What’s so funny about science?


Here are some of the songs and sources discussed in the session:

Please do post your own science jokes and song titles / artists as comments. Thank you!

Saturday 5th September, 17.00 to 19.00

Venue: LT M

Science’s reputation as a serious, even forbidding enterprise is belied by a wealth of humour exploring scientific culture, its values and assumptions. From well-known cartoons, scientific jokes and parodies, science sustains a rich culture of humour. Apart from its sheer funniness, find out how scientific humour tells us much about how we relate to science and how scientists see themselves.

Joe Cain – “You must be joking!” Pranks, Jokes and other Silliness in Science

Every scientific discipline has inside jokes. Why? Dr Joe Cain, historian of biology at UCL, will bridge the gap between science and comedy to tell the amusing story behind one of biology’s most favourite practical jokes, the ‘snouters’. He will then consider some of the social functions these pranks have in our communities. This talk is suitable for adults.

Melanie Keene – The Singing Scientists

Science is as much about songs and choirs as solvents and calculus. For over two hundred years, singing scientists have criticized, satirized, and celebrated their work in lyrics, often written to well-known tunes. ‘Clementine’ became ‘Ions Mine’ at the Cavendish Laboratory. American music-hall goers laughed at evolutionary theory as ‘Darwin’s Little Joke’, in a song written by ‘O’Rangoutang’. And, famously, Tom
Lehrer rewrote Gilbert and Sullivan as a list of ‘The Elements’. In this talk I will analyse the humour of these songs, playing video and audio clips, and showing lyrics, sheet music and cover images. Audiences will discover why Irving Berlin (better known for ‘White Christmas’) advised ladies to ‘Keep Away from the Fellow Who Owns an Automobile’, why in 1843 ‘Mrs Crucible’ regretted marrying ‘A Scientific Man’, will learn about the patriotism of the early Geological Society, how Scottish Students sent up ‘The Lady Doctor’, and find out just what happened to the Professor and the young girl in ‘Botany’, a love story of 1909.

About the speakers

Dr Melanie Keene is a Junior Research Fellow at Homerton College, Cambridge. She is a member of the British Society for the History of Science Strolling Players, and runs the Cambridge University Science and Literature Reading Group. Publications include ‘”Every Boy & Girl a Scientist”: Instruments for Children in Interwar Britain’, Isis 98 (2007).

Dr Joe Cain is Senior Lecturer in the History and Philosophy of Biology at University College London.


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