Timandra Harkness is a writer, performer and comedian and is currently studying mathematics at the Open University. Her comedic work is heavily influenced by science and has included the Fringe success ‘Your Days are Numbered’ with Matt Parker and the cabaret nights ‘Science Burlesque’.
It doesn’t matter what number X is as long as you sort out what X is doing.
On rediscovering a love for maths
I did mathematics first at school, I did it right through to A-level out of personal interest, which I think is a bit odd. I was mainly doing arts subjects but I really enjoyed maths, I just got a kick out of it, so I did A-level maths for fun and English and arts and general studies I think for, sort of, where I saw my career going but then I dropped it because I couldn’t see where it would go so I just carried on. I was doing theatre and writing and comedy and that kind of thing, but there was a part of me that missed the maths and I found myself in recent years watching television programmes on maths and going ‘It’s alright but there’s not really enough maths in it’, and reading popular maths books and going ‘It’s alright but there’s not really enough maths in it’. And I had this sudden moment, I thought, ‘Ooh’, I felt like I was a married man who kept watching men’s beach volleyball and suddenly went, ‘Ah’ [opens eyes awfully wide], so I went ‘You know, if you feel like this about maths then why don’t you go and study some more maths?’ So I signed up for an Open University course and it was just such fun. It was kind of my ‘me time’ on Sunday. I’d lock myself in a room for four hours and just do maths and I really enjoyed it. So I’m now…if I keep going at this rate, I’ll have a maths degree in three or four years or something!
On what in maths is the most appealing
When I was starting the degree course I was complaining to someone that I didn’t really like arithmetic, partly because of my memories of school where I would always get the answer wrong because I’d just make absurd arithmetic errors like add numbers when I should’ve been taking away or something. I’d always get the answer wrong but I understood the principle so I said ‘I can’t wait to completely dump the arithmetic and just stick with algebra so it’s all concepts and letters and it doesn’t matter what number X is as long as you sort out what X is doing’ and this person said to me ‘Oh you’re going to love group theory‘. Because group theory is to algebra what algebra is to arithmetic, it’s like a whole other level of abstraction. And he was completely right. So group theory is, like, the study of the relationships between things and the relationships between the relationships between things. So I…it is very abstract but it’s not really that hard conceptually, it’s quite intuitive in a way, but I do love it because it’s that…it’s just about abstract patterns and they’re very beautiful and satisfying and it’s about taking very simple rules and then suddenly all these patterns emerge, which I suppose all maths is about to some extent, but, yeah, I do particularly love group theory.
The journey to being a science-based comedian
So, I started off in performing, actually, no, although I studied drama and film at college I didn’t really see myself as a performer. I was interested in directing and started off doing technical stuff: I was a lighting designer, stage manager, that kind of thing and then I accidentally started doing circus things. Mainly because I worked with a director who had done a flying trapeze course and he kept telling me how amazing it was doing things like, he’d take me outside the venue and make me stand on a plank and reach forward and go ‘That is what it’s like except you’re 30 feet in the air and then you hold onto this bar and jump off’. And I thought ‘That sounds mad. I’d like to try that.’ The Circus Space in London, when it first opened up, was just in a kind of derelict loft and so I tried it and got completely hooked even though I was useless. I was so useless. I can’t do any kind of sport or physical thing at all but I got very into that so I started in that and then through that…it’s like everybody. I discovered that although I really wanted to be on the trapeze and terribly graceful and meaningful with my toes pointed, every time I tried to do something people just laughed. So then I started doing the clowning and that’s where I seemed to have the aptitude and so I accidentally went into performing without really meaning to.
So I did the circus for a bit and I did the clowning, and studying clowning is a great background for any kind of performing because it’s really about just being able to be there with an audience and not have anything to do. And we would do horrendous exercises where you had to stand up in front of the class and do nothing. And it’s the hardest thing in the world to stand there not doing something because you instinctively want to be entertaining or funny or I want people to like me but he says ‘No, no, no, don’t do anything’. And so once you’ve kind of done that everything else seems easier and then I started doing improvised comedy, then I started doing stand up comedy, so I was doing stand up and writing, you know, writing comedy came out of that and, ah, moving into science was a complete accident. It kind of happened from two directions simultaneously. There’s probably, like, some particle wave duality thing going on there. So on the one hand I was writing comedy scripts with one person and we were trying to get a thing on the radio, a script we’d written about two angels that get laid off and have to come down to Earth and they move in with an astronomer. Because we thought that would be fun. And not religious, more a 3rd Rock From the Sun kind of thing: what is it like to be human if you come from not having, um, emotions and not having free will and so on, so it was kind of that.
