Make ’em laugh (about science)

Short people have long faces and
Long people have short faces.
Big people have little humor
And little people have no humor at all!
And in the words of that immortal buddy
Samuel J. Snodgrass, as he was about to be lead
To the guillotine:

Make ’em laugh
Make ’em laugh
Don’t you know everyone wants to laugh?
(From “Singing in the Rain”)

It’s really hard to pick a fav song from “Singing in the Rain”, so I won’t even try. But for the purposes of this post, I quoted the first bit of “Make ’em laugh”, you know, that song where Donald O’Connor hyperactively sings and tap dances and slapsticks and runs back and forth on (and through) the set. If you ever feel down, and don’t have the time to watch the full movie, watch that scene. It might not make you “lol” but it will bring a smile to your face. Or at least it always brings one to mine.

That wasn’t going to be my point actually. I wanted to talk about how suddenly science is becoming the subject of comedy.

I guess for me it probably started by watching reruns of QI with Stephen Fry. British panel shows are a strange thing, usually disguised as a quiz but no one really cares about winning, it’s just about getting famous people, mostly comedians, together to talk and joke about certain topics, and in this case that includes anything that Stephen finds quite interesting. Quite. I like Stephen Fry. I like random interesting facts, and this was a show where I felt like I was learning things – quite useless bits of knowledge – and being entertained at the same time. Years later in Belgium a similar show originated, Scheire en de Schepping, random science facts and cool little experiments (walking on water was one wonderful example) and to top it all, the “totally arbitrary winner designation round”. Just to point out that it was not about the quiz aspect at all.

In any case, science and nerdism is the new cool, and a new source of endless jokes. Just think about The Big Bang Theory, or at least the first few seasons if it pains you to think about it now; laughing at and with physicists and engineers has become very popular.

Another example, this year at the Edinburg Fringe Festival (a ridiculously elaborate comedy festival that is held in Edinburgh every August, for almost a whole month), I was astonished about how many shows were describable as “nerdy”. Mathematics, physics, biology, computing, geekery, … They have all become the subject for the next generation of comedians.

I have played my own little part, by participating in a Bright Club event. Bright Club is an initiative run by Steve Cross, that has spread out over multiple cities in the UK – and one in Brussels as well, actually – that allows academics to climb up on a stage to deliver an eight-minute set of stand-up comedy inspired by their own studies or work. It’s incredibly scary and fun to do, and it’s amazing to hear how “boring” academics, the ones you image spending their whole day behind a computer or in a laboratory, can be extremely funny.

That’s the thing; scientists are people too. They come in all flavours and colours and some of them are quite humorous. Moreover, they have an infinite range of subjects they can talk about, and they will never run out.

“Research is never going to stop, so you’ve always got new material. The universe is an interesting place – and it’s always going to be.”
(Simon Watt)

So don’t be afraid to approach a scientist once in a while. Have a chat. They might be shy at first, but who knows, they might turn out to be extremely funny once you give them the chance. Don’t we all just love to laugh?


A tabby cat’s walk – part II

Forgive me. In my excitement of being able to make a Harry Potter reference, I did not adequately research the previous post.

It all became clear yesterday. It was a lovely day, a Sunday deserving its name. I was out for a walk, had just explored the Dundee Botanical Gardens, and was now heading towards Tesco Riverside to stock up for the upcoming week (Thanksgiving, hurray!). On my way, I passed aforementioned McGonagall’s walk.


Turns out, that in my previous post, I had quoted the wrong poem! Mr. William McGonagall had written another poem about the bridge, some time before the Tay Bridge Disaster. Nevertheless, I think the jest of my post still rings true: this poet was an absolute disaster.

The full poem will be at the end of this post, as to not force you read through the whole thing, but I will quote one verse here. It seems Mr. McGonagall was a bit of a fortune teller. Sadly:

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!
I hope that God will protect all passengers
By night and by day,
And that no accident will befall them while crossing
The Bridge of the Silvery Tay,
For that would be most awful to be seen
Near by Dundee and the Magdalen Green.

Before I leave you alone with the full poem (feel free to not read it), I’ll leave you with some pictures from my Sunday walk. Better use of your time to look at those, I’d say.


The Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay – by William McGonagall

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!
With your numerous arches and pillars in so grand array
And your central girders, which seem to the eye
To be almost towering to the sky.
The greatest wonder of the day,
And a great beautification to the River Tay,
Most beautiful to be seen,
Near by Dundee and the Magdalen Green.

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!
That has caused the Emperor of Brazil to leave
His home far away, incognito in his dress,
And view thee ere he passed along en route to Inverness.

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!
The longest of the present day
That has ever crossed o’er a tidal river stream,
Most gigantic to be seen,
Near by Dundee and the Magdalen Green.

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay !
Which will cause great rejoicing on the opening day
And hundreds of people will come from far away,
Also the Queen, most gorgeous to be seen,
Near by Dundee and the Magdalen Green.

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!
And prosperity to Provost Cox, who has given
Thirty thousand pounds and upwards away
In helping to erect the Bridge of the Tay,
Most handsome to be seen,
Near by Dundee and the Magdalen Green.

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!
I hope that God will protect all passengers
By night and by day,
And that no accident will befall them while crossing
The Bridge of the Silvery Tay,
For that would be most awful to be seen
Near by Dundee and the Magdalen Green.

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!
And prosperity to Messrs Bouche and Grothe,
The famous engineers of the present day,
Who have succeeded in erecting
The Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay,
Which stands unequalled to be seen
Near by Dundee and the Magdalen Green.


