You can’t polish a nerd! With Festival of Spoken Nerd

For anyone who hasn’t seen Festival of the Spoken Nerd before – what can they expect?

It’s a live science comedy extravaganza with experiments guy Steve Mould, geek songstress Helen Arney and stand-up mathematician Matt Parker. It’s not comedy *about* science and maths (though we are partial to the odd Venn diagram gag) it’s actual scientific experiments and mathematical demonstrations live on stage, plus statistically significant levels of laughter. If you’ve seen us nearly setting fire to Alan Davies’ hair and electrifying Sandi Toksvig on the latest series of QI on BBC Two, or heard the DIY experiments in our Radio 4 series ‘Domestic Science’, it’s basically a lot like that – but in 3D.

NERDS 4 credit Kitty Walker

Who should come see it?

Everyone can enjoy the show, whether they think they’re nerdy or not. Our audience range across the full spectrum of nerdiness, from hardcore programmers who are fluent in binary, to people who just like watching the Big Bang Theory – and everyone in between.

And for anyone who’s seen you on tour before, what’s new about this show ‘You Can’t Polish a Nerd?

It’s an entirely new show – a lot of our audience come to every show we do so it has to be! Matt uses mathematics and geometry to high-five himself in another dimension. Steve creates a genuinely profound visual way to understand the ungraspable concept of black holes and gravitational waves, using an electric drill, some rollerskates and a sheet of latex. Don’t ask why he had those things just lying around at home. And Helen has a very funny song about bananas.

Why do you think science-comedy has become so popular?

I think that many people are interested in comedy that makes them think and laugh, that audience is really big and it doesn’t get its teeth into stuff like this very often. I think if you have the mind of a scientist then you’re always trying to find out why stuff happens and dig under the surface and not just accept people’s word for it. That is a similar way of thinking that my favourite comedians have as well. My favourite comedians are not the ones to deal with stereotypes or make the same jokes that everyone else makes. They want to find out what’s under the surface and why people do what they do, and that’s a very sciencey way of looking at the world.

How do you go create your shows? Is it a team effort or do you work individually and then bring it together?

We try out individual stuff that has caught our imagination at new material nights, which we now call ‘An Evening Of Unnecessary Detail’ and do once a month at the Backyard Comedy Club in Bethnal Green. The bits that we like, and the audience likes too, get developed into chunks of a new “Nerd” tour.

We always finish every show with a big interactive musical extravaganza that involves little bits of everything that’s gone before. It’s impossible to write until everything else in the show is pretty much finished. So, just before we start a new tour, we lock ourselves in a rehearsal room with all our experiments for a week until the grand finale is ready. It’s a mad panic, but it’s always worked. So far…

What are your individual highlights from your time performing together?

Matt: I was the first person to use an overhead projector at the Hammersmith Apollo since Pink Floyd. It’s hard to top that. Although, they were using it for lighting effects. I was doing maths.

Helen: My childhood dream of Blue Peter fame finally came true when I was invited to perform an experiment from our “Full Frontal Nerdity” tour where I smash a wine glass with the power of my voice. Obviously it’s not as simple as just that … I have to sing exactly the same note that the glass makes when you ping it – that’s the resonant frequency – to within about a quarter of a semitone. There’s also a little extra help: a massive amplifier from Maplin under the desk, to help get the 125 decibels needed. Not even my honking singing voice is that loud on its own. On stage I usually get two or three goes at singing the right note before I get it right, but Blue Peter is famous for being “Live At Five” so there was no time to get it wrong and no second goes. It had absolutely refused to work in rehearsals all afternoon before the live show, so tensions were high in the studio… If you go find the footage on YouTube, you’ll see that when it did happen, the joyful surprise on my face (and the faces of the presenters) is absolutely genuine. And yes, I did get a badge. My parents are very proud.

Steve: An experiment that I did in our live shows and on youtube led to me having a scientific phenomenon named after me: The Mould Effect. It’s an odd one… If you collect a few meters of beaded chain (the type attached to a bath plug) in a jar, then let the end fall out, the whole chain will follow until the pot is empty. That’s pretty cool but had been demonstrated before with plastic beads. I discovered that if you use metal beads, something even more remarkable happens. The chain rises about half a meter into the air above the rim of the pot. The video I made about it was viewed by some academics in Cambridge who were interested in trying to explain the phenomenon. They called in the Mould Effect in passing but I’ve been dining out on it ever since.

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