Dr. Anca Constantin and Dr. Feitosa host the event Demystifying the Expertto introduce the public to science in a combination of comedy and education. The program involves an “expert” in some field of science, and a few local comedians who get to “demystify the expert”. The demystification involves questions, games, trivia and improvised skits, all of which provide the audience with plenty of laughs. Examples of previous Demystifying the Expert events can be found here, here, here, here, and here.
The second Demystifying the Expert of 2017, and final show for the 2016-2017 school year, saw JMU comedy group “New and Improv’d” members Shelby Imes, Alex Jacobs, and Knick McKay try to demystify Professor Ilarion Melnikov. For those who do not know, Dr. Melnikov is a member of JMU’s Department of Physics and Astronomy.
The event started off with a game of 20 questions, with the comedians asking the expert yes/no questions. Things got a little off-track as the comedians started fighting for “points” for being answered “yes”, leading to question unrelated to Melnikov’s research such as, “Do you empathize with the chemistry-haters in the crowd?” Alex argued that only getting points for an answer of “yes” seemed like a flawed scoring system, but that may be because Shelby held the lead throughout the game of 20 questions.
The members of New and Improv’d figured it out in the end, however, deducing that Dr. Melnikov is in fact a theoretical physicist who studies string theory. The hosts, Dr. Constantin and Dr. Feitosa, asked Melnikov to give a short elevator speech about his work. Dr. Melnikov explained that, “It’s very simple”, as he went from questioning what makes up quarks and leptons to how gravity works. Melnikov explained how string theory works for gravity, and introduces the particle “gravitons”. Alex and Knick, attempting to simplify string theory, exclaimed, “So the electrons, gravitons, Megatrons, megaladons, Pokémons, Digimons, Bakugons, are all held together by one rope.” Of course, this wasn’t QUITE right, but the one minute marker for the elevator speech was already a distant memory by this point and it was time for the next game.
The second game, The StringNews, saw the comedians attempting to fill in the blanks to complete article titles related to Dr. Melnikov’s area of study. The first headline tripped up the members of New and Improv’d, who thought “The Curious Case of the Quantum Theory of [Blank]” was completed with the word “Strings”. In fact, the missing word was “Humor”, as the article compared the way people interpret jokes to the process of quantum superposition.
The second article title, “The Strange [Blank Blank] of String Theory”, was finished by inserting the words, “Second Life”. Attempting to guess what the article was about, Knick claimed, “String theory is two-timing on his family, has a second family, a second life.” The audience had a good chuckle at this, and laughed even more when Melnikov replied to Knick, “That’s not too far off.” The article, it turned out, was about string theory in the field of math, as well as numerous branches of physics like condensed matter and quantum gravity.
The third game of the night was the jargon game. Shelby, Alex, and Knick all had very different opinions of what the first acronym, SUSY, meant. Alex quickly SUSY had to stand for Susie Q. Shelby tried breaking the acronym down into two parts, "Sus" and "Y". She explained “Sus” was slang for lame, but Alex pointed out it was actually short for the word “suspect”. Shelby decided to focus instead on the “Y” at this point, which she believed clearly stood for “Why can’t we figure this out?” Knick took a different approach, believing SUSY “is the name of the first quantum string; they put a collar on it, took it for walks, fed it, etc., and after 13 long, happy years they euthanized it.” In a surprise twist, SUSY actually stands for “supersymmetry”, which deals with the partners of different particles (for example, quarks have super partners called squarks).
The next acronym led to some confusion, and much laughter, as the comedians thought the acronym “LST” was “LSD”. After that was cleared up, the members of New and Improv’d quickly managed to get to the answer, Little String Theory, which Dr. Melnikov explained to the audience briefly.
The following game, “2 Truths and a Lie”, helped the comedians and the audience to learn about more about expert outside of his work. In the first round, Shelby decided it must be true that Dr. Melnikov plays electric guitar and had his own Punk/Rock band named Culture of Blame, because electric guitars obviously go with string theory. The members of New and Improv’d correctly deduced that Melnikov never met President George H. W. Bush, and then immediately refocused on his punk/rock band. Dr. Melnikov explained the name of the band came from when he and his bandmate Matt lived with some guy who couldn’t wash dishes. When they confronted him, he said “I’m sick of this culture of blame in this house!” It sounded like a great band name, so they went with it. Dr. Melnikov even sang part of Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” for the audience, his favorite cover song from his time in the band.
The second round saw the comedians miss their mark, claiming that Ilarion Melnikov never made the pedestrian journey of sixty stadia from Delphi to the Corycian Cave. They quickly figured out the real lie, though, was the claim that Dr. Melnikov was interviewed on a German TV show about string theory. Melnikov explained that there are many string theorists in Germany, so there was no way he would have been interviewed.
The coup de grace of the even was the skit at the end. Using movie lines, book lines, and quotes from famous physicists, as well as their own creativity, the comedians of New and Improv’d had to act out a day in Dr. Melnikov’s lab. Things got off to an odd start, as Shelby attempted to drop out of Melnikov’s class (while Alex portrayed Dr. Melnikov), and instead ended up “assisting him with the gravitrons”. This involved hand gestures similar to kneading, and the occasional exclamation that, “The gravitons are escaping!”
The comedians had some excellent timing on their lines from the hat, such as Shelby trying to calm down Alex and Knick’s heated debate by proclaiming, “The universe doesn’t care what makes theoretical physicists happy.” The group’s odd day in the offense finally reached its climax with Alex and Knick again bumping heads, as Alex (portraying Melnikov) shouted that there is no Nirvana in string theory. Knick countered that Alex couldn’t know that, and Alex was forced to agree. As a result of this, Knick claimed the office as his own and ran away to live happily with Shelby.
In response to all of this, Dr. Melnikov could only say that it looked exactly like a normal day at the office.
Overall, this was a great, fun-filled finale to the 2016-2017 school year’s Demystifying the Expert event. As a quick reminder, we are working on editing the audio for all shows of this year to have them soon on Soundcloud.