Physics Can Be Funny
Writing with humor is often difficult. It’s even harder still to catch the humor when we read, as accustomed as we are to believing that what’s written is by default serious. I can attest to this because as an editor on a text about humor, I critiqued an author as saying something nonsensical only to find out a few lines later that I missed the joke. Talk about irony and a failing all at one. Reading for humor can be hard.
But we needn’t give up all hope. If you want to write in a humorous way, then you just need to find some examples of humorous writers and have a look at them, study them, and maybe even borrow a few tricks. That’s why I was so excited to read the article linked here. Not only was it funny, it was informative, and enjoyable. What was the article about? It was about theoretical physics. Yes. That’s right, these two authors did a masterful job of using humor well to get their ideas across and keep their audience engaged.
The theories surrounding modern theories of space-time are maddening. Even as someone used to dealing with odd ideas, I am a philosopher after all, some of the deeper theoretical positions in physics often make my head hurt as they seem to fly in the face of common sense. But that’s the beautiful thing about this piece. It’s able to relate the ideas in ways that I could understand, but do it in way that uses humor, and in ways that I was able to learn.
So what is it that this pair of authors do well with regard to humor? One of the first things they do is they begin with a little humor. They follow up their initial sentence, filled with foreboding, with a snarky little shot at philosophers and physicists. As a member of one half of that camp, we’ve earned it—I mean really. We have. They have cartoons placed throughout that are visual plays on the ideas presented. Some foreshadow and others explain. And if you read it backwards, it will read the same.
One of the other things they do well is that they address the clearly difficult and mind-bending ideas with hyperbole and some teasing. They know how hard this will be for folks who rely on more commonsense notions of space, so they use the humor, the asides, to get people to focus less on how odd the ideas are, and more on the humor. A spoonful of sugar and all that. But the truth is, we know humor makes difficult things less so. So why not use humor?
The overall tone of the article is light and encouraging. They express they’re difficulties with the ideas and remind us that this is all heady stuff. Their examples allow us to be with them on the journey, rather than having them talk at us in the paper. Instead of using technical terms of art, they are constantly relying on concepts the regular person could be expected to know. But more than that, they use concepts in a very informal and comic sense. The use of “goo” to describe space is apt because it is a seriously unscientific word, and also one that’s a bit funny, and does an effective job. The juxtaposition of the word ‘goo’ with the heady discussions of space time is another little element in the playful repertoire the writers use.
While our authors rely on humor to great extent, it’s not overdone. Humor works best when it accentuates things, when it comes in spurts, not when it is one long joke. The authors use a good bit of humor, but it never feels overdone. That’s one thing that good humorists know. They know when not to do too much. So read this article a few times. Enjoy it, play around with it. See if you can borrow some of their techniques when you have to write that next intimidating piece. You may find you’re a bit of a humorist after all.