So we’d written a script with an astronomer in it and we wanted to take it to the Edinburgh Fringe, and who can we contact for sponsorship, and so I rang up, as it then was, the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council and said ‘We’ve got this script. There’s an astronomer who’s a romantic hero and I know this is a mad, crazy idea but do you ever sponsor shows?’ And they went ‘Oh yeah, we have a whole fund for that kind of thing. But you’d have to work with one of our astronomers.’ We’re like, ‘So you give us money and an astronomer? Where’s the catch?’ So I then discovered there was this whole public understanding of science, as it was then mainly called, and part of me was going ‘This is crazy, you should be spending this on telescopes’, but I’m not going to complain, and then about the same time I was doing bits of journalism, so I’d rocked up to the Royal Society in London to this two day meeting on stem cell research which I spent most of going [confused look] ‘I understood one of those words’. It was really, really hard. Then in the coffee break I bumped into somebody I knew off the stand up circuit so, like, I knew her as Helen Pilcher who would tell jokes about beer guts in smoky rooms above pubs. So I kind of sidled up to her and went ‘What are you doing here?’ And she, you know, in her suit, went ‘I’m a stem cell scientist. That’s my day job. What are you doing here?’ And we went ‘Oh, we should do some comedy about science’, because we were both quite bored with being on the circuit and doing jokes about drink and drugs and differences between men and women. And, even then, probably nothing would have happened except she’s very organised and she rang me about a week later and went ‘We have a booking at this new thing called the Cheltenham Science Festival’. And we went ‘Ooh, we better write a show then’.
So we wrote a show, called ourselves the Comedy Research Project, and we wrote a show called…I think it was ‘The Five Best Things in Science Ever’ and we threw it together, completely experimental, did it at the first ever Cheltenham Science Fesitval on a Saturday night and it was kind of chaos but it kind of worked so we did stuff together for a while. Basically until she got herself up the duff and then proceeded to have twins and by the time she had three children under four she was under house arrest really until this year when the twins started school.
So that was how I really fell into the world of science, kind of in both directions at once, and just thought it was great because there’s so many interesting things and we were quite bored with…you go to a comedy club, you tell jokes about the same things as everybody else, and then suddenly there’s this whole world, you know, the sex lives of insects, bed bugs have two penises…oh no, bed bugs have taste buds on the end of their penises so that they can tell, well, basically you can imagine the bed bug going ‘Ooh baby. Ooh baby. Oh. Salty?’ So they can tell if their lady bed bug has done the dirty on them.
It’s earwigs. Earwigs have two penises: one for best and one for spare! And there’s just endless things in science that are just funny and intriguing, so it was great. And people would sometimes go ‘Oh, so you’re using comedy to communicate science. To help people love and to understand science.’ And Helen would say yes because she was a scientist and so for her it was and I’d be going ‘It’s probably the other way round, really’. I’m using science to provide me with more material for comedy so, yeah, it was completely accidental and now I’ve been kind of hanging out with scientists for so long people forget that I don’t know anything.
I think when Helen and I started doing it, it was very niche. I think…we weren’t the only people in the world but there were few enough that people would say ‘Oh, was it you that did such and such a show?’ and we’d go ‘No’ and they’d go ‘Oh. Really? There’s more than one double act doing comedy science?’ and the other was in Australia or something. So that was very unusual and that definitely had novelty value, people just going ‘How can you make comedy out of science?’ and then you’d tell them all the stuff about the insects or multiverse theory, which is just a comedy gift because it says somewhere out there – because there’s an infinite number of possible universes – somewhere out there there’s a universe in which, you know, in which the speed of life – the speed of life? – the speed of light is six miles an hour so you could never be caught by a speeding camera because you’d be driving away from the camera faster than the light could reach you from the camera and get back except apparently you can’t travel faster than the speed of light so there’s a bit of flaw in that, but, anyway, so yeah, it was very…when we started off, it was very unusual but I think it’s got more and more mainstream.
