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Edinburgh Fringe 2012

Festival of the Spoken Nerd

Helen Arney, Matt Parker, Steve Mould with Phil McIntyre Entertainments




Low Down

Exciting science is to many people an oxymoron. But to a nerd, it’s nirvana. And there were plenty of nerds at the EICC to enjoy an hour of entertainment involving parabolas, resonance theory and shapes of constant width. And if you’ve read this far, then you’re probably a nerd too. 


 I’d be the first to admit that I can be a bit of a nerd at times. That’s what attracted me to this particular show – the chance to spend an hour being entertained by the similarly inclined. And judging by the impromptu survey that our nerd trio of Helen Arney, Matt Parker and Steve Mould carried out at the start of their session, at least 83.56% of the audience thought themselves quite nerdish as well. 

Another point of difference was that the three hundred or so people at the EICC were actually encouraged to leave their phones on, rather than having to turn them off. Nerds are apparently well known for feeling insecure if they are not connected to the internet or otherwise able to communicate with fellow nerds electronically.
So began an hour of fascinating science laced with irreverent asides, science focused songs, a couple of failed experiments and a lot of spectacular pyrotechnics.   Parabolas were first up and I’m sure you are as aware as I am that any vertical line drawn into a parabola will bounce off to a single focal point. But were you also aware that you could use this phenomenon to nearly set fire to the EICC? Well you can, simply by wrapping gun cotton onto the focal point of one parabola and using another (or a strong light) to create enough heat so that the gun cotton self-combusts. Faraday perfected this a few hundred years ago, but the sight of flames licking upwards in the EICC was exciting enough to generate suitably nerdish applause.
The evening continued with expositions of resonance theory and how some people are capable of filling in blanks in sound profiles that enable them to compensate for missing frequencies and thereby correctly distinguish which of two sounds is lower. It’s a fat lot of use in most circumstances, I’d be the first to admit, but for the musically inclined it can be quite important.
We had an interesting session that could easily have been entitled “reinventing the wheel” but, this being a nerdy show was instead called “shapes of constant width”. The most obvious here is, of course, the circle, but did you know that a triangle, pentagon or any two dimensional shape with an odd number of sides could, with the simple addition of a few curves, be turned into something that would function as a wheel?
Easy delivery, a nice line in self-deprecation and an ability to empathise with their enthusiastic audience characterized what was an interesting, entertaining and educational hour. It’s a niche production, for sure, and it’s probably not worth going if mathematics, science and their related phenomena were something you last dabbled in when you left school forty-five years ago. But it’s proved so popular a gig that a couple of extra shows have been hastily arranged, so any of you nerds out there that need a fix can trot down to the EICC on 8th and 9th of August to get your fill.


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