Alex Wolfson thinks adding a measure of comedy can improve the way science interacts with the general public.
He’s not alone. The field of science communications has taken off over the past few decades, with experts feeling increasing urgency to get the word out on issues such as runaway climate change. Scientists attend workshops to hone their skills at turning dry research data into digestible talking points for policy makers and the general public.
Alex Wolfson is one of 56 UCLA seniors in environmental science donning black gowns and caps to collect their diplomas on Sunday. Making scientific presentations as entertaining as possible comes naturally to him—he pursues stand-up comedy and scientific discovery with the same passion.
Wolfson believes science and humor can work hand in hand. “For me they’re intertwined because the science stuff is just how I think, so I write comedy sketches that involve actual math and science.”
Trying to make calculus funny might seem a tall order, but basing skits on proven facts aligns with the old comedy axiom “it isn’t funny if it isn’t true.”
For scientists, Wolfson says, making those truths interesting can be a real challenge.
“Scientists do a good job of being scientists but they could do a better job of being communicators and getting people interested in their work–comedy is a cool way to do that.”
Wolfson isn’t alone. Popular stand-up comedian Louis CK riffs on subjects such as food chains and human evolution in his act: “We had a really interesting part of our evolution, we went through an ice age… How did we make it? Some people say it’s because we’re smart. But how do you outwit the earth freezing over?”
Some scientists worry that simplifying complex concepts removes important meaning from data and findings. But Wolfson disagrees. “There are many different ways to present research. The public will pay closer attention and better comprehend important findings if they’re engaging—without altering the core takeaways of the research. And hardcore scientists still appreciate a joke or two.”
Being able to simultaneously pursue comedy and science was the deciding factor for Wolfson when it came to choosing a school. In his freshman year, he co-founded Shenanigans Comedy Club with a few friends. There are now 60 fulltime members performing regular improv shows on campus and in small Westwood venues.
Wolfson rehearsing a skit.
Comedy audiences are renowned for their brutal “make us laugh or get off the stage” attitude, but Wolfson isn’t bothered by having to prove himself. “I’ve gotten better, but I’m aware of how badly I suck, which is good. If you don’t know it, you can’t get better.”
One of his skits, “Eco Unfriendly,” pokes fun at people trying to outdo each other with planet-saving antics. One eco-warrior burns his lawn so it won’t need to be watered, while his neighbor moves into a tent to reduce her carbon footprint.
Wolfson admits to being a bit of a nerd, but that’s part of why he likes environmental science. He said geekiness was common ground for his senior practicum team, which worked with Sequoia National Park officials to identify wildlife corridors for species threatened by climate change and agriculture. The goal was to create routes that can connect fragmented habitats in the San Joaquin Valley to protect animals such as kit foxes.
Alex Wolfson (right) and his fellow practicum team: Paul Barton, Inan Chowdhury, Kaitlyn Heck, Carly Messex, Melissa Rose.
After commencement, Wolfson is heading to Long Beach, where he’s landed a job with a consulting firm, Orion Environmental. The company devises clean-up strategies for contaminated soil and groundwater sites.
Wolfson said he hopes to one day combine both of his passions. In the meantime, he plans to use performing as a way to relax after a hard day at the office. “I’m really going to need comedy when I’m knee deep in toxic goop all day.”