Theatre of Science!

ToS1Recently, a few people on Twitter were kind enough to mention ‘Theatre of Science’ – a joint project between best-selling science writer (and pal) Simon Singh and I from many years ago. I thought it might be fun to turn back the hands of time and share some more information and photos about the project……

In 2001 Simon suggested that the two of us create, and present, a live science-based show at a West End theatre. I knew that this type of entertainment had been popular around the turn of the last century, but was initially sceptical about it working for a modern-day audience. However, Simon won me over and I agreed to give it a go. Simon then persuaded The National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts to fund the project and The Soho Theatre to stage the show.

In the first half, Simon used mathematics to ‘prove’ that the Teletubbies are evil, undermined The Bible Code, and illustrated probability theory via gambling scams and bets. After the interval, I explored the psychology of deception with the help of magic tricks, optical illusions and a live lie detector. It was all decidedly low-tech and mostly depended on an overhead projector, a few acetates, and some marker pens!  We opened in March 2002 and quickly sold-out. The reviewers were very kind, with The Evening Standard describing the show as ‘… a unique masterclass on the mind’ and What’s On saying that it was “…uplifting, thought-provoking and frequently hilarious.” In 2002 we also took the show to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

 In 2005 we staged a far more ambitious version of the show at the Soho Theatre.

tos4A few years before, I had been involved in a project exploring the science of anatomy, and had arranged for top contortionist Delia Du Sol to go into an MRI scanner and perform extreme back-bends. During Theatre of Science, we showed these scans to the audience as Delia bent her body into seemingly impossible shapes and then squeezed into a tiny perspex box.

In addition, musician Sarah Angliss demonstrated the science behind various weird electronic instruments, and performed songs on a saw and a theremin!

We wanted to end the show on a genuinely dangerous, science-based, stunt. HVFX – a company that makes high voltage electricity equipment – kindly supplied two huge Tesla coils capable of generating six-foot bolts of million-volt lightning across the stage. At the end of each show, either Simon or I entered a coffin-shaped cage and hoped that it would protect us against the force of the million-volt strikes. The stunt attracted lots of media attention and once again we quickly sold out.

ToS2In 2006 we staged it at an arts and science festival in New York (co-sponsored by the Centre for Inquiry).

Nowadays we are used to people enjoying an evening of science and comedy in the theatre, but back then lots of people were deeply skeptical about the idea. If we proved anything, it was that it’s possible attract a mainstream audience to a show about science.

Anyway, I hoped you enjoyed reading about it all and huge thanks to everyone who worked so hard to make the project a success, including: Portia Smith, Delia Du Sol, Sarah Angliss, Stephen Wolf, Tracy King, Nick Field, HVFX, Austin Dacey, Jessica Brenner and Caroline Watt (who came up with the title for the show) and, of course…..Simon Singh!

Theatre of Science Show - Soho Theatre

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How to remember everything

coverMy new book on how to remember everything is out today!

I have a terrible memory and so went in search of all of the quick and easy mind tricks that will allow you to remember names, faces, your PIN, and other important information.  It even has a super magic trick built into it.

You can buy the book here and I have created this new Quirkology video with 10 amazing memory hacks…

 

LaughLab

I am frequently asked about the 2001 LaughLab project, so I thought I would present a brief outline of what we did and what we found……..

In June 2001, I teamed up with the British Science Association to carry out ‘LaughLab’ – the scientific search for the world’s funniest joke.

The project website had two sections.  In one part, people could input their favourite joke and submit it to an archive.  In the second section, people could answer a few simple questions about themselves (such as their sex, age, and nationality), and then rate how funny they found five randomly selected jokes on a five-point scale ranging from ‘not very funny’ to ‘very funny’.

