02/04/2015 14:13 BST | Updated 02/06/2015 06:59 BST

How Science Became the New Comedy


It wasn't actually that long ago that science was a topic that gave everyone but eggheads a headache. While lesser minds obsessed over things like looking cool, and having sex, and getting invited to parties, the nerd could go about life smug in the knowledge that we knew how things really worked.

Then suddenly, science became the new comedy (which used to be the new rock 'n roll). Comedians like Mark Steel and Rob Newman incorporated Newton and Dawkins in their stand up, while Ricky Gervais convinced audiences the world over that Science was a laughing matter.

In literature, meanwhile, the accessible style of Bill Bryson reeled in the masses (the nerd will have noted how people started getting their facts about the universe from A Short History Of Nearly Everything instead of from Hawking's Theory Of Everything), leading to actual scientists like Simon Singh start penning books in a zippy style designed to appeal to the hip and the streetwise. And let's face it, things don't get anymore rock 'roll than Brian Cox.

Now, everyone loves science. In fact, they Fucking Love Science.

Which all leaves the nerd in the peculiar position of being part of the mainstream, still not getting invited to the parties, only now minus the smug satisfaction of knowing something the rest don't. To combat this, a group of nerds have decided enough is enough and are reclaiming science as their Big Bang-given right.

Enter Nerd Nite, an event that every month invites "speakers with nerdish tendencies convey their passion in 20 minutes to an audience who wash down morsels of science, medicine, society and nerd culture with their favourite tipple."

Partha Das, a kidney doctor, who set up the Brighton chapter of the popular American event, says "Science has often been seen as 'inaccessible' to the public maybe because the image it conjures is of socially awkward people hiding in a lab somewhere. We try to emphasise humour, light-heartedness and interactiveness where possible and move away from dry, technical, jargon-filled lectures".

That's not to suggest that Nerd Nites are just a form of scientific stand up comedy. "We've explored subjects as diverse as how to search for newborn stars with infrared astronomy, how ants manage to navigate their way home, why people donate organs to complete strangers and whether the Death Star should actually have been a Listed Building." But science and comedy have a lot in common - the best comedy seeks to tell us truths about the world, just as science does, and often, we are laughing in recognition at either our own behaviour or that of people around us.

Das is proud of the fact that Brighton's nerd nite was the first in the UK, though cities like London, Lincoln and Sheffield all have their own. Nerd Nites are growing too. About 230 people came to the science festival special, which is about ten times the number who attended the very first event in April 2013.

The recent Nerd Nite during Brighton's Science Festival in February saw Dr John Wood, virologist with the World Health Organisation, talking about killer viruses such as ebola and MERS coronavirus (bats are the culprit in a lot of infection spread, it turns out) and Prof Jonathan Bacon from the University of Sussex talking about how spiders in South America use game theory in confrontations. And perhaps because we can't get away from the fact that science is now the new comedy, the audience was treated to some zany science skits by the resident comedy team at the Science Museum in London - Punk Science (which somehow descended into an I'm a celebrity... style insect-eating contest).

Would you enjoy a Nerd Nite? "We try really hard to make Nerd Nite appeal to as many people as possible - not just science enthusiasts or Brighton oddballs - and we get lots of people who don't have tape holding their glasses together coming along," says Das.

If nothing else, there's free cake. Which isn't particularly rock 'n roll but that's just how us nerds like it...

• For the next Nerd Nite event, log onto