Festival Of The Spoken Nerd - Helen Arney, Steve Mould and Matt Parker - mix science and comedy together to form wonderfully entertaining shows. Their latest offering - You Can't Polish A Nerd - is out now in various formats, including floppy disk! Let's find out more...
You Can't Polish A Nerd follows on from your first two DVDs. Can we expect more of the same?
Steve: Every time, the show is based on all of our favourite bits that we've come up with in the intervening time [since the last show]. So, in terms of structure, it's songs, maths and things on fire - all that kind of stuff - but completely different topics. There are a few different bits this time around that we've never done before that we were quite excited about: the floppy disk release we're excited about - it's been really interesting to see people band together on Twitter to try and find consecutive numbers to watch together.
Helen: It's already happening! We've found 173 to 175, so we've got a triple.
Steve: Nice! They're all friends now - floppy disk pals! We had a real challenge with DVD authoring - one of the extras is infinitely long, but we managed to nail it and it's come out really well, that's another thing we're excited about.
Matt: It's incredible value for money!
Helen: It's the best value Christmas DVD on the market!
Steve: I was taking about a toy robot from my childhood that could "say" six different things. It's interesting just because a lot of toys now "talk" these days, but it's just a microchip - so it's just a bit of a black box in terms of how it works - but you pull this old toy apart, inside it there's this tiny vinyl record with six interwoven tracks with different things it can "say" on those tracks. It's beautiful!
You're also a purveyor of bad Star Wars jokes Steve...
Steve: Am I?! Are you pulling up things from my past?
Matt: You've got several bad Star Wars jokes - there are some on this DVD!
Steve: Oh, you're right!!! I do!
Matt: They're so bad even you've repressed them.
Helen: We have to say that Steve wanted to cut one of them and we wouldn't let him!
'Experiments' involving a microwave feature prominently in the new show - it's a surprisingly rich seam of comedy, particularly if you've ever seen Gremlins and American Hustle: "Don't put metal in the science oven!!!"
Steve: It's interesting that they say not to put metal in a microwave - it is fine to put a metal object in one. Yes, it will spark and it will damage the microwave, but it's not going to kill anyone!
There's even a bit of a Donald Rumsfeld quote in your show, which we never thought would make it into a science-comedy DVD.
Steve: Yeah, I quote him all the time. One of the great orators...
We share Matt's anger over calling spherical cameras "360-degree" cameras...
Steve: They should be called two Tau cameras, obviously.
Matt: The trouble is, of all the things I was annoyed about in the show, that was - I think - in the top five.
Steve: Gosh, can we have a run-down?
Matt: Well, the football street sign was number one; being made to wear a banana costume would have to be number three; being called "Pi-boy" number six...
Steve: My approximation of Pi, number two?
Matt: I have declined to start a campaign to re-name 360-degree cameras, in fact if I ever say "spherical camera" I'll incorporate "360-degree camera" into the sentence, so people will know what I'm talking about! However, my football campaign is still wildly ineffective at improving society.
Helen: We do now have football sign campaign t-shirts! Perhaps the campaign will revive itself after the release of this DVD?
Helen, tell us a bit about your unabridged version of Tom Lehrer's The Elements song.
Helen: I actually learned that song for a bet, which is a really good reason to spend nine months of your life learning a song.
But, no, it's something I've always known about, but I actually really reluctantly learned it because it is so useless! I always thought, "I should never learn this!", because it's no use whatsoever! It's just a list of elements - why would anyone even... It's not even in periodic table order!?
But, then I thought, "You know what? I need to!" As I've said, I learned it for a bet - I was pregnant at the time, so it wasn't even an alcohol-based bet - I spent nine months learning it and it's now one of my favourite things to sing! I've kind of resigned myself to the fact that it's not useful, but then the same can be said of a lot of maths!
Matt: That feels unnecessary! How many times have you to had to update it?
Helen: Oh, I've had to update it at least twice, but that's what's made it interesting - when I learned it, it was just like a period piece - periodic piece?! [LAUGHS]; it was 1959 and it was just a bit of silliness. I did a version where I had a whole bunch of gastrointestinal bacteria and microbes, and did it to the same tune [Major-General's Song from Gilbert & Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance], but with helicobacter and e-coli, instead of elements, which is all good fun, but it's still, like, just silly!