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Early findings
We took our first in-depth look at our data three months into the project.  The top joke at that early stage had been submitted by Geoff Anandappa, from Blackpool in the northwest of England, and involved the famous fictional detective Sherlock Holmes and his long-suffering sidekick, Dr Watson:

Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson were going camping.  They pitched their tent under the stars and went to sleep.  Sometime in the middle of the night Holmes woke Watson up and said: “Watson, look up at the stars, and tell me what you see.”
Watson replied: “I see millions and millions of stars.”
Holmes said: “and what do you deduce from that?”
Watson replied: “Well, if there are millions of stars, and if even a few of those have planets, it’s quite likely there are some planets like earth out there.  And if there are a few planets like earth out there, there might also be life.”
And Holmes said: “Watson, you idiot, it means that somebody stole our tent.”

Science and humour
During the project, we approached some of Britain’s best-known scientists and science writers, and ask them to submit their favourite jokes into LaughLab.   The joke that went on to win the ‘best joke submitted by a well-known scientist’ category, was submitted by Nobel laureate, and professor of chemistry, Sir Harry Kroto:

A man walking down the street sees another man with a very big dog.  The man says: “Does your dog bite?” The other man replies: “No, my dog doesn’t bite”.  The first man then pats the dog, has his hand bitten off, and shouts; “I thought you said your dog didn’t bite”. The other man replies: “That’s not my dog”.

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Computers and jokes

We also examined another source of humour – computers.  LaughLab attracted lots of jokes about this topic (‘The software said it needed Windows 98 or better, so I bought a Mac’).  However, it also contained a few jokes actually written by a computer.

A few years ago, Dr Graham Ritchie and Dr Kim Binsted created a computer programme that could produce jokes .  We were keen to discover if computers were funnier than humans, and so entered several of the computer’s best jokes into LaughLab.  The majority of them received some of the lowest ratings in the archive.

However, one example of computer comedy was surprisingly successful, and beat about 250 human jokes:  “What kind of murderer has fibre?  A cereal killer.”

Weasels
In January 2002, we started receiving lots of jokes ending with the same punchline: ‘There’s a weasel chomping on my privates’.  Unbeknown to us, the internationally syndicated American humorist Dave Barry had just devoted an entire column to our work in The International Herald Tribune .

In a previous column, Barry claimed that any sentence can be made much funnier by the insertion of the word ‘weasel’ . In his column concerned with LaughLab, Barry repeated his theory, and urged his readers to submit jokes to our experiment that ended with the punchline ‘There’s a weasel chomping on my privates’.   Within just a few days we had received over 1,500 ‘weasel chomping’ jokes.

The comedy K
Early in the experiment, we received the following submission:

There were two cows in a field. One said: “Moo.” The other one said: “I was going to say that!”

We decided to use the joke as a basis for a little experiment.  We re-entered the joke into archive several times, using a different animal and noise.   We had two tigers going ‘Gruurrr’, two birds going ‘Cheep’, two mice going ‘Eeek’, two dogs going ‘Woof’, and so on.  At the end of the study, we examined what effect the different animals had had on how funny people found the joke.

In third place came the original cow joke, second were two cats going ‘Meow, but the winning animal noise joke was:

Two ducks were sitting in a pond, one of the ducks said: “Quack.” The other duck said: “I was going to say that!”

Interestingly, the ‘k’ sound (as in the ‘hard c’) is associated with both the word ‘Quack’ and ‘duck’, has long been seen by comedians and comedy writers as being especially funny.  The idea of the comedy ‘k’ has certainly made it into popular culture.  There was also an episode of The Simpsons, in which Krusty The Clown (note the ‘k’s) visits a faith healer because he has paralysed his vocal chords trying to cram too many ‘comedy k’s’ into his routines.  After being healed, Krusty exclaims that he is overjoyed to get his comedy k’s back, celebrates by shouting out ‘King Kong’, ‘cold-cock’, ‘Kato Kaelin’, and kisses the faith healer as a sign of gratitude.

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Our findings
By the end of the project we had received 40,000 jokes, and had them rated by more than 350,000 people from 70 countries.  We were awarded a Guinness World Record for conducting one of the largest experiments in history, and made the cover story of The New Yorker.

