Tuesday, September 09, 2008

"Two Neutrons Walk into a Blackhole . . ."

Genius, cranky, frumpy, difficult, brilliant, dreamer, old and, usually, white. Stereotypical descriptions continue to pervade how the rest of society, from children to adults, think about physicists. Aside from the token genius and dreamer attributes, few characteristics associated with physicists are favorable. But that's about to change. Today's physicists might soon be given a new adjective: freakin' hilarious.

Scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) are taking improvisational comedy classes, in the hopes that mastering the art of humor will allow them to effectively communicate to a slightly panicked and overwrought public that the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) will not end life as we know it.

When they aren't theorizing, performing complex equations or discovering new particles, the 25 physicists that make up the CERN comedy class are tossing around props, performing monologues and scenes, and cracking lewd jokes (hence the title of this post...). The class is being taught by Charna Halpern, an improv-comedy coach from Chicago, whose former students include Mike Myers and Stephen Colbert. The troupe is scheduled put on their first performance in front several thousand people at a launch party for Atlas in October.

Creatively explaining the LHC to a public that has its eyebrows permanently raised is key to battling the bad rep the particle accelerator has been receiving lately, amid hyperbolic rumors, controversy, and lawsuits. After over a decade of work and $9 billion, the largest physics experiment ever built had better deliver the results it purports, notably the Higgs Boson and the recreation of Big Bang conditions.

The LHC will turn on tomorrow, September 10th, and CERN scientists must be feeling the pressure. Under this type of stress, some comic relief is practically necessary. In fact, many scientists say learning improv skills may help spawn new ideas and ways of thinking about difficult physics questions. As for being funny, well let's just say physics is easier.

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