Science stand-up at CERN

Supported by host Helen Keen from BBC4’s "It is Rocket Science", six amateur performers from CERN (Sam Gregson, Alex Brown, Benjamin Frisch, Claire Lee, Hugo Day and Clara Nellist) were joined on stage by geek-pop sensation Jonny Berliner and comedians Pierre Novellie and Lieven Scheire for a night of science stand-up comedy.


Host Helen Keen starts off the comedy event. (Image: Piotr Traczyk).

Like the genesis of most great things, the LHComedy event began as an idea. Sam Gregson, a PhD student at CERN, had been a regular at the Cambridge Bright Club. This public engagement event promotes scientists’ research through stand-up comedy. Sam thought, “If people came to watch Bright Club at Cambridge and enjoyed the research, why can’t we do it at the biggest scientific experiment in the world?”

Sam’s idea gained momentum after being introduced to FameLab participants at CERN. Similar to Bright Club, FameLab is a competition launched by the British Council in which scientists have three minutes to explain a scientific topic in an accurate and entertaining way. It just so happened that CERN’s FameLab participants had recently returned from a science communication training camp. Enthused by the workshop, CERN physicists like Claire Lee were keen to try stand-up comedy.

“We are used to standing up in front of an audience and talking, but not trying to be funny at the same time!” says Claire. Although nervous, she claims, “People want to see you succeed.” It was an experimental event for CERN and the amateur comedians, but the night was a success. Tickets sold out quickly and almost 10,000 webcast viewers stayed in on a Friday night to watch the world of physics collide with comedy.

The event proves that comedy is a successful medium for science communication: “People who probably wouldn’t have watched a scientific lecture watched because it was comedy,” says Claire.

PhD student Clara Nellist rehearses lines backstage. (Image: Piotr Traczyk).

This is partially due to physics gaining acceptance in popular culture with shows like The Big Bang Theory and the BBC’s The Infinite Monkey Cage. “Science is becoming more sexy at the moment,” says Sam. “People are really interested in it and the event just hit that sweet spot.” He was right. The LHComedy: “CERN After Dark” event was the most watched CERN webcast since the Higgs Discovery.

CERN and the British Council, which supported the event, were both impressed. Caroline Morrissey from the British Council says, “FameLab has clearly launched some dormant stand-up talents! Humour with a generous twist of science provided a superb evening’s entertainment - which demonstrated that what happens at CERN needn’t be all Geek to the uninitiated.”

Sam couldn’t be happier with how well the event went: “I just can’t thank the people who helped enough. Thank you to the people who had the guts to get on stage and present their research, to the people from the CERN Press Office, and to the staff in the background who made the event possible. It just goes to show that science and comedy do work really well together.”

by Stephanie McClellan