A tabby cat’s walk

The Tay Bridge, after the collapse

More than a century ago, a tragic accident occurred in Dundee: during a violent storm, the bridge crossing the Tay river collapsed while a train was passing over it. All passengers were killed. The architect who had designed the bridge had his reputation ruined; his design for the rail bridge over the Firth of Forth (near Edinburgh) was never used. A poet wrote a poem.

Along the river Tay, there is a walkway. A small bit of this walkway, close to the new railway bridge, has been named “McGonagall’s walk”. The first time I came across it, I have to admit, my mind jumped to the strict but fair, animagous Hogwarts teacher Professor McGonagall. Yes, I’m from the Harry Potter generation, how did you guess?

McGonagall’s walk is engraved with a poem by a certain William McGonagall – hence the name -, The Tay Bridge Disaster :

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

I felt slightly guilty, that first time I walked over McGonagall’s walk and read the poem, for finding it absolutely hilarious. Things like these do not call for comedy. Fortunately (for my soul), I am not alone: this poem is considered to be the most famous poem about the Tay Bridge disaster, it is also thought to be of very low quality and borderline comical. Some more reading tells me that William McGonagall is known as the worst poet in British history. So it was okay for me to be humoured by the poem. (Hurray, I’m not a heartless person.)

Maggie Smith as Professor McGonagall

Quite by accident, I was reading about Professor McGonagall yesterday. It turns out her surname was indeed inspired by Mr. William “disaster of a poet” McGonagall, because J.K. seemed to love the irony of naming her after such a ridiculous man, especially because McGonagall (the professor one) is absolutely brilliant and bad-ass. Luckily, she was blessed with the name Minerva, the Roman Athena, the goddess of wisdom, a name worth living up to.

In any case, that tiny link between my current city of residence and those books that took up so much of my teens, just made my day.

The Tay Bridge today (photo by Eric Niven)


The Wikipedia page on the Tay Bridge disaster
The Pottermore page on Professor McGonagall

“All these autumn leaves are yours tonight” *

Lets just skip over the (slightly depressing) fact that we seem to have skipped over summer this year. I’m not really sure there was even a proper spring, though in Scotland’s defence, I wasn’t in the country for most of it, so maybe I just skipped over it personally. But I think it’s official now, the clocks have been turned back, petty colds have made their introduction, people have started to quote Game of Thrones and the trees have started painting a colourful palette. Autumn is here.

Autumn leave pallet as seen through PDMS drip lenses.
Autumn leave palette as seen through PDMS drip lenses.

You might have noticed I said autumn and not fall. I may sound very American (not that you can hear that by reading this), but let’s be fair, autumn is simply a much nicer word.

Let’s dig in a bit deeper. Until the 16th century, autumn was referred to as Harvest, from the Old Norse word haust meaning “to gather or pluck.” In those days, a lot of people were dependent on farming, and this was the time to harvest crops, so it makes sense. But as more people went to go live in towns and cities, the word wasn’t as relevant anymore. Two new words came into use then: Fall, which was probably short for “fall of the leaf” and Autumn from the Latin automnus. There were both used, as far as I understand, but at a certain point of time the colonies stuck to the word fall (maybe because it’s easier to spell?), while fall fell into disuse in the UK. It’t quite interesting how US english and UK english started to evolve differently, and this season’s name is just one example.

Etymology aside, what I have noticed most, is that here in Dundee, in the autumn, it’s like living in a cloud. No, I’m not being particularly dreamy, or aspire myself to be in the virtual datacloud. It’s literally in a cloud. It gets really really foggy, or misty, or hazy, and this results in feeling like your stuck in a The Gothic Archies song.

View from my office. (This is not actually a picture I’ve taken of the view, this is just a image of a white square, or the cover of an album with the band name omitted if you will. But that is the view we get a lot.)

Okay, turns out foggy is the best word. In ye olden days, it would have been hazy, but language has evolved since then (yes, were talking about the words again). In general, mist and fog both consist of tiny water droplets, a low hanging cloud if you will, and their difference is quite vague and depends a lot on who you ask. Let’s just say fog is thicker than mist and is what caused my plane yesterday to be cancelled, and the next one to be delayed (because they waited until it got foggy again!), causing me to finish 2,5 books over the whole day. Haze is used to refer to a particularly thick fog, but now means “a rather thin fog and other causes of reduced visibility”, for example heat haze, something that I have not seen occur here yet.

Just imagine a night out drinking: you might be hazy after a few beers, misty after a few more, and foggy would be the last step before a complete black out. Not that I would know.

There another mist/fog-phenomena occurs here quite often: haar. This is cold sea fog that occurs when warm air passes over the cold North Sea, causing it to condense locally. This haar seeps in over the Tay (the local river) and in some cases just stays confined right there. It feels a bit like a scene in where cursed pirates would use a cloak of mist to creep up on their victims, in this case the city of Dundee.

Well, I guess autumn in Dundee is not that bad. It’s occasionally eerie. But in the moments when there is no fog, the sunrises are absolutely stunning, and there is nothing better to wake you up than a morning stroll in the cold. Bring along a pocket microscope and have a blast.

Not always white views... The bottom left depicts why I have occasional urges to break into
Not always white views… The bottom left depicts why I have occasional urges to break into “Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba“. An example of haar can be seen on the right.
Just some more PDMS drip lens images, taken during a autumn stroll.
Just some more PDMS drip lens images, taken during a autumn stroll.

* From Autumn by Paolo Nutini.