Happy Birthday, Mr Feynman

How do you celebrate the wonderful curiosity of a man who was not only a Nobel Prize winning physicist, but also a bongo player, safe cracker, incredible teacher, and on the commission that investigated the Challenger space shuttle disaster? If you’re Robin Ince, the answer is to celebrate what would have been his 95th birthday by organising not only a lecture on the physics behind the diagrams he created, but also a variety show with a wonderfully eclectic mix of performances. I was lucky enough to be part of that show on Saturday.

I’ve been to the Bloomsbury before a few times, but always on the other side of the curtain, watching from the audience. In fact, at one point I was in the audience for another of Robin’s showcase events, “Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People”. Being about to go on stage where I’d seen professional comedians and science communicators before was initially a somewhat nerve-wracking experience. I started to calm down a bit while talking physics with Marcus Chown and Jonny Berliner backstage, which probably just goes to show how geeky I am, physics not exactly being well known as a relaxation technique before stage shows. I then spent the first half of the show watching from the wings, as I didn’t want to miss any of the acts – the quality was uniformly high, whether they were demonstrating the principle of least action, singing a song inspired by a letter Feynman wrote to his late wife, or hula hooping to model atoms. The energy and joy of the performers and, judging from the responses, the audience, helped me settle down over the course of the first half, to the point where I was no longer quite so nervous. The relaxing music that accompanied images of the aurora, thanks to Sound of Science (who blogged about the event here) probably also helped.

After the break it was quickly my turn to go on. A quick introduction from Robin and I took to the stage, picked up the mic, and began. Like many stages, it’s hard to see many of the audience because of the lights, but you can tell that they are there. So it was a relief when my opening joke went down well, and I set off extolling the wonders of quantum physics and how irritated I got at people who believed it to be nonsense. Partway through my brain stumbled, and the words that had been flowing up until then dried up – every performer’s nightmare. I started to panic, but took advantage of my improv experience to quash my fears inside my head and take a deep breath, knowing that I’d rehearsed enough to know what I was supposed to be saying. Thankfully, the words came back, and I was able to carry on, building up momentum as I flew through the rest of the set, about how we understand transistors thanks to quantum mechanics, and of our tentative steps into the worlds of nanotechnology (including IBM’s stop motion video, ‘A Boy and His Atom’) and quantum computation (including this paper featuring a quantum circuit that can factorise the extremely large number of 15).

My job done, I was able to relax with a drink and the rest of the show, from Matt Parker‘s domino computer to a set of experiments by the band and culminating in a bongo vs tap-dancer showdown. I really had a smile on my face for pretty much the entire show, it all went so well. I could go on and talk about all of the acts (apologies to those I’ve missed here), but I think I should leave it here and just encourage everyone to go to Youtube and watch Feynman explain so much so simply, so you can understand how a night that taught people about particle and quantum physics as well as celebrating the beauty of the world in images and music was, in my opinion, a fitting tribute.

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