, however, people are already in a mindset to perceive the unexpected. They are not being told what they should know. They are rather told – come and have a laugh; and by the way, here is how brain works.”

The science behind the fun

Unlike traditional science presentations, the show is mostly unstructured. Which makes it closer to the natural way we learn things, remarks Dr. Shaw. She explains that although we are used to learning new material in a structured and rather rigid way at school, it is not the best setting to for our memory to engage.

“It’s best to have a mixture of structured and unstructured information,” says Dr. Shaw. “It helps to have something exceptional, something that stands out and makes learning experience unique. Otherwise, all presentations will be similar.

“The Level Up Human show, on the other hand, felt a bit like having a funny conversation with really smart friends. It was structured more in a way how you would actually talk to your friends, rather than how scientists would usually present new knowledge. It also helped that the host was asking questions in a way that a common person would ask.”

The funny conversation with smart friends, however, was not without conflict. “Comedy, inherently quite aggressive and offensive, allowed everybody on the show to skip the serious debate and get as angry and emotional as they truly wanted,” says Watt.

He recalls a moment from the episode recorded at the Imperial College, when one of the audience members asked the panel whether it was true that humans only used 10% of their brains and what would happen if we used the whole 100%.

“Julia just exploded,” says Watt, unable to hold back a smile. “She was like 'It's not true! If you use more than the amount you already use, you‘ll get a seizure!’ The show setting gave her a chance to talk about topics that she would otherwise not have had a chance to raise. And because it was humorous, she could be as emotional and exasperated as she wanted to.”

McGarrity as a comedian, on the other hand, adopted an aggressive stance from the start.

“Julia’s point was to bring on all the amazing science,” he says. “Whereas my mission was to take as silly a position as I can, argue as much as I can and just engage. I just tried to pick holes in the debate and find out where the evil scientists would flourish. After all, the fun comes from trying to work out how it could all go wrong.”

An expert also looks more interesting among people asking silly questions, believes McGarrity. Comedy as a tool improves engagement with the audience as the setup changes from scientists talking at the people anymore but rather scientists talking to people. This way, even those who feel ’not smart enough’ to take part in the discussion are more likely to ask questions and express their opinion.

It also makes scientists look warmer, more human, friendly and more approachable. “Think of a time when you are around friends and want to be entertaining,” says McGarrity.

“Scientists are used to taking themselves out of their research when presenting it,” he remarks. “Whereas this holds true for planning an experiment, you have to put yourself ‘back in’ when you present your work. Because ultimately, the audience wants to see you as a human being and your passion for the research you are doing. People connect with the human being on the stage rather than the dry facts you are talking about.“

“We need to change the stigma of science being distant, complicated and inaccessible,” agrees Rachel Wheeley. “Instead, we have to make it more open and show the underlying passion that drives scientists to do it.”

Did it come across in the show?

“The audience were certainly very engaged,” recalls Dr. Shaw. “Nobody in the auditorium was on their phones, falling asleep, which is typical of many academic conferences that I’ve been to. Whenever the audience was called at, there was a lot of response.”

Another ‘trademark’ signature of the show is that it deals with the question of ‘What if?’ The discussion is mostly structured about hypothetical scenarios - the future of research, which is often omitted in traditional science news reporting or talk shows.

“It was quite different from other shows I’ve been to,” says Dr. Shaw. “We were speculating about how we could apply science. We might have these discussions among scientists or at academic conferences but not with the general public.

“Futurology is a totally under-talked about topic within science. Moreover, the combination of what has already happened with what will happen next is the most effective part in science communication. Yet most science lectures often turn into history lessons as they are more about the past research rather than its future applications.”

“The advantage of presenting such information to people who are hearing it for the first time,” McGarrity believes, “is that you give people something and then someone goes like – ‘Hey, what about this?’

“People start picking holes out of sheer curiosity. And you can expand into areas that the audience wants to go into, rather than debating within a pre-selected area.”

This new way of looking at science developments prompted Dr. Shaw to reconsider her own presentations. “I now see my own research from a different angle,” she admits. “I started thinking about how my work can be useful to other people. You can engage with people in a different way through that.”

And of course, incorporating comedy into your talks will help, too.

But what if I’m not funny?

“Everyone is funny,” believes McGarrity. “And the more you do it, the more confident and proficient you will become.”

The science comedy initiative Bright Club is aiming to do just that - to provide scientists with a platform where they can try themselves at talking about their research in a funny way.

Bright Clubs, which originated in 2009 at the University College London, now exist in a number of universities across the UK.

”They always follow the same model,” says the Bright Club founder, comedian Steve Cross. “You have got to be fun. You have to do comedy and can’t just go on stage and give a typical research presentation.”

After all, turning up to the stage in front of 300 people cheering at the very mention of your name is very different from a standard conference talk. Timing, for instance, is very important.

Maia Elliott, performing at the Bright Club of the University of Surrey. Image: Steve Cross
Maia Elliott, performing at the Bright Club of the University of Surrey. Image: Steve Cross

“One of the big challenges that researchers have,” Cross says, “is that they are not really trained to talk to time limits.” If 8 minutes in an academic setting would mean something between 8 to 12 minutes, he explains, in comedy 8 minutes is really 8 minutes and no longer.

So have they ever run over time in their shows?

“Not really,” laughs Cross. “We are quite hard on our academics. We always ask everyone to come and practice, which gets the awkwardness out of the researcher’s system and helps them relax on stage during the show.”

Another trick to be funny when talking about serious things, Cross points out, is not to make jokes about those things. Just because your work is not funny does not mean that you cannot be funny when discussing it.

“It’s a big challenge for climate change people, for instance, because climate change isn’t so funny. Yet there is a lot to say about living in a world which knows about climate change and chooses to not notice it.”

The researchers who took part in the Bright Club shows admit that they have developed a lot of new skills and built confidence. “Quite a number of people phoned me up a couple of days after the show asking when they could do a gig again,” says Cross.

But the main impact of the Bright Club initiative was that it ultimately helped to change the way the audience perceived university researchers.

“The main piece of feedback I heard from the audience members after the show,” recalls Cross, “was something like ‘I thought it would be sh*t.’ People assumed that university researchers simply couldn’t do comedy. Their opinion really changed after the show.”

“Things are changing in science,” says Watt. “And I believe that scientists should definitely take a more open approach to presenting their research. Implementing comedic element in their talks will definitely help.”

In the same way, McGarrity is also confident about our future.

“I’m sure there will be enough scientists ready to pick up this new style.”

Additional information:

The first three episodes of  'Level Up Human' are now available online via SoundCloud.

Dr. Julia Shaw's new book 'The Memory Illusion' is scheduled for release on 16 June 2016.

More information about another initiative by Steve Cross - Science Showoff - designed for scientists and communicators not related to universities, can be found online here.

And finally, the next stand-up comedy show by Paul McGarrity 'Today is the Good Old Times of Tomorrow' will take place at the The Counting House in Edinburgh on 6–16 and 18–30 August, 2:30pm. And it's completely free!