I mean Robin Ince, obviously, has popularised it immensely and does massive tours and on the radio and everything and there’s a whole lot of other people, you know, Matt Parker does work on his own and then he’s working with Festival of the Spoken Nerd, there’s…I think it’s, it’s still niche but I think it’s a big enough niche that people are aware of it. I don’t think people think it’s so odd and I also think that mainstream comics are much more relaxed now about saying ‘Oh, I’ve always been interested in this’ or ‘I’ve got a degree in this so I’m gonna do it’. I mean, Dara O Briain was doing mainstream comedy and now he’s been able to use his status and his, you know, his level of skill and fame to say ‘Actually what I’d really like to do is a show about maths because that’s what I come from’.
On introducing science to a comedy audience
I’ve spoken to a lot of people after shows, shows that I’m in and other shows, who say ‘Well, I like this because I’ve always been interested in this and so it’s really nice for me to come to something that is about stuff that I’m really interested in’, and those people feel a kind of a sense of recognition and belonging there, ah, so in that case I think it’s probably more a matter of you’ve got the existing interest in the maths and the science and it’s almost like you’re introducing them to more comedy!
But I think it can work the other way as well depending on…but it kind of depends on what you’re doing and how you’re marketing it, what kind of audiences you’re getting. It was quite interesting, so, Matt [Parker] and I did the Maths of Death show, we did it at the Edinburgh Fringe and then we toured it round arts centres and so on in the UK and we have to get feedback forms and so on and it was quite interesting that the audiences were different. So if we asked the Edinburgh audience ‘Why did you come?’ quite a lot of them said ‘Oh, I’m interested in the subject matter. I’m interested in maths’ or whatever, whereas the touring show, it was much more likely to be that people went to their local arts centre because there was a comedy show and they didn’t really mind what it is about and by that time we had some reviews that said we were funny so then I think they’d be much more likely to come along then go ‘Oh that’s interesting. Actually I might go and look that up now’ or even just…I mean, one of the things we wanted to do with that show was just to equip people so that if they see in the paper, ah, a bacon sandwich increases your risk of death by 20%, instead of going ‘That’s it. I’m going to die in five days’ time because I’m going to have five bacon sandwiches’, they will go ‘Yeah. 20% of what? Show me the baseline rate. Oh, 20% of 5%, OK, so it’s now 6%. Yeah, I’m gonna risk that for a bacon sandwich.’ So, just to give people a little bit more confidence with what to look at, that was really kind of part of the idea.
On working on a brain science show
The brain science show is really hard because you can look at the…you can look at very specific things. So you can put someone in a brain scanner and look at the physical size and shape of their brain and say ‘Ooh look this bit of their brain’, so the hippocampus is big, which is the memory part so, you know, they’re good at memory, or you can even put them in an fMRI scanner, a functional MRI scanner, and see which bits of the brain ‘light up’ when you get them to do certain things. What you’re actually measuring there is the increase in blood flow after the event. I always liken it to trying to work out what is happening in the Albert Hall that night by watching from space and counting the number of lit up taxis that make their way there when the event finishes, so it’s that kind of level of seeing what goes on. So the link between that and what you’re thinking or what you’re good at is already tenuous and then we realise that actually your brain will change in response to what you do with it, so you could look at adult men and women and say these are significant measurable differences on average, again it’s only on average, but you don’t know whether that is genetic or from hormones or from the fact that ever since you were born you’ve probably been subtly or not so subtly guided in different directions. So it’s been…and all this in an hour and it has to be funny. I’ve been working with a brain scientist, Martin Coath, and he comes in and we go ‘Explain to us again. What’s the difference between a neurotransmitter and a neuromodulator?’ and he sort of starts explaining and then says ‘But of course, you know, some would say they aren’t really neuromodulators because they act all over the body’. And we go ‘But they modulate the -‘, ‘Yeah, alright so they are neuromodulators’, and then at the end he always goes ‘But nobody really knows’.
And I’m crying on the floor, going ‘I miss you group theory. Everything was so simple in mathematics.’ And he’s there going ‘Yeah, it’s a bit of a culture shock for you isn’t it?’