Imperial College London

Statistically significant laughter: an insider's view of the Imperial Festival


Helen Arney at the 2013 Festival

Ahead of her show at this year's Imperial Festival, award-winning comedian and Imperial alumnus, Helen Arney, talks science, comedy and student life.

Can you describe your show in 140 characters?

Three comedians in the centre of a science/comedy Venn diagram attempt to put the "ha" into the Haber process. Come peer review our results!

You’ve won numerous awards and received rave reviews for your shows. When you set out, did you imagine performing comedy and songs about science would be such a hit with audiences and critics?

The first rule of stand-up comedy is "write about what you are passionate about", and then make it irresistibly funny for any audience. I think people underestimate audiences all the time. I've just come back from touring around the UK as Festival of the Spoken Nerd, and I can say with absolute certainty that there are thousands upon thousands of people who like to laugh, and also like to think, but love a chance to do both at the same time. 

How old were you when you first became interested in science and what piqued your interest?

Like all kids, I was interested in science before I knew it was called SCIENCE, whether it was making rainbows in the garden with a hose pipe in summer, or experimenting with rubber ducks in the bath to discover how far I had to push them under the surface so they sprang up and hit my sister on the nose...

Later on in school I found out that this was actually "FIZZICKS" and I had to take exams and do homework, but luckily by then I was already hooked.

You studied physics at Imperial. What’s your favourite memory from your time on campus?

One thing that sticks out is my second year tutor who always asked us to "think like a physicist" whenever he set us a difficult problem. It's a thought process I still use today, a phrase that always springs to mind when I'm faced with something I can't easily solve. Although I'm yet to complete the miniature Hadron Collider that I hope will one day find my missing car keys... 

How does it feel to be performing back at Imperial? Is it more, or less, nerve-wracking than other performances?

I love the "home crowd" feeling of Imperial. It's always fun to do some little bits that I don't normally slip into a set at a regular comedy club... expect a few bonus jokes just for the Festival.

Why do you think the Imperial Festival is important?

The thing I like most about the Festival is that there are so many events for sci-curious adults. Once you're finished with studying science, whether you stopped after GCSEs, A-levels, degree, or even if you left a career in science, it can be hard to find a place to go where you can learn new things, play around with new ideas, and remember how to "think like a physicist". Science is too much fun for only schoolkids and scientists to enjoy, and too valuable to just leave on a shelf with your old textbooks.

How often do you get to come back to College?

I've made it to a few Imperial Fringe events, which are always a great chance to talk to researchers about their work over a science cocktail or two. Working evenings makes scheduling tricky, but it seems the Research Communications group has worked out the best way to guarantee my attendance - just book me for a show and I'll be there!   

Helen Arney

Geek songstress Helen Arney takes some of her scientific inspiration from having studied at Imperial (Physics 2002).

Will you have time to take part in any of the Alumni Reunion events running alongside the Festival?

I hope so. Then I can find out if students really did sneak into the Royal Albert Hall in the middle of the night to test gliders by launching them from the Gallery... *checks libel laws online...*  Those are just rumours, of course...

Science comedy collider: Helen Arney is hosting two shows of top-notch comedy with a healthy twist of science at the Imperial Festival, 19.00 and 20.30, Friday 9 May. Get ready to take your seat for scientifically verified songs and peer-reviewed gags as Helen is joined by character comedian Gemma Arrowsmith and stand-up Nish Kumar. No booking required: first come, first served.

The 2014 Imperial Festival takes place 9 – 10 May, with a programme for adult audiences on the evening of Friday 9 May, and family-orientated events on Saturday 10 May. Follow live updates and take part in discussions on Twitter (using hashtag #impfest) and Facebook.

Interview by Peter Zarko-Flynn


Natasha Martineau

Natasha Martineau

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