Review: Festival of the Spoken Nerd, You Can’t Polish A Nerd

Midway through the second half of You Can’t Polish A Nerd, Steve Mould neatly encapsulates the show in one line: “It creates images on your oscilloscope. It’s so cool!”

Because of course you have an oscilloscope. And of course you would use it – or failing that, a balloon and a laser to reproduce the visualisations of late-1990s WinAmp.

FotSN is all about celebrating the nerdy. The clue’s in the name, frankly. It’s about using science to do things you’re told you shouldn’t do (like mess around with your microwave). It’s about using maths to do things you probably would never have thought to do (like recreate Escher-esque effects in real time using a spherical camera). And it’s about using music to communicate science in a mischievous and entertaining way (like how radioactive Cornwall is).

The format of the show1 is straightforward: three performers take turns to share something geeky for a few minutes. Helen Arney sings a sciency song (The Elements with a bonus extra verse!). Steve Mould does something experimental (gravitational waves on a lycra sheet!). Matt Parker does some sums (estimating $\pi$ using a pendulum with a pie on it!). And they finish with a semi-improvised big number that rounds everything off.

And it’s a joy! Full of in-jokes and callbacks, full of interplay between the presenters, full of… taking an interesting idea and stretching it until it becomes ridiculous, and then stretching it a bit more.

It has its patchy moments, of course – occasionally someone will get overexcited about the coolness of the thing they’re demonstrating and forget that they’re meant to be demonstrating it, sometimes the back-and-forth doesn’t quite hit home, and sometimes a presenter might decide to sully a beautiful mathematical constant by trying to approximate it with… (shudder) physics.

But that’s all forgivable, even the physics – after all, it’s an inclusive show, and physicists can be nerds too. It’s smart people taking delight in showing off clever things, and the atmosphere is like it would be at someone’s flat when a guest says “did you know [x]?” and someone else says “that can’t be true” and the first says “there’s only one way to settle this – with SCIENCE!”2

I think it’s fantastic that the internet has made it possible for such a show to spring up, and to sell out venues around the country. Support it. There should be more like it.

You Can’t Polish A Nerd is available at the FotSN website

* Disclosure: I was sent a free preview of the show.


Colin is a Weymouth maths tutor, author of several Maths For Dummies books and A-level maths guides. He started Flying Colours Maths in 2008. He lives with an espresso pot and nothing to prove.

  1. as opposed to the format of the release, which is either download, DVD or floppy disk – obviously []
  2. That’s what happens at parties, right? []


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