Science Lite

Science, obviously, is not a laughing matter. The very idea is oxymoromic. At the heart of the problem is familiarity. Most humor arises from incongruity inserted into a familiar situation. Science is only funny to people who know enough about the topic to recognize the dissonance of the humorous element. Since survey after survey shows that the public has very low scientific literacy, the subject is almost by definition mute to humor.

A quick survey of the landscape of science humor will illustrate the problem. Think of all the magazines and periodicals that have a science humor section, or all the sitcoms with a scientists as a major or minor character. That didn’t take long, did it? Now think of all the scientists you know that tell a really good joke. That was even quicker. Of course science isn’t funny. These people are messing around with genes and creating nerve agents and scaring us with global warming and threats of impacts from space. Only the darkest kind of gallows humor could attach to this stuff.

The overlap of science and humor isn’t a completely null set. Occasionally, humorists from the pop culture extend their embrace toward science: a few Dave Barry columns, some stories in The Onion, parts of episodes of The Simpsons, and the occasional piece on The Daily Show or The Colbert Report. In the hands of a major humorist or satirist, science can be wickedly funny. The reverse direction is even rarer and less successful. There have been a few one-off books and Scientific American has had a humor column. An older generation remembers the gentle whimsy of George Gamow’s Mr. Thompkins in Wonderland series. For a modern generation, the pickings are slim. Science humor is either an aching void yearning to be filled or an idea fraught with danger from which a sensible person should run very quickly. Probably it’s both.

Science Lite is a light-hearted blog about science and its ugly, and even less funny, step-child, mathematics. It incorporates two traditional modes of science humor—irony and absurdism—while adding awareness of popular culture. It tries not to be incestuous or self-referential; there’s nothing less funny than a roomful of scientists laughing at each other’s bad puns and jokes. Science Lite isn’t just for scientists; it aims to be an antidote to anyone who has ever felt fear or loathing when contemplating inscrutable nuggets of science information or the enterprise’s profound impact on every aspect of our lives.

The author, Chris Impey, got his Ph.D. in 1981 and has been a Professor of Astronomy at the University of Arizona for two decades. He has written over 160 scientific papers, and freely admits that they have the consistency of week-old bologna sandwiches and would send a glass eye to sleep. He has written two astronomy textbooks and a popular book on astrobiology called “The Living Cosmos” for Random House, and he pretty much kept his game face on for those too. With Science Lite, he gets to cut loose and riff in a way that would probably make many of his colleagues frown. He considers himself lucky to have tenure, because when you take a dump in the temple of science, there’s a chance you won’t be allowed back in.

Truth in advertising: Science Lite aims for wry smiles more than belly laughs, but even that would be an unusual gift from the world of pocket protectors and lab coats. Science Lite: subversive and irreverent, like regular science only with half the calories.

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