Episode 03: Science Comedian Brian Malow
Larry Lesser and science comedian Brian Malow talk about science communication and edutainment, finding much overlap within and among song, comedy, and communication in general. Topics covered include Brian's background/trajectory (0:45), the role of audience and wordplay (6:28), parallels between song and comedy (17:06), tradeoffs of accuracy vs. accessibility (31:17), and concluding advice (40:18).
Visit Brian's website at:
[00:00:00] Intro: VOICES: Virtual Ongoing Interdisciplinary Collaborations for Educating with Song. VOICES was launched in 2016 by the Project SMILES team supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation. Visit us at causeweb.org/voices. There's evidence formin' that's lookin' strong that music helps students learn and belong! So joinin' our choir just can't be wrong, makin' STEM as friendly and lively as song! VOICES.
[00:00:36] Larry Lesser: I'm Larry lesser, one of the lead voices of VOICES. And it's my pleasure to launch the inaugural VOICES podcast this lovely summer afternoon by introducing our featured guest, science communicator and science comedian, Brian Malow. Brian has worked in science communication at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.
[00:00:56] He's performed for organizations like NASA and NSF and companies like Apple and Microsoft. He's made science videos for Time magazine, blog posts for Scientific American and audio pieces for Neil deGrasse Tyson’s StarTalk radio show. He does video interviews of Nobel Laureates from the annual Lindau Nobel Laureate meetings in Germany He’s appeared on the Weather Channel, the Science Channel, the Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson and has been featured in many general and scientific periodicals.
[00:01:24] You can learn lots more about Brian at his website, science comedian.com and, full disclosure to our listeners, Brian and I actually knew each other growing up in Houston. We were a year apart, but attended the same high school and both worked on the school paper. And now decades later, we reconnect through our shared interest in STEM edutainment.
[00:01:45] Welcome, Brian, and thank you for agreeing to be our inaugural interviewee!
[00:01:50] Brian Malow: Well, thank you, Larry! And wow, that intro made me sound so important -- hopefully it's not downhill from here.
[00:01:57] Larry Lesser: So if you could start off by giving us just a two-minute interview of your trajectory, like a highlight or two of how you went from comedy to science comedy, to science communication, and to take it to the level you have.
[00:02:11] Brian Malow: Sure. Well, and I'll throw in a little tidbit relevant to song, which is that way before I was interested in comedy, I was interested in music and me and a friend wrote songs, mostly my lyrics to his music, but I wrote lyrics and short stories. I was very interested in science, but I was also interested in writing and we did a little bit of recording, but nothing fancy with our songs, but eventually I discovered standup comedy, which is also something I'd come to like, so I became a comedian, just like any other comedian, but my act was a little geeky and it took me many years and flirting with the idea, like in my promo materials, kind of flirting with the idea of referencing the fact that I had a lot of science references or jokes, but it took me forever
[00:03:05] to one day come up with this phrase “science comedian” and I looked and sciencecomedian.com was available, which I thought was either a really good sign or a really bad sign. And it turned out to be really good, like that sort of crystallized it. It's like: right -- I should cut out the other stuff and
[00:03:24] have it all be it, but I have a very broad definition that we can discuss of what I consider science comedy. It's not all explicitly educational, but maybe it's just all a little geeky and from a science worldview and almost anything that could fit that. And then I'm science comedian. And that became my handle on all the social media, especially YouTube and Instagram now and Twitter.
[00:03:47] But once I did that, that really paved the way towards other science communication ventures. Being the science comedian just led to other science communication stuff. So like you said, I got an opportunity to make science videos for Time magazine. One day, Neil Tyson randomly, having seen video of me on YouTube,
[00:04:11] looked me up and wrote to me and we stayed in touch and he eventually invited me (this was some years ago) to do some pieces for his StarTalk radio. And culminating after a pretty long career as a freelancer, right? I always did stand-up comedy and clubs and colleges and what we would call corporate gigs --
[00:04:34] that's everything else: any time you work for an organization or a company. So after having been a freelancer for a long time -- mostly performing, but some writing things or video things -- I actually took a job from a science museum and I moved from San Francisco to Raleigh, North Carolina, to work in science communications for a few years before I returned to freelancing
[00:04:57] just because there are other things I want to do, but all of these, so now I've had this experience of working in tech. I blogged for Scientific American. I've done audio, video, and from the stage helped communicate science in addition to stand-up comedy. I've interviewed, I've hosted science cafes and interviewed scientists on stage or hosted and ran the Q and A.
[00:05:22] So, I have some experience. That's my STEM experience. Although I loved science first, I didn't become a scientist. But I never lost my love of science and there's always been something of the teacher in me, even though I didn't become a teacher. I'm very compelled to share interesting stuff with people, whether it's an author or a band or a cool science idea.
[00:05:50] Larry Lesser: I really relate to that because my PhD is not in math itself, but in math education. And I took enough coursework to get a PhD in statistics -- everything but the dissertation --but by then, I'd done enough teaching to realize that my best strength and calling and interest was in the teaching and learning side. And so, that's how the love of something leads to the want to communicate it more than to create another theorem or a discovery or something.
[00:06:21] Brian Malow: Yeah, I like that a lot and here we are because of that!
[00:06:27] Larry Lesser: So you've had experience talking with many different audiences like working scientists and the general public, and I assume also college students and K-12 students even -- do you find yourself able to use the same persona in all those settings? Or do you sort of tailor your material based on your audience?
[00:06:21] Brian Malow: I was speaking to someone that was a potential client and they were like, ‘Oh, science comedian. So you teach kids about science using stand-up comedy.’ And I was like, ‘No, if you're a geek, I'll make you laugh!’ Those are two very different things.
[00:07:04] And I know there is a spectrum, I think, from entertainment to education and the scientist or educator has to educate -- the comedian only has to get laughs. But I am somewhere in between. I do want to communicate some information, but I've never felt that the youngest audience, that my jokes, the material that I wrote.... although I've never been a particularly dirty comedian, I honed my act in nightclubs and maybe it expanded from that.
[00:07:37] But I would say that, you know, when I say it's ‘adult humor’, I don't mean it in the sense of the dirty four-letter words. It's a little more sophisticated. A lot of my jokes wouldn't be funny to a younger audience, but what I have found [is] here's what I think are the limits of my reach, currently.
[00:07:59] I've participated in a lot of science festivals, which is another great way to communicate science and engage the public. And I have found young students that are middle school students have come up to me having seen some of my YouTube videos. Like before they came to see me at the festival, they looked me up and they saw me on YouTube and the middle school kids that already like science,
[00:08:27] I can reach them with my geeky jokes, but middle school kids that aren't particularly interested in science, I don't think they'd find my geeky humor that funny. But I will say I know that I could reach pretty much any audience -- I just don't have that act developed yet. And what's in my act,
[00:08:49] what kind of jokes, they're a little geeky. And I would say you have to be either a little older or just a little younger, but be into science. So in terms of turning people – which I love to do -- onto science, like reaching the people that need to be... ‘cause here I'm talking about kind of preaching to the converted.
[00:09:11] I'm talking about reaching the people that already like science. Well, they already like --what about the ones that don't like it, or don't know that they might like it? Well, for the youngest ones, you know what? I did have an experience back in our hometown in Houston, I was hired by the Johnson Space Center where there's two parts of the Johnson space center:
[00:09:34] One is the part where they actually do mission control for launches out of Florida. But the other part is like a public-facing museum and they brought me in for this ‘physics day’. And when I got there, I realized that the audience was children, little children, primarily. So I realized, ‘Oh, my jokes, aren't going to work for this.’
[00:09:55] So I started spontaneously doing things like explaining how an eclipse works by by taking three kids and using them as props and going like, ‘you're the Sun, you're the Moon and you're the Earth’. And then like kind of a peekaboo sort of thing. If you can imagine sort of being funny without resorting to my eloquent, perfectly-crafted jokes.
[00:10:21] Just trying to be funny with this young audience off-the-cuff and explaining some more fundamental things and trying to ask them questions to see what they might be interested in. So that was a real challenge, but I think I could do that, but that just hasn't been where my efforts have been in developing my material, which I aim a little higher.
[00:10:43] But I will say this: maybe some of my jokes explicitly teach a science idea, but a lot of them don't. And then I wonder: are they still useful? And I think if somebody sits in one of my shows and they don't think they like science and they come out of there having laughed at a bunch of geeky stuff
[00:11:09] ‘Cause I reached them with stuff that you don't know how geeky do you have to be to like ‘I used to be an astronomer, but I got stuck on the day shift, which sucks. You don't discover anything good.’ Or that ‘my girlfriend was a lot shorter than me. In fact, the first time I saw her, I thought she was farther away than she actually was.’
[00:11:27] You know, these are science jokes, but there are for everyone. Whereas I have others. That I wouldn't say they're for everyone ‘cause they're a little geekier than that like ‘Women have passed through my life, like exotic particles through a cloud chamber, leaving only vapor trails for me to study for clues to their nature.’
[00:11:45] Okay. So that's a little different and -- is it a poem or is it a joke? It's not even clear.
[00:11:53] Larry Lesser: I saw a bit you did on YouTube where you actually did this progression of jokes, very intentionally getting more and more specialized.
[00:12:02] Brian Malow: Yes. You know I think you're thinking of these bar jokes, it's the standard format of: something walks into a bar,
[00:12:10] the bartender says ‘we don't serve your kind,’ and then there's usually an absurd pun as the punchline. And you know those also came about out of necessity. I did a show at a science museum in Washington, DC -- it's an outlet of the National Academy of Sciences called the Marian Koshland Science Museum.
[00:12:29] And I had a great show and they said, ‘We want you to come back next year. Could you have a whole new act [which is always an interesting proposition already] to go along with our new exhibit on infectious disease?’ They wanted a show themed on infectious disease. And I said, yes, ‘cause I wanted the gig.
[00:12:52] And then it was like, what have I committed to? But I ended up coming up with a few bar jokes. And then I just expanded beyond. And the first one -- I'll just tell you a couple because I was thinking about viruses -in the first one, it almost doesn't fit the format ‘cause it's not actually a pun, but all the others are puns.
[00:13:11] Just the first one was about viruses and how amazing that they're not even defined as a life form because they can't reproduce on their own without getting into a cell. But once they get into your cells, they take over the machinery and turn it to their own uses.
[00:13:29] It's like a hostile takeover, like ‘your cells under new management’. And if you think about this stuff too hard, here's the kind of jokes he come up with: A virus walks into a bar. The bartender says ‘We don't serve viruses in this bar.’ The virus replaces the bartender and says, ‘Now we do.’ And, I mean, it's valid enough.
[00:13:48] And then an infectious disease walks into a bar. The bartender says, ‘We don't serve infectious diseases’ and the infectious disease says, 'Well, you're not a very good host.’ Here's a killer one: two bacteria walk into a bar.
[00:14:05] The bartender says, ‘We don't serve bacteria in this bar’ and the bacteria say, ‘But we work here. We're staph.’ Now this also brings up an interesting subject, which is performing to audiences for whom English is not their first language. Just on YouTube, these jokes have been on YouTube for 10 or 12 years or more,
[00:14:30] and sometimes you see people going well, they don't understand that punchline staph -- it's a pun on staphylococcus, which we often call staph, s-t-a-p-h and staff, s-t-a-f-f. So it's a pun, but to someone whose first language isn’t English, they might not quite catch it. They're like ‘what is that? What was that?’
[00:14:48] You see that a lot on the punchline: ‘What was that? I don't understand.’ Because puns require a certain amount of knowledge in your language. You have to recognize these two meanings in your one language and that's sometimes hard for people for whom it's not their first language.
[00:15:06] Larry Lesser: that also connects to something we're going to talk about a little bit later about parallels between music and comedy. Because one of the many features they have in common is that it's got to be designed to work aurally, you know, by ear. And so if something is a homonym, like staph and staff, then you know that you have to make sure someone's able to catch that.
[00:15:28] Brian Malow: Yeah, that's a great point. And you know what? See, I love puns and wordplay. Some people think puns are the lowest form of humor and other people think puns are like the highest form of humor. And if you scoff at it, it's because you just don't get it. I always loved puns and wordplay and it was natural for me to start off in comedy and draw from that. I realized right away that there's a limit to how many puns you can do on stage
[00:15:55] because first of all, if you do a lot, then people see it coming. Because you start to hear the word -- if you're an attentive audience member -- you'll start to hear the word that is “punnable,” and you can guess the punchline, and they can also play corny. The point you made is that when I do those, I string a whole bunch of those bar jokes together --
[00:16:15] they are purposely corny. I deliver them, radiating the knowledge that it's corny and we're all appreciating it. And when people groan, I go ‘That's okay. Groaning is acceptable.’ So I play it in a certain way. But when I started, I was just trying to sell these puns as jokes and I started to realize there's a limit to how many you can do.
[00:16:35] Now, I still have always had some that I hung on to, but I realized that some are better on paper. As you just mentioned, some are better on paper and don't need to be brought to the stage, but some are great on stage. I think some need to be oral, probably, because when you write it...
[00:16:55] So it can work both ways, but I certainly have learned that there's a difference between how that works on paper and on the stage or orally in general.
[00:17: 07] Larry Lesser: So since I just mentioned like that as sort of a possible parallel, let me dive into that direction a little more explicitly. So you identify as a comedian, but you've also had that early interest in music as well that you still keep alive and, for me, my focus is more songwriting, but I also took a six-session comedy workshop back when I lived in Austin culminating in three minutes on an open mic stage, and we know comedy and music overlap because there's a lot of troupes, like Capitol Steps and Second City that do comedic songs-- in fact, Second City offers a class in comedic songwriting
[00:17:48] but I think even when songs are not trying to be funny that there are still parallels between songwriting and comedy. And I was just brainstorming before our interview today some possible ways in which they're parallel. And let me share my list with you and you can tell me what that sparks in you and, and what maybe I should add to the list.
[00:18:11] So both songs and comedy both depend on timing. They both depend on brevity, keeping the language conversational and not too clever. Having some storytelling, sometimes phrasing things in trios, having the most important word at the end of a key line. Having it work to the ear, having some kind of repetition, I mean, a song may have a chorus and comedy may have a callback later in the routine,
[00:18:43] building in some kind of interaction or improv ‘cause even though the comedy is written and the song is written, you want the audience to feel like there's some interaction, whether you pause before saying something or whether you've got that heckler line ready in case someone says something, what persona you're going to have as you deliver the material? What does all that spark in you?
[00:19:11] Brian Malow: My time nowadays, I still perform comedy, but rather than in nightclubs, it's mostly private gigs either at colleges or for science organizations. But about half the time, I give a science communication talk -- or both, I perform and give a science communication talk -- but I give a talk that I call a science comedian’s guide to communicating science and a lot of what I have to tell to the scientists
[00:19:36] draws from my experience as a comedian, but not all of it does. But early on, I realized I had given science communication talks, and someone from the National Science Foundation tasked me with giving a talk on communicating science with humor. And I actually didn't even want to, I was like, no, no, no --
[00:19:55] how about communicating to the public and using humor as a subset of that, but that's it? And it's like, ‘no, no, no. We already have people doing that. You're a comedian communicating science with humor.’ Because I was challenged, I had to really give some thought to this subject and I started seeing that communicating humor
[00:20:16] has more parallels with communicating science than you would think, because it's just a communication issue. And for instance, one of those things you brought up and same with songwriting, it's communicating and wanting to have some impact. As a comedian I want to get laughter, but as a science communicator, as a comedian, I want to surprise you with seeing something the way I see it
[00:20:43] that you do not already see that way. And it might be something very common to you, but I want to make you see it in a [new] way and I want to elicit a laugh. A science communicator has something complex that you might be unfamiliar with, and they just want to get you to understand it at the end and appreciate it.
[00:21:01] But they're not that different, really. So one of the things you said is about having the important word at the end. A lot of times some really well-written jokes -- they're not even funny until the last word. Like it's not even funny till the end -- it's going along, and then there's a little twist and it's just substituting one word.
[00:21:25] Like that's almost ideal, just like this little twist and a little thing that changes everything. So the thing about that is like as great as that is for comedy, fhis is just good communicating and sentence structure. And I've got one example from my act, an old joke, true story, where I performed at a sports bar once and the sport they were into was hunting:
[00:21:51] And imagine you're on stage and all around the room are dead animals mounted on the walls. And there was a giant bear in a plexiglass case, but lots of things -- ducks and everything. The whole room was just adorned with hunting trophies. So there was a line that for a long time, I didn't sit down and perfect it --
[00:22:15] it's just that every time I had got to it, I kind of realized I was messing up, but I didn't take the time to fix it because I would say ‘there's a lot of pressure on you to be funny when there's that many dead species on the wall already.’ I was ending on already, and that's not the funny part. And in fact, skip out comedy in general --
[00:22:40] That's poor sentence construction, just for a sentence! So finally I changed it and got into my head what I need to say, and it's just subtle -- it's just moving them around: ‘There's a lot of pressure on me to be funny when there's already that many dead species on the wall.’
[00:22:59] The funny part is that there's already that many dead species on the wall. Not already. Once you say ‘dead species on the wall,’ you don't want to be left having to say ‘already’, it adds nothing. So it works better as a joke, but also, it's just better communication. And I started seeing things like that in the communicating of humor and some of it's nonverbal...
[00:23:24] I know I'm veering off on a lot of different topics, but we'll come back to your list, probably. How you are on stage: you have a lot of jokes to memorize. So you have to memorize the text of each joke and the order of the whole thing.
[00:23:43] Well, if you're in your head, if you're on stage in front of an audience that you're trying to connect with, but you are focused on remembering the words and what the order is, then you're too inward. You're not focused on the audience. And you just need to get to the point where you know that stuff.
[00:24:03] Somehow there's a magical thing that happens when you go from memorizing something to knowing it. Like at one point I memorized the order of the planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and there was Pluto at the time. But, now I just know it -- I really know them.
[00:24:20] It's not memorized. I know that there's like these four terrestrial rocky planets, and then the outer gas giants and there isn't Pluto anymore. So, you want to be on stage knowing it, but not having to turn inward and memorize, ‘cause you want your attention focused on your audience.
[00:24:43] So that's a big thing -- it's like you need to be present and focused on the audience so we can come back to some of that stuff. But in terms of your question, the other thing is what we would call a callback. So when I first started writing poems, short stories, and lyrics. I was not writing jokes yet.
[00:25:05] And I wasn't thinking comedy. I was thinking rock star, writer, rock star. And if you ask me what instrument do I play? I'll say, I didn't say I wanted to be a musician, I said I wanted to be a rock star, big difference! So my friend played great piano and keyboards, and I mostly wrote lyrics to his music, but you know what, in retrospect,
[00:25:32] the stories I wrote, a lot of them, were these very short, like one-page stories with a little twist at the end, like a Twilight, all super-short stories. Almost always, especially in science fiction, they are just a little twist at the end. Essentially, they are a setup and a punchline. And the first stories I wrote were like that -- very short with a little twist.
[00:25:56] Larry Lesser: Almost sounds like what they call ‘flash fiction’ now.
[00:25:59] Brian Malow: Yeah. And then my lyrics as well. If you look at the lyrics of a song, the last verse doesn't always strike a note of finality -- the last verse could be any verse. But some songs there's a last line, and you're like, oh, I know that's the last line -- you know, it brings it to a close and you know it's the end of the song.
[00:26:25] And I noticed that a lot of my lyrics had a little line like that. When I look back -- wow, my stories, my lyrics -- It's like I was always writing towards the punchline years before I became a comedian and it's like, I was already writing that way, like towards a final note or punchline
[00:26:46] Larry Lesser: I've seen songwriting how-to things where they talk about a verse and a chorus that way, where the chorus is your punchline. Write the chorus first, that's the main point of your song. Now write the verses that lead to it, that set it up.
[00:27:00] Brian Malow: Ooh and you know what, one of the other things you mentioned was what we call in comedy a callback and I have talked about this in my science communication talks. And you can find it everywhere, like in movies there's sometimes sort of like bookends or something that parallels something for a comedian. The idea is you made a joke earlier and then you call that punchline back a couple times, you reference that earlier thing. But we've all seen this in, in all kinds of movies or essays or anything-- it's that,
[00:27:40] you know, one of the examples that I always think of is Liar Liar, this Jim Carrey movie, where in the beginning, there's this cute thing that he would play with his son, ‘the claw’, he would just be playing with his little boy and doing this thing. Where it's just this fun silliness with his son. Somewhere in the middle,
[00:28:03] there's a stepfather that comes into the situation. And there's a scene where he sort of tries to do that -- he tries to mimic it with the son and it doesn't play. And then, you know, so his relationship is in trouble, but by the end, it's good. And at the end, they do this little claw thing again.
[00:28:22] Oh, it's so heartwarming and touching and then it's the end. Everybody's laughing and they're back together again. And the fact that they planted that thing -- so all the time you see things that are planted in a movie, like a pen with a secret, with a special metal cap, that's going to become relevant later. That's a callback and it just provides cohesiveness
[00:28:43] Larry Lesser: Because you have the claws and then you have the subordinate claws.
[00:28:46] Brian Malow: [laughs] Exactly why! And some years ago in the San Francisco Bay area, for a public radio show that was about science and tech, I did these little essays and I usually had a format where I opened with a joke,
[00:29:04] in fact, one of them was about asking my father, ‘why is the sky blue?’ and asking my mom, ‘why is the sky blue?’ And she says, ‘uh, because I said so,’ and it's like, I don't think that was the right answer. So the idea was I opened with a joke that could sort of seamlessly lead into the discussion of a topic
[00:29:23] and then at the very end of this two- to four-minute piece, I would reference that beginning thing again, and hopefully it'd be kind of humorous and then it just wraps things up. It ties things together, you plant something and you, you call it back at the end. But so I've often used jokes that way,
[00:29:44] if the joke can open the door to something. I mentioned that I used to be an astronomer, but I got stuck on the day shift. That joke though is interesting because sometimes I only tell it the way I said: ‘I was an astronomer, but I got stuck in the day shift. You don't discover anything good’, but a lot of audiences are savvy enough that they are immediately thinking: what about solar astronomers?
[00:30:08] Okay. And so because of the smart audiences and the informed audiences I perform to, I've found myself saying: I know solar astronomers and radio astronomers work on the day shift. And you know what? The truth is pretty much all professional astronomers work on the day shift now because everything's digital.
[00:30:29] So they'll use a telescope somewhere in the world and it digitally gets the data, but they work on it during the day. But what's interesting there to me, is that: okay, I made a joke, but it's a doorway into a serious talk, like a topic that's interesting and worth discussing. So I love that sometimes a joke as an inroad into a topic
[00:30:53] and then be serious about it. Or, you know, ideally, I'm humorous also while being serious, maybe not jokey, but get some more humor. And then at the very end, if you can come up with a cute little ending that calls it back.
[00:31:09] Larry Lesser: Kind of like the ‘tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them,’ that kind of thing. So let me ask you a different angle now. So I want to ask you about accuracy because I know you make it a point to make sure that your science jokes are indeed informed by valid science. In fact, you even work that fact into some of your material, but we all know that sometimes the 100% technically accurate description might be too long or jargon-filled to work in a comedic or lyrical phrase.
[00:31:38] So, do you have any insights about how to balance technical accuracy with accessibility when you're communicating with non-specialists that teachers might be able to learn from?
[00:31:49] Brian Malow: It's definitely a real challenge. I mean, just imagine if your field is quantum physics or something -- it's going to be pretty hard to communicate that to any general audience,
[00:32:05] but I want to say that there's a phrase that people always come to, which is ‘dumbing it down’. And sometimes scientists don't want to dumb it down. And what they really mean is they don't want to sacrifice the precision or the accuracy. But I don't like the phrase ‘dumbing it down’ -- I don't think that's a good way to think about it.
[00:32:25] Here's what I think: is it dumbing it down to speak French to someone who speaks only French? That's not dumbing it down. Is it dumbing it down if you're speaking to a fifth-grader and you don't use calculus. No, it's speaking to them in their language and it's not dumbing it down.
[00:32:50] It does put some restraints on you, though. If you can't explain quantum physics with the math, what can you do? So there's a certain level of some things that would be hard to express. So I appreciate that it's a challenge, but surely there's some level at which if you are with a child and you wanted to give them a flavor of what you study, that you could find a way, if you just think about: I'm talking to a child or someone with the intelligence of a child --just because they graduated all these institutes doesn't mean much --
[00:33:23] but a non-specialist. There's something by use of analogies, and I know this is exactly where sometimes people get into trouble where they're like: ‘that analogy, it's not precise enough.’ Well, I don't think that analogy is intended to be the exact same thing. It's an analogy it's to give you some flavor, some hint, to give you something close to it.
[00:33:52] And you can always say ‘look, it's a little more complicated than this,’ but by making the audience central, here's the key: in my science communication talks, Larry, here's my main points. I say them in a lot of different ways, but I say to scientists on stage: be yourself, be human,
[00:34:16] and hopefully those aren't mutually exclusive (ha ha ha), be yourself, be human, be passionate, be present, and be prepared. Being present is what I was talking about, and it's about making the audience central in your thinking. There's what you want to communicate, but you know what? It's not even communication if it doesn't hit.
[00:34:38] So you have to make the audience central in your thinking. If you want to take them to a complex place, you have to know where they're starting out. How can you give someone directions? I've used this analogy of some people are better than others at giving directions. If you don't know where they're starting out, how can you even pretend to give them directions to a destination?
[00:35:00] If you don't know if they know that ‘the Loop’ is another name for [Interstate] 610, then how do you know what language to use? That's like jargon. If I say the Loop, do you know I'm talking about 610? ‘Oh, no. I didn't know that. ‘Cause I didn't grow up in Houston.’ All right -- that makes sense, but it's not dumbing it down.
[00:35:18] You know, this isn't dumbing it down. It's just making the audience central in your thinking, the part about being human and passionate is to reveal a little of yourself. And I think this will apply to the greatest songwriters, the greatest comedians, the greatest novelists and artists. There's something very personal that when you're communicating your science at a conference to your peers -- maybe it's not as relevant.
[00:35:44] But when you're talking to people outside your specialty and especially to civilians, nonscientists, non-academics, you know, not everyone even knows a scientist, for instance. I know a lot of scientists, you probably do too -- you work in academia, but a lot of people don't know. And that joke about being human,
[00:36:07] it's only a half-joke because scientists aren't entirely human to some. Some people don't have enough reference points. We've all seen so many movies about cops and judges and lawyers and doctors, but we don't see as many about scientists. And if we do, it's always a mad scientist and they've created a monster or a time machine, but real scientists are a bit of an unknown.
[00:36:34] A friend of mine was talking about drugs derived from nature, and he mentioned how his daughter skinned her knee and he put Bacitracin on it. And this derives from a bacteria, this is a drug that we've gotten from a bacteria, but in the course of that, he just told an anecdote where he's a father.
[00:36:54] He has a daughter and it's not central to the message, but it communicated something that's more important than you might realize. The audience just heard him express that he's a father, he has a kid, she skinned her knee, he treated it with this. And that was a good way into this topic, but it also revealed some personal stuff and it helps endear you to the audience.
[00:37:21] Songwriters reveal something and emote. So sometimes a scientist might give a very dry presentation of facts, and I know that's what's important to you, but there's a way to package it where it's a little more, let me hear about you. Did you always know you wanted to be a scientist?
[00:37:41] Did you always know you wanted to be an entomologist? What got you hooked on insects? And it's like, when I hear what drew you to it, that might draw me to it, too. It's a little more personal than ‘just the facts, Ma'am,’ you know?
[00:37:56] Larry Lesser: You think part of the issue is that if scientists feel like they're being expected to be objective and detached, and it's just the data, that they just aren't encouraged to think about the human side as much themselves?
[00:38:10] Brian Malow: Oh, I think that's true. The part about communicating to the public hasn't really traditionally been a part of the training for a scientist. So what you just mentioned is you have to learn to be objective. You have to learn not to let what you want the results to be color the actual results.
[00:38:31] And being non-emotional, being able to accept either one, like if your theory turns out to be completely wrong because of the experiment, you have to accept that. Those are some characteristics that aren't very human.
[00:38:54] Like it's very human to be invested in that and to want that and to be disappointed when you're ‘Oh, I really wanted it to be that and it's not.’ Well, that's the facts -- you have to appreciate that this is the way it is, but you know, scientists haven't traditionally been given a lot of communications training, and if they have, it's how to write their papers for their peers.
[00:39:19] But how do you communicate to a general, nonacademic or nonscientific audience? I think there's been growing awareness of it for years now. And things like what you and I do -- I think there's been more appreciation of science humor in song, science humor in comedy, science humor on television.
[00:39:46] People are very divided on the Big Bang Theory, but, whether it's good or bad for science there's arguments on both sides, but it certainly became a huge success and made these scientists’ characters visible for better or worse. But comedians and types of comedic science communication, song parody, have become, you know, with the advent of the social media and everything has helped, too. I think there is more awareness of the importance of that now.
[00:40:18] Larry Lesser: We could obviously talk for hours. It's so wonderful to have this conversation and the overlap we've found, but I just want to give you one final chance to either summarize things, or offer any words of wisdom or guidance for people who might be thinking about if or how to use songs in a science classroom or education context, anything you feel we didn't get around to talking about that you want to make sure you mentioned.
[00:40:44] Brian Malow: So I want to repeat one thing and I want to tell you my favorite bit of science communication advice. The thing I want to repeat is this idea that sometimes in a song or in my humor, I might very explicitly explain a science idea. But there are other times that I'm just being funny with geeky humor.
[00:41:08] And even though I wouldn't call that joke educational, I do feel like if somebody comes to see me and they didn't come because it was a science comedian --let's say they just showed up and it turned out to be a science comedian -- and I make them laugh for an hour with very geeky humor. Even if I don't teach them anything, I may have taught them one thing, which is:
[00:41:31] They thought science was boring or hard and I just made them laugh for an hour with very science geeky humor. So maybe I've at least deflated a little of that fear or resistance and gone, ‘Come on, this is a subject that we can have a lot of fun with, even if I don't explicitly teach you a science fact.’
[00:41:51] So there could be songwriting or joke writing that's a little more subtle than trying to explain explicitly a concept right on the head. It's like ‘Wow, you amuse me with that.’ And you know what? I'm very drawn to any rock songs. There's a song by The Flaming Lips that I already loved
[00:42:10] ‘cause immediately it's called “Do You Realize??” and it's beautiful, it was a semi hit. It's kind of heavy though. It's about mortality, but the imagery is sciency and it's beautiful. The chorus says: “Do you realize that you have the most beautiful face?
[00:42:35] Do you realize that we're floating in space? Do you realize happiness makes you cry? Do you realize everyone you know some day will die? And instead of saying all of your goodbyes, let them know you realize that life goes fast. It's hard to make the good things last. You realize the sun doesn't go down.
[00:43:01] It's just an illusion caused by the world spinning ‘round.” So it's beautiful, it's about mortality, it's got science imagery, but it's not a science song. And on the other hand, They Might Be Giants and Tom Lehrer are two musical comedic artists that I am a huge fan of.
[00:43:22] They Might Be Giants already had some very science, geeky songs, an old song called “Mammal” that's hilarious, it is so geeky and filled with jargon and species and stuff. And it's hilarious – references about blood flowing through the large four-chambered heart and it's a great song called “Mammal.”
[00:43:44] Well then, ultimately they made some kids' albums. They made Here Come the ABCs and Here Come the 123s for very young audiences. And then for a slightly older audience, they made an album called Here Comes Science like 10 years ago, and it is loaded with great science songs for like middle school audience.
[00:44:06] They actually took this song -- a cover of a song they grew up with called “Why Does the Sun Shine?” -- and it's: “The sun is a mass of incandescent gas, a gigantic nuclear furnace, where hydrogen is built into helium at a temperature of millions of degrees.”
[00:44:28] It's loaded with these facts about how big it is -- a million earths could fit inside. And it's a very compelling catchy song, but the sun is not a mass of incandescent gas. It's not literally or scientifically accurate. And so when they did this album, they rerecorded that classic song of theirs.
[00:44:51] That's called “Why Does the Sun Shine?” So they made a new song called “Why Does the Sun Really Shine?” and it says: “The Sun is a miasma of incandescent plasma [because it's not technically gas]. The Sun's not simply made out of gas. No, no, no. The sun is a quagmire. It's not made of fire. Forget what you've been told in the past.”
[00:45:12] By us, is what they're saying. Now here’s the interesting thing. The first one is a better song. It's so much better a song even though the science isn't as accurate. This one gets the science accurate, but I don't know if it's as compelling a song, so there's the little dilemma.
[00:45:29] Larry Lesser: That's the tradeoff we talked about earlier, see this is a callback to the discussion on accessibility versus accuracy.
[00:45:35] Brian Malow: They're calling back their own and they put it right after it on the album. It's like: here's a song, a new version of a song that you've heard us do for years. And here's where we point out the fact that it's not exactly accurate.
[00:45:47] it's kind of funny, but there are other songs on there, like “Cells” and “Science is Real”, [and] “I am a Paleontologist.” This song called “Roy G Biv” that's about the spectrum of light. And “Speed and Velocity” is a groovy song and it says, “I've got speed. That's how fast I am moving.
[00:46:09] I've got velocity. That's my speed plus direction.” So that one very explicitly does explain what speed and velocity, but it also has these verses about how, like when I'm on a big wheel or a skateboard or a motor rollercoaster or a rocketship. I love it. The song rocks, and it's totally about physics and speed and velocity.
[00:46:32] All right. So some of their songs do teach you something in there and some of them just dance around the science stuff and lots of science imagery. One of my favorite messages for science communicators, it's an anecdote that Richard Feynman, the Nobel prize-winning American physicist, once told. He said that his father used to read to him from the encyclopedia and when he was a kid and he'd get to an entry that said ‘this dinosaur attains a length of so many feet’ and he would stop.
[00:47:06] Feynman said he would stop and he'd say, you know what that means? That means if this dinosaur was standing in our front yard and you looked out your second story bedroom window, you could be looking him directly in the eyes. He took the bare facts and he translated them into what they really mean. And Feynman said, I have the same disease.
[00:47:28] Whenever I read something, I'm compelled to translated into what it really means. I really resonated with that ‘cause I think I do that as a comedian. Like I see something and go ‘That seems very funny to me. How do I translate that into words that will make you see how funny it is?’
[00:47:47] So when I give my science communication talks, I quote this anecdote. And one example I have that's not funny is about how fast the International Space Station orbits the earth. It's like 17,500 miles an hour. And that sounds fast, but that number is outside our daily experience.
[00:48:05] What if I told you that's almost five miles per second? And that means if you were in space and the ISS went by, in one second you would be five miles away. That's what 17,500 miles an hour really doesn't convey it all. That is so much more compelling. So that's taking a bare fact, 17,500 miles an hour, and saying, if you were in space in one second, it would be five miles.
[00:48:35] That's taking a bare fact and making it more experiential for you and putting it in very human terms. And then I have funny examples, too, like Pangea a couple hundred million years ago. Instead of separate land masses, there was one mass called Pangea, right? One unified land mass, you know what that means?
[00:48:57] International travel was really easy! You want to go to Germany? It's right there! So I have funny examples, but when I look at my act, a lot of it is like that. It's like: how do I take this observation and make it so that you laugh? For a scientist, that's: how do I take this bare fact and make it really hit home with you? To just say honeybees are important pollinators...
[00:49:26] Okay, you said the fact they're important pollinators, but that does not convey how many of our crops would disappear if not for being pollinated by these bees. Have you ever seen one of these images where they show a grocery store and on one side it's all piles of fruits and vegetables
[00:49:48] and on the other side, it's empty of all the ones that are pollinated by these bees? And so, it's a very striking visual that says here's how important these bees are. All of these foods would be gone if we lost these bees. So to just merely say, like I've heard entomologists say, ‘Oh yeah, they're very important pollinators’ --
[00:50:13] if you think you communicated, with impact that image conveyed, you didn't at all. So, sometimes it's like, it's not enough to say this thing travels a thousand miles. It's like it's three light years away. You need to convert that in the terms, we understand like one of those solar system scales where you go ‘on this scale, if this was the Sun, the Earth, you know, like Pluto would be in Wichita on the scale.’
[00:50:45] So it's one of those things where it's not enough to give us numbers or facts, it's like: help us understand what it really means. What does that mean? I don't want you to not give us the facts. I just don't want you to stop there. So that's one of my favorite bits of advice for communicators.
[00:51:04] Larry Lesser: Well, thank you so much. This has been a great way to launch our podcast series. Thank you so much.
[00:51:08] Brian Malow: I hope so. I could have been more succinct. [laughs] I could have been more succinct, but I wasn't.