Night of nearly 1,000 stars
By news editor, on 18 November 2011
Dr Martin Zaltz Austwick, (UCL Bartlett Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis) recounts his experience of taking to the stage at the UCL Bloomsbury Theatre.
Last Friday, I was lucky enough to be small glimmer amongst a constellation of researchers as Bright Club: Stars took to the stage of the Bloomsbury Theatre. For the uninitiated, Bright Club was originated by Steve Cross at UCL, and is a night where researchers and academics perform ten-minute ‘sets’ about their work.
The spots have to be funny, engaging and entertaining – Bright Club is not a conference, and the sets aren’t lectures – so not for nothing has it been called “research stand-up”. Of course, a researcher doing mother-in-law gags would be no funnier than any other new comedian doing mother-in-law gags – what makes it come alive for me is the way the researchers instead create stories, jokes and explorations of their subjects, with all the passion and absurdity that comes with them.
I’ve performed at Bright Club before (in its monthly home at the Wilmington arms pub) but never at (gasp) the Bloomsbury (capacity: 550 people). If the others were as nervous as I was, they certainly didn’t show it. Geographer Jason Dittmer looked like an old hand as compere Lloyd Langford ushered him onstage – and his tales of culture shock for an American in London got the evening off to a great start.
Solar Scientist and sometime guest of the BBC’s Infinite Monkey Cage Lucie Green was up next, illuminating us (sorry) with stories of the sun, followed by Jen Gupta, who had travelled all the way down from Jodrell Bank to tell us about astronomers and their ridiculously large telescopes; she was the only researcher not from UCL’s galaxy of talent.
Planetary scientist Sheila Kunani had even come dressed to impress – in a child’s star costume. The image of a lady dressed as a star waving around a fluorescent lightbulb (lit using a plasma ball!) like a tiny garish Jedi may be permanently burned onto my retina.
Much of the evening passed by in a blur as I stood quaking backstage – archaeologist Sarah Dhanjal’s outlandish TV show ideas, James Kneale’s concerns about a single, angry small bird of prey destroying New York, and Nic Canty’s arsenal of publishing puns all flew by.
And that’s not to mention the Professional Entertainers: comic Lucy Porter on the perils of pregnancy (thankfully she’s having her baby on earth), musician Colin Hazel and his desire for flying cars, Helen Keen’s frankly amazing etymology for the acronym NASA (it’s one that you won’t find in any official histories) and songwriter Gavin Osbourne, who delighted the audience with his song about Carl Sagan’s love affair with Ann Druyan – as well as telling the audience that, contrary to popular nerdy stereotypes about physicists, I was looking quite buff and they’d be in for a treat when I came onstage.
That was pretty weird – I’m not remotely buff, unless you’re comparing me to a present-day Carl Sagan. I should explain that Gavin and I are old friends… but not like *that*. I think the Bloomsbury were as confused as I was.
All of this ramped up the pressure significantly when I finally took my first steps onto the stage. The audience felt more like 5,000 than 500, but luckily they were gentle with me (especially after overcoming their initial disappointment that I wouldn’t be lifting any weights). After explaining that there is such a thing as a social physicist (I am one), what steam engines have to do with CASA (my mothership in the Bartlett) and conflating Boris Johnson with a blue tadpole, I left the stage shaken and a little stirred.
Backstage, everyone looked relieved, happy and maybe a little drunk. And who could blame us? We’d brought outer space, geography, publishing, music and, yes, social physics to the Bloomsbury in a night of 1,000 stars – well, more like 10, but who’s counting? Next stop, Wembley?