Having been one of the lucky ones to snap up a ticket for the opening night of Monty Python's live comeback show yesterday, I still have Always Look on the Bright Side of Life stuck in my head. But just when I thought that penis-shaped swirly canons expelling a stream of frothy bubbles all over the audience was as Pythonish as you could go, it got even better.
Of course I love Monty Python, as any person with a pulse and reasonable taste is bound to do, but the company where I work, Mendeley, has a special connection to them, as it started out renting the loft of Michael Palin's production company in Covent Garden. Our founders tell stories of playing with Spanish Inquisition wind-up dolls that were left in the bathroom, and you can't help but envy that sort of working environment. Sadly, we soon got too big for the space and had to move on, but working in a company whose motto is to "Make Science More Open" I was thrilled to see Brian Cox pop up on the video screen ranting against the scientific inaccuracies of the "Galaxy Song" only to be run over by Professor Stephen Hawking himself, who shouted abuse at him before being sucked up into the ether and singing out the last verses of the song, while surfing through a brilliantly animated universe.
What this confirms, apart from the fact that it's still cool to be a British wrinkly old man, is that Professor Hawking definitely has a sense of humour. His contributions to comedy might not rival his work in Theoretical Physics, but they are certainly significant, and show that it is actually possible for a scientist to become a pop culture icon.
A self-confessed fan of cult comedy Sci-Fi series Red Dwarf, Hawking also graced several episodes of hit geeky TV show The Big Bang Theory and was the only guest to ever appear in Star Trek playing himself. Most people will also readily recall his brilliant appearance in The Simpsons, and an action figure of his incarnation from the show sat proudly on his Cambridge desk as he featured recently in John Oliver's Last Week Tonight, in a segment aptly entitled "People Who Think Good"
Mark Zuckerberg and others are keen for us to have more "hero scientists," which is why he teamed up with Russian Billionaire Yuri Milner to give prizes of $3 million to physicists, scientists and mathematicians in a bid to draw more attention to their work. The idea is that by having more of a "celebrity cult" for high profile scientists, we're providing future generations with concrete inspirational role models. That could work, but what Stephen Hawking shows is that the best way to the heart of popular culture is not to take yourself too seriously, however smart you are.