Helen Arney is a comedian, geek songstress and physics graduate. She’s also one third of science comedy group ‘Festival of the Spoken Nerd’. Helen has toured her science-infused comedy songs around the UK including performing her award-winning solo show ‘Voice of an Angle’ at the Edinburgh Fringe and London’s Soho Theatre.
People have never not been interested in science.
On taking an interest in science
In some ways science isn’t a thing, it’s a way of perceiving the world, so what made me realise I was interested in science, I realised that some of my friends didn’t, or weren’t interested in the same things as me and they didn’t see the world in the same way as me and I was interested in how things work and I wanted to pull things apart and find out what was behind all of the things that my friends were prepared to take at face value and that’s what made me realise I was interested in science. So I could’ve ended up being interested in engineering or arts or maths or art history or European history or Japanese pottery or anything else that was kind of about picking apart the surface and finding the truth underneath but for me it was kind of the science thing I suppose is where I’ve fallen into. There was one TV programme I remember really, really clearly which was Carol Vorderman and Richard Stilgoe doing a show called ‘Take Nobody’s Word For It’ and that’s been a bit of a, I suppose, a motto for how I look at the world. Not just accepting it at face value but taking nobody’s word for it and finding out the answers for yourself and that’s what you do as a comedian as well and that is what you do as a scientist and that is hopefully what you do as a human being.
On choosing a science hero
Carol Vorderman and Richard Stilgoe were in this programme and they did loads of science experiments and it was really cool, so Carol Vorderman, the early years is [my science hero]. It’s going to be a controversial choice, isn’t it? Not like the GQ years or anything, or not like the MILF moments, but the early Carol Vorderman with the earnest love of science.
On finding the joy of science
If you take music, there are several ways to enjoy music. You can take a Bach fugue and you can enjoy it for its emotional power as a finished piece of music. And you can also analyse it and you can pick it apart and discover its structure and its rules and the way that Bach has created something out of a set of rules and no-one else has been able to see that set of rules before. So you can enjoy it on an emotional level, you can enjoy it on an intellectual level of what’s under the bonnet and there’s other ways you can enjoy it in that you can hear it played on a harpsichord or a baroque string trio or you can have it arranged for electronic instruments, you can have it played by a ukulele orchestra, you can have it sung by a bunch of school children, there’s more than one way to enjoy that piece of music and I don’t think science is any different. It’s a thing you can enjoy for its face value, for the pictures of the Horsehead Nebula and then for picking that apart and understanding why it looks like it does and how many millions of years ago it actually looked like that and how now it’s completely different and to be able to understand what has made it what it is. And then there’s the other level which is: how many jokes about the Horsehead Nebula can you make up in an afternoon? I don’t think there’s one single way to enjoy anything and science is no different. If you think there’s one way of enjoying science you’re probably not really trying hard enough.
On the popularity of science
If you look back in time, when Michael Faraday was performing experiments to thousands of people who were interested in science because electricity had just been invented. Have you ever seen a newspaper, the adverts for radium therapies, when radioactivity was discovered? When electricity was discovered and, and, the scientific, the, people have never not been interested in science and, it’s like, the media suddenly, every few years, turns round and says, ‘Wow! Loads of people suddenly really like science! It’s really cool and sexy and interesting and everybody loves it! This is amazing’, suddenly, like, wow, science is really cool and sexy. Well, it has been like that the whole time, you just haven’t been looking. So, it’s, that’s really, really frustrating because it’s absolutely, it’s, it’s, arrrghh, it’s absolute rubbish. I’m not giving comprehensible answers but you’re getting emotion!
Actually, can I take back my previous answer? I think, now, there is a difference between now and a few years ago. I mean, if you look back, even to the ’50s and ’60s when like, ah, people were excited by the space race. I mean you cannot, at any point, say no-one was interested in the space race. That was when science was public property and science was of public interest and the public got interested in it. And then nothing sort of really happened for a little bit and now we’re on, we’re on the next upward curve since it fell down after the space race. That’s how I see it. It comes in waves. It comes in waves and we’re on an upward wave at the moment because there is so much of science that actually is connected with people. People actually want ownership and understanding of this science because it affects their lives now. Whether it’s GM food or whether it’s like, just, technology, or information security or the end of the world being predicted on a certain date. You know, for various reasons from the ludicrous to the very sensible to the completely unknown, ah, it’s now that people are engaging with science like the way they engage with politics because it affects them. It’s their decision, they have something to do with it, it’s their money being spent on things, it’s their society that is being affected by it. So I think it’s great that people are able to engage with it and that will inevitably involve, what’s the word, a bit of a brouhaha, because you cannot have politics without debate and I think it’s quite right that you can’t have science without debate as well and the fact that anyone is debating it at all is a bonus.
On being interested in science
In a sense I might be betraying my science nerd persona here, I don’t think it’s any more important to be interested in science than it is be interested in anything, um, because science does not exist without human beings so science is one of the more interesting things that human beings do so, you know, to me, it’s obvious to be interested in it. But to the exclusion of everything else seems very strange to me. Being interested in science is part of what makes you a human, I think, and trying to makes sense of the world around you. If you give up trying to make sense of the world around you, you might as well just stop living in that world and just have a nice little dream somewhere else. Just disengage. Let everyone else get on with it.