Science engagement is a funny thing. Not “haha” funny, more “hmm, it’s eaten through the floor…” funny. On the one hand, science is often looked upon as being very much people in lab coats walled up in ivory towers (which is grossly impractical) but it is also lampooned for being flippant if someone tries to break down those walls with some accessible science (e.g. research on how to butter toast).

The idea that if science doesn’t take itself totally seriously for even a moment, is to many (not just the Daily Mail) a “waste of time” or gets the response “this is why cancer isn’t cured yet”. Apparently in science, if you’re not totally dead serious 100% of the time and single-mindedly focused on your job, you are wasting time. Obviously, running a blog that is almost entirely based on the lighter side of science means this comes up a fair amount.

No jokes small

But I do understand that jokes are not always the best way to communicate things. Jokes can be something people enjoy and can engage with, but can also be something that alienate people.

However, I’d argue that certain other styles of communicating things can also do this. It’s not exactly a new idea that some people respond better to diagrams than dry text, and vice versa. I don’t see why comedy and jokes get automatically banned, when reading out slides for an hour is apparently given a pass.

Even within my own field/peer group there is very strong pressure to take science seriously and not make light of serious things [serious face]. Cracking a joke at a conference garners about 50% laughter and 50% frowning disapproval.

Even in these articles I am always trying to find the balance between appearing slightly serious and austere—while also drawing pictures of stick men on fire.

Fire training2In general, I try to make sure anything I write is factually accurate or based on good advice with a comedy slant. I won’t change the story to make a joke but I will re-write something a few times to try and give it a slightly more titter-inducing outcome.

In the real world, I am very very reticent about doing anything that people might regard as taking this too lightly in a professional context. The colleagues whom I work with every day, know me quite well so I am more relaxed there but externally, I think very long and hard before doing anything that might get me frowning disapproval.

One outlet for this is being humorous in sneaky/underhanded ways. If I can’t openly make jokes about my work, then I work impressively hard to cram in as many hidden jokes/references into pretty much everything I do (e.g naming an entire patented technology after a cartoon character ZIM). That way the only people who tend to spot them are people who appreciate the humour. But to the more austere judgemental peers my work is nothing but the height of professionalism.

However, I am now slowly changing from this mindset and being a bit more open about my love of enjoying humour in science. My presentations now contain a few of my cartoons, and a poster I presented last month is an almost entirely cartoon-based infographic, designed to inform and give people a laugh.

I hope that if we all took science a little less seriously it might help people start to think of researchers as real people. Rather than very serious people in lab coats who stare intensely at small plastic tubes. I’ve no idea where they got that idea from… *looks accusingly at generic science adverts in magazines*

Crossposted from Errant Science. 

About The Author

Matthew Partridge

Matthew Partridge works for Cranfield University as a Post Doc in the centre of Engineering Photonics. He’s worked at Cranfield since 2009. His work currently encompasses the use of fiber optics as chemical and biological sensors. But alongside this he also runs a blog and a webcomic over at