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Edinburgh Fringe 2013

Festival of the Spoken Nerd – Full Frontal Nerdity

Phil McIntyre Entertainments by Arrangement with Noel Gay

Venue: Assembly George Sq


Low Down

Exciting science is to many people an oxymoron. But to a nerd, it’s nirvana. What better, then, than an hour laced with spreadsheets, irreverent asides, science focused songs, a couple of failed experiments and a lot of spectacular pyrotechnics


 I’m a nerd. Anyone who can quote scores from Ashes Tests (that’s cricket to the non-sporty) going back over a hundred years and sequence British prime ministers since the start of the 20th Century must, frankly, be pretty odd. So that’s what attracted me to this particular show – the chance to spend an hour being entertained by like-minded oddballs. 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, around 63.45% of the audience thought themself quite nerdish as well. 

Another point of difference was that the packed Assembly Two George Square audience was 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.  
Now nothing gets the nerds going like a spreadsheet. You mean you don’t play with spreadsheets in your leisure time? What are you doing with your life?   Surely you know that all digital photos can be turned into spreadsheets? Every pixel in a digital photo is given a colour code from 1-255, 255 of course being the largest 8 digit binary number. So you can conditionally format cells in a spreadsheet and create your own photos! Amazing fun and you really can do this yourself if you feel like it at (I have, it’s a breeze). And next time you switch on your flat screen, digital TV remember that you are actually watching around 29 spreadsheets flash before your eyes every single second. Wow!
The fun continued with an electric pickle which, with suitable encouragement, managed to produce the sodium yellow reminiscent of a street light. We had a flaming tornado involving a small amount of lighter fuel, a lazy Susan and a waste paper basket (not something to try at home, kids) and an interesting exploration of how our brains interpret the world around us through colour. There was plenty of humour, including a number of clever binary jokes – you either get them or you don’t, of course – and an unsuccessful attempt to shatter a glass by singing a note at its resonant frequency. Throw in a couple of witty songs with a scientific theme and the whole hour of entertainment whizzed by in a flash (plus a few bangs and crashes).
It was certainly entertaining, but it was also very educational. Knowledge is nothing without the ability to communicate it, as I often remind my daughter who is deep into a PhD in a truly esoteric branch of theoretical physics and has gone beyond nerdity to full geekdom. And that’s where these guys really score. They reduce the complex to something easily understandable, communicate it with real skill and passion and then pull the audience into the science. In other words, practice first, theory second. And judging from the goggle-eyed looks of awe on the faces of the audience, it works. Perhaps we need less political interference (i.e. theory) to try and move science up the education agenda and more exposure for this sort of trio (i.e. practice).
I’m going to take advantage of our new reviewing system again to highly recommend this show to those who are even a tiny bit nerdy or who perhaps have a suppressed passion for understanding how things work and recommend it to those nearer the middle of the normality Bell curve who fancy an hour to stretch the brain. This organ is, after all, a muscle. Use it or lose it!