But now, it's suddenly become a really useful thing that actually does say something about where we are with the discovery of the building blocks of the universe, and how useless the last few elements that we've discovered are, and how little they hang around because they've had to be synthesised - they haven't even been discovered as naturally occurring elements.
I think it's interesting that, now I've added the new ones, it says something more interesting about scientific discovery; it's like that quote of, "Why go to the Moon? ... Because it's there!" Why fill in the last elements of the periodic table? Because they're there! It might teach about something about the universe, incidentally, but that's not the reason to do it. The reason to do it is because it's there! That's a perfectly valid reason for doing science!
There was a campaign to name one of the heavy metals in honour of Lemmy from Motörhead, wasn't there? But they couldn't...
Helen: He wasn't a scientist - you can only name elements after a place, a thing, or a mythical beast. We thought Lemmy would get in on being a mythical beast!
Tell us about some of your favourite nerdiest responses, after the interval?
Helen: I think the guy who made spreadsheets about Oscar winners, he was great - he made it on to the DVD.
Matt: My all-time favourite was the person who had to run back to their university lab during the interval to feed some culture, and so they featured from their lab after the interval - their dedication to our show or to science, whatever the case, that is amazing!
Steve: The guy who still sends us faxes as well, that's pretty amazing.
Matt: That's still going, too!
Helen: Jeremy Faxman!
Matt: I swear it's a team of people!
Your infinite DVD extra is an interesting and mind-boggling take on the baffling phenomenon of unboxing videos. How long did it take to set that one up, because the timing was critical?
Matt: Well, y'know I'm afraid how that was done is a trade secret - that's commercially sensitive! As the first people to ever generate an "infinite" unboxing video, I've always wanted to do this - like for ages, I've gone "Guys, what if we did an unboxing video of the thing, where we play the unboxing the video as part of the..."
Helen: ...And I have always said, "No, that's way too much work!"
Matt: And even in terms of producing a DVD, just getting around the DVD authoring issues of having to have the entire DVD before you even film the extra is like... the negotiations with our supply chain is, y'know, tedious but amazing.
Helen: I never want to live that again!
Matt: And the technical details of how it's done? We are enjoying people trying to work it out. To be honest, there are ways of doing it which would have been easier, but we wanted to do it in such a way that it would be a challenge to reverse engineer it. And so that is a little competition, the prize is, er, learning! So, if people want to have a go, try and work out how we did our infinitely recursive unboxing special feature.
Helen: Definitely, I have no regrets. I'm glad we did it and I'm glad we never have to do it again!
Tell us a bit more about the 200 floppy disks you mentioned earlier.
Helen: 227 now! They have been artisan hand-crafted by a man called John in Bristol, who chopped the entire show into 227 30-second chunks, approximately. Compressed them slightly less than HD.
Matt: We were torn about using, a) an historically accurate codec, like, "Are we gonna Cinepak this?" or, b) should we do it in a modern playable codec. And we went for modern compression, so you get 30 seconds at near HD - it's better than SD.
Helen: It's actually better than SD - you can just transfer it on to your laptop, or play it directly off the disk, which I wouldn't recommend as it stalls halfway through, because of the nature of the disk! If you buy the floppy disk version you get sent a randomly-selected 30-second chunk, of which there are only, y'know... it's one show cut into 227 bits - there aren't multiple disks! But you do get to download the whole show; so you can watch the whole thing! We've already had people trying to find the next disk up and the next disk down - people have started to receive their disks and they're saying on Twitter, "I've got #150 - who's got #151 and #149?"
Matt: We should say from a usability point of view, we've taken out the write-protect tab, but if you want to re-use the floppy, as it's re-writeable, you put a little bit of tape over that, you've got 1.3MB of storage!
Helen: Well, the next thing we're doing is we're carrying on with An Evening of Unnecessary Detail, which is what we use to create the material to then create our next tour, so we won't be doing a big tour like Full Frontal Nerdity, Just For Graphs, You Can't Polish a Nerd - we won't be doing that for 18 months. We'll need to use our new material nights to develop new material. But we are creating a...
Matt: We've done a podcast! To fill the void between seasons of Domestic Science on Radio 4, we've decided to do a podcast of Unnecessary Detail, where it'll be, I mean it's our standard approach - we're gonna take things that we think haven't been discussed in sufficient detail, and we're gonna be those people to discuss them in sufficient detail!
Helen: That'll be coming out towards the end of this year or beginning of next year, with lots of really fun guests.