What’s the difference between a supernova and a fork?

Francesca Chadha-Day is a Junior Research Fellow at the University of Cambridge, studying particle astrophysics and axion phenomenology. She is also a comedian. Here, Fran writes for us about her experience of stand-up comedy.
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My first stand-up comedy performance was an unfortunate side effect of a promise I made to myself. I used to be an atrocious public speaker and, at the start of my PhD, vowed to do something about it. I promised myself I would say yes to every public speaking opportunity that came my way for the next few months. I deeply regretted this promise when I opened an e-mail from Bright Club – a comedy night where academics do stand-up about their research. According to my self-imposed rules, I had to do it.

Francesca Chadha-Day holding a microphone
credit: STEVE CROSS

For the next month, most of my free time was devoted to writing and meticulously memorising my set. I was terrified. When my time on stage finally arrived, it was 20 seconds of blinding fear, followed by eight minutes of pure joy (and relief). Making a room full of people laugh is absolutely brilliant.

My first set asked and answered the question “what do theoretical particle physicists do all day?” My answer is that we spend our time figuring out what the universe would look like if the laws of physics were just a little bit different than what we currently think. For example, what if there were new particles, new interactions between particles, or even new dimensions? Comparing these calculations to data helps us discover what the laws of physics really are. In other words, we write fan fiction for the universe. This first short set formed the basis of my first solo show, Physics Fan Fiction, which I took to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2016.

I believe that science comedy is a great addition to the landscape of public engagement with science. It appeals to people who might not want to come to a more traditional science talk, and it’s a perfect medium for communicating how science works. Rather than focusing only on the facts and figures of physics, my comedy explores the scientific method, the challenges of making progress in particle physics, and day to day life as a theoretical physicist. I even have a set on quantum field theory.

This kind of science communication really appeals to me because I have never been that excited by how large space is, or how fast the protons can go at the Large Hadron Collider. I am excited by the fact that the laws of physics which make a star explode into a supernova are the same laws of physics that make celery. The immense variety of phenomena that arise from the interactions of 18 or so fundamental particles is what physics is all about. This is the subject of my recent show “10 key differences between a supernova explosion and a fork”.

Writing a stand-up comedy show is a highly creative endeavour – and theoretical physics is just as creative. My creative process is more or less the same, whether I am writing a set, thinking up a new method to discover dark matter, or even debugging some code. For me, it’s all about asking stupid questions, and then doing my best to answer them. “What are the main differences between a supernova and a fork?” is a pretty stupid question. Einstein’s question, “how come the speed of light is a constant in Maxwell’s equations” might well have seemed stupid initially, but it led to one of the most beautiful and revolutionary theories in physics.

So, what are the key differences between a supernova and a fork? The first difference is that a supernova lasts for a few weeks, whereas forks are stable more or less indefinitely. The last is that no-one knows what happens if you put a supernova in a microwave.

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