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From Laboratory News: 22-23, November 2005.

Finding the Proverbial Fun in Science

It's odd how humourless scientists seem to the public. In the media you never see a scientist laugh.

That's not how we see it, of course; wit and spontaneous humour are part of our daily dialogues. Scientists tell some of the best jokes. Technicians have a better line of spontaneous humour than many professional comics. Laughter is part of our lives in science (and I am not just thinking of how the Research Councils respond to grant applications, either).

There have always been famous humorists in the discipline. Tom Lehrer began his career with a PhD in mathematics at Harvard before becoming professionally funny. Stephen Leacock was professor of political science at McGill, and one of the most prolific humorous writers of all, and even R V Jones, Churchill's adviser on scientific intelligence, published a paper on the 'theory of practical jokes' in Bulletin of the Institute of Physics. Jones recorded how R W Wood once cleaned a telescope by pushing his cat through it.

In more modern times, Harry Hill and Graeme Garden qualified in medicine; Jo Brand as a nurse. And presentations by the outgoing President of the Royal Society, Lord May, are among the many science lectures that are enlivened by shafts of wit.

One of the best humorous lecturers is Sir Colin Spedding, whose use of proverbs has become legendary. Ask if the conference tea-break might be postponed, and Spedding with look at you over his glasses and remind you of an African saying: 'Never stand between the hippopotamus and the water'.

Spedding has studied proverbs and their uses for decades, and draws attention to the way we use them to imply more than we know. "We mutter 'there's no smoke without fire'," he says, "when we want to raise suspicions without having any real grounds for doing so."

He has a special penchant for contradictions in proverbs. He points out that, although we know that 'he who hesitates is lost', there's much to be learned from Bogovich's Law, which wisely states 'he who hesitates is probably right.'

"Impulsive people are encouraged by 'it's the early bird catches the worm'", says Spedding. "But think a moment - it's the second mouse that gets the cheese!"

This has become the title of his latest book, published this week. His refreshingly witty book looks at the origins of proverbs (which many books have done before, of course) but - uniquely - shows how they may be used in lectures, after-dinner speeches and toasts. As a chairman or president of many organisations, he has used them to great effect in lectures and speeches for forty years.

"I use them for two main purposes, both of which are important," he says. "First, to reinforce a point that I want to make, and secondly to introduce humour in a succinct quotation that, because it is brief, does not waste the audience's time. In this way, a proverb can raise a smile during a complex lecture."

The effect is to revive flagging concentration, lighten the content of the talk and, if the spacing is right, to have the audience waiting for the next one. "The value of humour is widely recognised and proverbs can provide it in an enjoyable form," he says. "Humour does not merely entertain, it defuses tensions and, especially, confrontation."

He has used proverbs to defuse touchy situations - like debates on animal welfare - where he elucidates the counter-productive nature of entrenched positions with a Chinese proverb: 'It is false economy to burn down your house in order to inconvenience your mother-in-law.'

Audiences recognise that the exact wording and the timing are crucial and they welcome hearing familiar proverbs again. "It's rather like meeting old friends," says Spedding. "I often have requests, before a talk, to include a particular favourite."

He recalls using a Danish proverb: 'You will walk for a long time behind a wild duck, before you pick up an ostrich feather'. "A woman came up to me afterwards and said she came from Denmark. She told me 'It is much funnier in Danish!' I said to her, 'Not to me it isn't!'"

Spedding also likes proverbs which prick the bubble of pomposity as people rise through the ranks. He cites an Ethiopian saying: 'The higher the baboon climbs, the more he shows his . . .' and here he breaks off. "I usually say 'his less attractive side', but as you can imagine, the original is far more robust."

What of the origins of sayings? "They usually derive from quotations, used over long periods of time until the origins have been forgotten. Once in a while you hear a new saying which I think will, eventually, become a proverb. Sir Crispin Tickell has one I particularly like: 'The mind, like the parachute, is best kept open when in use.' I'll bet that is regarded as a proverb within a decade or two."

His book is a selection of his favourite 200 out of the thousands that exist, based on the few that he has found useful in compiling his lectures. He has illustrated many of them with cartoons he drew specially for the book.

"Sometimes I think that proverbs are like people, you know," says Spedding with a characteristic twinkle in his eye. "Nobody is completely useless; they can always serve as a bad example."

Brian J Ford

Copies of The second mouse gets the cheese: proverbs and their uses, can be obtained from Rothay House, Mayfield Road, Eastrea, Cambridge PE7 2AY.

Order on the internet at www.rothayhouse.co.uk - price 14.95 (hardback), 9.95 (paperback). UK postage and packing 1.