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Art and science

Of graphs and giggles

12 Feb 2018 Tushna Commissariat
Taken from the February 2018 issue of Physics World

Tushna Commissariat reviews Festival of the Spoken Nerd: Just for Graphs

Helen Arney (right), Steve Mould (left) and Matt Parker (centre)
Festival of the Spoken Nerd

In recent years, there seems to have been a boom in science stand-up and theatre – indeed, last year we reviewed three physics-themed plays, not to mention a host of other similar events at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. While this is a pleasing trend, the term “stand-up mathematician” threw me, not to mention the name of the show Just for Graphs. The cheesy wordplay did make me laugh, but could actual scientific graphs, plots or diagrams ever be inherently funny? I didn’t think so, but I was pleased to be proved wrong by the geeky comedy trio who make up Festival of the Spoken Nerd and claim to “feed your brain, tickle your ribs and light your Bunsen burner”.

Physics songstress Helen Arney (pictured, right), experimentalist Steve Mould (left) and the aforementioned stand-up mathematician Matt Parker (centre) are a talented bunch for whom science and humour go hand in hand. Performing together since their first tour – Full Frontal Nerdity – in 2014, the three deliver shows that are funny, clever and sometimes downright silly, but always scientifically sound. Although each of them regularly appears independently on shows such as Discovery’s Outrageous Acts of Science, BBC’s QI and The One Show, they work best together. Apart from a long list of science festivals in the UK, the trio have performed in Las Vegas, in New York, in London’s Science Museum and at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.

Just for Graphs was their sell-out 2015 show that toured 36 locations across the UK, and has just been released on DVD and for digital download. The 92-minute show was filmed live, and this works well in their favour, considering the excellent audience interaction and participation throughout the show. There are 13 chapters, with perplexing titles such as “Flame tube” and “You can’t graph love”, to take you on an amusing, rapid-fire tour of everything from standing waves and Venn diagrams to space probes and sudoku anarchism (also described as “recreational mathematics” by Parker). Throughout the show, Mould, Arney and Parker each do three or four individual “bits”, aided, abetted and heckled by the other two.

I’ve always enjoyed Arney’s physics-y songs, and her one about Rosetta’s Philae comet-landing probe was particularly charming, as was her song about our indignant Sun. Even though the tracks are a bit off-piste, they serve as a nice break from the more maths-related stuff. But my favourite bit of the show (and trust me, I’m as surprised by this as you may be) was Mould’s chapter on “Venn vs Euler”. Now, Venn diagrams we all know and, yes, they are good for making all kinds of funny and pointed jokes. But Mould then introduces the Euler diagram. This is based on set theory too but unlike a Venn diagram, which shows all possible logical relationships between a collection of sets, an Euler diagram only shows relevant relationships, and leaves out any voids.

You may at first wonder why you need an Euler diagram at all. But Mould swiftly makes his case by showing the audience how complicated (and difficult to decipher) Venn diagrams become when you try to, say, represent the geographical and political divisions of the British Isles. Switch instead to the Euler version and suddenly the data become much clearer. At this stage, just in case you are not convinced and wondering what’s funny about this, Mould brings out the big guns – a “five-way Venn diagram” that gives you a visual depiction of the chorus of the song “Girls and boys” by Blur.

With their topical jokes, flaming antics and solid science, Just for Graphs (and indeed any show by Festival of the Spoken Nerd) is sure to delight nerds, non-nerds and everyone in-between. Can you picture the Euler diagram yet?

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