The top joke, as voted by Americans, was as follows:

At the parade, the Colonel noticed something unusual going on and asked the Major: “Major Barry, what the devil’s wrong with Sergeant Jones’ platoon? They seem to be all twitching and jumping about.” “Well sir,” says Major Barry after a moment of observation. “There seems to be a weasel chomping on his privates.”

Dave Barry had been successful, and managed to make the top American joke weasel-oriented.  He had less influence over the votes cast by those outside of America.   We carefully went through the huge archive and found our top joke:

Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn’t seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed.  The other guy whips out his phone and calls the emergency services.  He gasps, “My friend is dead! What can I do?”.  The operator says “Calm down.  I can help.  First, let’s make sure he’s dead.”  There is a silence, then a shot is heard.  Back on the phone, the guy says “OK, now what?”

The database told us that the winning joke had been submitted by a psychiatrist from Manchester in Britain named Gurpal Gosall.  We contacted Gurpal and he explained how he sometimes told the joke to cheer up his patients, noting that: ‘…it makes people feel better, because it reminds them that there is always someone out there who is doing something more stupid than themselves’.

Spike

Five years after the study, I was watching a documentary film about Spike Milligan, comedian and co-founder of the Goons, and that the programme contained a very early version of our winning joke.  The documentary (the title of which, I Told You I Was Ill, was based on Spike’s epitaph) contained a brief clip from a 1951 BBC programme called London Entertains with the following early Goon sketch:

Michael Bentine: I just came in and found him lying on the carpet there. 
Peter Sellers: Oh, is he dead? 
Michael Bentine: I think so. 
Peter Sellers: Hadn’t you better make sure? 
Michael Bentine: Alright. Just a minute. 
Sound of two gun shots. 
Michael Bentine: He’s dead.

It is highly unusual to be able to track down the source of a joke, because their origins tend to become lost in the mists of time.  Spike Milligan had died in 2002, but with the help of the documentary makers, I contacted his daughter Sile, and she confirmed that it was highly likely that her father would have written the material.  We announced that we believed we had identified the author of the world’s funniest joke, and, LaughLab made headlines again!

LaughLab has now finished but is described in my book, Quirkology.

Read our final report about the project here and download over 1000 of the LaughLab jokes (all clean!) here.

 

Ghost Stories

Today sees the release of the Ghost Stories film.

It’s based on Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson’s hit stage play,  and centres around a ghost hunter investigating three strange sightings.  I was a consultant for the play and film, and one of the three stories is based on a real event that happened during my childhood (no spoilers, but it is probably fair to say that I have always liked dark spaces!).   I was delighted that Andy and Jeremy made their main character a parapsychologist called Professor Phillip Goodman (ahem).

Huge congrats to Andy and Jeremy for making it all happen.  The film is getting great reviews, so get out and see it as soon as possible.  To help promote the film, the team have put together this lovely illusion-based poster – it has lots of mistakes in it….. how many can you spot?

poster

Right, I am heading out to catch the film right now……oh, and the full list of errors in the poster is here.

 

 

 

On the direction of brains

A few months ago I was chatting with my old pal, and top neuroscientist, Adrian Owen.  Adrian and I went to University together many years ago. I don’t want to say how long ago it was, but suffice to say that Charles Darwin was Head of Department. Anyway, I digress.

Adrian and I were chatting about a possible brain-based project and I decided to Google the word ‘brain’. That’s when I noticed something very odd. The vast majority of the images showed a brain looking to its right – that is, the viewer was seeing the left lobe. Adrian pointed out that, structurally speaking, one side of the brain is no more interesting to than the other, and so wondered what was going on.

I was aware that several psychologists – including Professor Chris McManus – have discovered that the majority of people featured in portraits also tended to look to their right. Over the years, researchers have suggested several possible explanations for the effect, including, for example, the idea that the left side of the face is more expressive than the right, or that Westerners read left to right and so would encounter the front of the face first.

But did the bias even extend to images of brains? To find out, Adrian and I downloaded hundreds of brain images, categorized them and discovered that a whopping 80% were indeed looking to their right! It was true regardless of whether the image included a head or not.

