Stand-up physics

A CMS physicist and amateur stand up comic was named the winner of NESTA FameLab 2009. Tom Whyntie battled it out with nine others young scientists from across the UK to win the contest to find the country’s next top science communicator.

Tom Whyntie with his prize money after the NESTA Famelab final.

Tom Whyntie, who is currently doing his PhD on the CMS experiment, managed to persuade his supervisor to give him a few days off on 5 June so he could fly back to the UK for the final of NESTA FameLab 2009. In the competition, which has been dubbed ‘the X Factor for scientists’, he had just three minutes to explain a complex scientific idea to a panel of judges made up of high-profile science professionals.

During the final, he captivated the audience with his talk about how finding nothing at the LHC, far from being a waste of £5 billion, would actually catalyse the next scientific revolution. It Whyntie’s own words: "If the LHC doesn’t find any of the things we expect it to, then that would be the biggest kick up the backside that physics has had for a long time! It could be that we really don’t understand how any of these things work so we would need to rethink our theories completely."

In the end Whyntie’s argument won him the competition and he took home the impressive £10,000 prize money (about 18,000 CHF) and the promise of several appearances on TV. "But the best bit about it was the chance to get advice and tips from the judges, who are some of the best science communicators around," he adds.

But Whyntie isn’t new to science outreach: "It’s something I’ve been interested in for a long time, " he confirms. "I started out giving physics lectures when I was an undergraduate, and I always tried to make them funny." Since then he has developed entire stand-up comedy routines about particle physics. "But FameLab was completely different," he explains, "getting everything I wanted to say into just three minutes took a lot of practice".

And as for his prize money: "Well, I worked out I could just about afford to buy everyone in CMS a drink," he says with a smile. "It’s either that or take my girlfriend on holiday, and the amount of times she had to listen to me practice the talk, I think she deserves it."

You can hear the full audio from one of Whyntie’s talks at the Royal Institution here:

You can watch a video of the final here: