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November 17, 2019

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Science explained through art of stand-up comedy

BY day, Kasha Patel works at NASA writing content for its website, but she spends her nights communicating scientific discovery through an altogether different medium: stand-up comedy.

“Part of my job is to help distinguish the difference between fact versus myth for the general public,” the 28-year-old explained as she warmed up for a recent bar gig near Penn State University.

“So for instance, fact: You can get chlamydia if a koala urinates on you. Myth: your wife will believe you.”

Patel’s act sits between two seemingly opposing fields: That of scientific endeavor, famously described by astronomer Carl Sagan as “stodgy and grumpy,” and the raucous world of comedy, currently experiencing a boom that has facilitated the rise of niche genres such as intellectual humor.

The founder of DC Science Comedy, now a recurring live show in the capital, Patel is joined by several scientist-comedians from across the US, united in their belief that laughter can be a powerful tool for communicating complex concepts. 

Shannon Odell, a neuroscience PhD candidate at the Weill Cornell Medical College who has a live show called “Drunk Science” in New York, tells the audience that, contrary to what they may think, “science and comedy actually have a lot in common.”

“Both are really just making observations about the world and then sharing it with an audience,” she said. “Jerry Seinfeld, he’d be like, what’s the deal with airplane food? ... Whereas scientists are just like, what’s the deal with rising CO2 levels?”

Odell explained that laughter has a powerful evolutionary purpose and helped early humans develop camaraderie and more complex social networks.

“It’s important for communicating science to someone, because if you’re laughing with them, then it’s like you’re on an even playing field, and people are more receptive to messages,” she said.

The 30-year-old uses this dynamic in a series of YouTube videos that explore the science of the human brain under various stimuli — from breakups to kittens to alcohol.

In the latter, Odell trades on a bubbly delivery and helpful infographics as she downs shots and slurs her way through the impact of heavy drinking on the brain’s cerebellum. Patel, on the other hand, follows a more traditional comic mold with setups and punchlines.




 

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