Adventures in Alternative Science Communication

Friday night, as contented conference-goers munched on a vast array of cheeses of the world and cashed in their free-drink coupons, Robin Marantz Henig welcomed them to a new concept in this year's NASW sessions: the science cabaret.

"This is evidence," she cautioned the overflow crowd, "of what happens when somebody has what you think is a good idea."

But any qualms about the event were soon replaced with laughter. Between Richard Milner's intelligently designed musical numbers, Brian Malow's hilarious science-based stand up routine, and Jonathan Coulton's acoustic sci-fi revenge fantasies, the message was loud and clear: science is anything but dry and stodgy.

Richard Milner kicked things off with a musical tribute to Stephen Jay Gould. And he immediately garnered appreciative laughs from what was, perhaps, the perfect crowd. While singing multi-syllabic anthropological rhymes to the tune of Gilbert and Sullivan may cause one's musicality to suffer, Milner made up for it with his effusive wit. During a musical rendition of the Scopes Trial, Milner sang, "Do you believe in the Rock of Ages, or the age of rocks?"

Brian Malow then took the stage and launched into a rapid-fire routine of science-based stand up. While Malow crossed over more into the mainstream, his jokes constantly borrowed from fields of higher learning. Even a standard issue riff on his love life relied on a metaphor from particle physics. And, trusting that this was the perfect crowd for his material, Malow pulled out a pun on pasta and "antipasta" that got a roar of laughter.

The climax of the evening, however, was undoubtedly Jonathan Coulton coaxing the room to sing the phrase, "All we want to do is eat your brains." Although this was undoubtedly the first time those words have been sung in passable harmony by a group of science writers, it should not be the last. And Coulton's subject material, from a boy daydreaming of creating a loyal robot army to the Neolithic grammar of his Internet hit "Code Monkey," proved to be both shocking and poignant.

All in all, the 2006 NASW Science Cabaret was a resounding success. Surrounded by the gilded splendor of the Corinthian Room, three talented performers managed to bring a room full of writers, editors, and scientists to a common ground. To a place where they could laugh at and with one another. It's difficult to place value on the simple act of laughing along with a group of colleagues. But the Science Cabaret felt priceless.

And, at the end of it all, Marantz Henig summed it up best. "I think we need to do this again next year," she proclaimed. Judging from the vigorous peer review of the still-applauding audience, her hypothesis was supported.

Oct. 28, 2006

Biedler Price for Cancer Journalism