We have recently published our findings in the scientific journal i-perception, and you can read the paper here. (P.S. The image in the paper is wrongly labelled – the correct image is shown below).

How to improve your sleep

I recently gave a Funzing talk on how to improve your sleep. A few attendees asked for a summary and so here are 10 main points.  I discuss all of this in depth in Night School, and will be giving another Funzing talk on the topic in London in June.

Avoid the blues: When your eyes are exposed to light, your brain produces less of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin. Light towards the blue end of the spectrum is especially stimulating and computer screens, tablets, smartphones and LED lighting all emit a lot of blue light. Try not to use these devices in the two hours before you go to bed. If you must use them, turn down the brightness or wear amber-tinted glasses designed to block blue light.

Avoid nightcaps: Although a small amount of alcohol helps you get to sleep more quickly, it also gives you a more disturbed night, increases the chances of snoring and disrupts dreaming. Don’t drink alcohol in the hours before bed.

Remember the 90-minute rule: Every night your brain goes through several 90-minute sleep cycles. You feel good if you wake up towards the end of a cycle because then you are closest to your normal waking state. To increase the chances of this, decide when you want to wake up and then count back in 90 minutes blocks to discover the best time to fall asleep. For instance, if you want to wake up at 8am, you should aim to fall asleep around either 11pm or 12.30am.

 

Distract yourself: Research suggests that you will fall asleep quickly if you tire your mind. Try counting backwards from 100 in threes. Or, if you’re not good with numbers, think of a category (countries or fruit and vegetables) and then come up with an example of that category for each letter of the alphabet. A is for Albania, B is for Bulgaria, or A is for apple, B is for banana, etc.

Condition yourself: Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov famously rang a bell each time he presented a dog with food, and eventually found that the sound of the bell alone was enough to make the dog salivate. The same concept can help you to fall asleep. Choose a soporific piece of music that you like, and fall asleep with it quietly playing. Over time, your brain will associate the music with sleep, and simply listening to it will help you nod off.

Get up!: If you’re awake for more than about 20 minutes during the night, get out of bed and do some form of non-stimulating activity, such as working on a jigsaw or a colouring book. This helps to prevent you associating your bed with sleeplessness. And if the problem arises later in the night, climb back out of bed and distract yourself again.

Relax: Lying awake makes many people feel anxious, and this anxiety disrupts their sleep even more, creating a vicious cycle. If you are struggling to sleep, remember that you are probably getting more sleep than you think (research shows that we all underestimate how much of the night we spend sleeping) and that just relaxing in bed is good for you.

Segmented sleep: Preindustrial diaries show that many people didn’t sleep in one solid block, but instead slept for about four hours, woke up for roughly an hour, and then slept for another four hours. The hour between the two periods was spent reading, chatting and having sex. Some researchers have argued that such “segmented sleep” might reflect a natural sleep pattern, and be good for the mind because the period of wakefulness helps to promote the production of a feelgood hormone called prolactin. Try embracing segmented sleep.

A version of these tips originally appeared in an article that I wrote for The Guardian.

London Talks

speaking3I have teamed up with Funzing and am doing London two talks, one about magic and the other about sleep. Just for today you can get a 22% discount using the code ’22funzingagain’ (limited availability)

Here are the details….

Magic and illusion: Step backstage and discover the secret science of sorcery. Learn the hitherto hidden psychology employed by some of the world’s greatest illusionists, how to misdirect the mind, and discover why the hand is rarely quicker than the eye.  It’s a show packed with illusions, misdirection and sleight of hand. Prepare to be amazed and amused.

4th May Book here

The science of sleep: Explore the new science of sleep and dreaming, find out the truth about  sleep-learning, and delve into the world’s largest archive of dream reports. Join Wiseman as he uncovers the power of the sleeping mind, revealing how you can get the perfect night’s sleep, decode your dreams, and improve your life without moving a muscle.

8th May Book here

Looking forward to seeing you there!