DesignInterview

Helen Arney and Steve Mould on being nerds

Helen Arney, Steve Mould and Matt Parker are Festival of the Spoken Nerd, a comedy show about science. Tanya Combrinck finds out what they'll be bringing to Generate, and what it means to them to be nerds

.net: Without spoiling things, can you give us any hints about the kinds of nerdery you're bringing to Generate?
Steve Mould: I'm bringing some live experiments and a handful of fun science hacks.
Helen Arney: As the group's resident "Voice of an Angle", I'll do a few geeky songs, possibly with live backing maths from Matt...
Steve: …who will probably bring his favourite spreadsheet or something.
Helen: Don't underestimate how interesting Matt's spreadsheets are! He has some real doozies.

.net: What are your nerd credentials?
Steve: Helen and I both have physics degrees, but more recently I've been doing science experiments on TV, from making flames dance on Blue Peter to freeze-drying food on The One Show.
Helen: I've toured my sciencey songs all over the UK with Brian Cox and Robin Ince. I'm the centre section in a Venn diagram of D:Ream and Radio 4.
Steve: Matt is the UK's premiere…
Helen: …by which we mean, the UK's only…
Steve: ...stand-up mathematician.
Helen: He's such a nerd, he's not even here for this interview. He's locked in his room, putting the finishing touches to his first book "Things to Make and Do in the Fourth Dimension". It's about maths.
Steve: And spreadsheets.
Helen: But mostly maths.

.net: Who are your nerd heroes, and why?
Steve: For me it's Richard Feynman - a brilliant thinker and an amazing communicator - and Albert Einstein - when it comes to unintuitive science nothing beats relativity and quantum mechanics. Einstein was a pioneer in both fields. He was the best at thinking the unthinkable.
Helen: Alan Turing and Ada Lovelace are two of mine - they lived nearly a century apart but both had a vision of the future. In their own ways they both imagined that computers would one day become more than just numbercrunchers and perhaps - given the right inputs - they could appear creative, or even intelligent.

.net: When did you realise you were a nerd?
Steve: I can't remember a time I didn't love science and maths. When did I realise that made me a nerd? Probably when I realised it was something to be proud of!
Helen: I was the only person in my GCSE physics class that could get any of our experiments working. Nerd was my middle name, my first name, last name… pretty much just my name in school. Years later I realised that my experiments were only successful because I was curious enough, and bloody-minded enough, to fiddle around until I got them going. Being a nerd is all about attitude - anyone can be a nerd about any subject they like, you just need to be curious and determined. And wear cool glasses. That last one is optional.

.net: Do you code? If so, when and how did you get into it? Which languages do you know?
Steve: You're going to mock me for this, I'm pretty good at VBA because of an Access database I developed for a recruitment company! I also know a bit of JavaScript, and PHP. (Who doesn't?)
Helen:

>10 PRINT "Mock Steve";

>20 GOTO 10

My first computer ran BBC BASIC. It took three days to write a programme that could do anything at all interesting. One missing semi-colon on the first day would render the whole thing useless. Many happy holidays were spent debugging. By "happy" I mean "horrendous". Coding is a lot more fun now that those BASIC days are over.

.net: What was your first experience of the internet, and how old were you at the time?
Steve: I didn't have the internet until I went to uni. Back then, I was doing searches with Alta Vista and checking my email in a terminal window.
Helen: Same here! I'm so jealous of kids these days who have the internet while they're still at school… I used to have to type out sections of our family's encyclopedia if I wanted to cheat at my homework. Now it's all just http://wikipedia.com and CTRL+C, CTRL+V, voila!

.net: How has the web or online culture influenced your nerdy life?
Steve: It's turned me into a tweaker and a lifehacker. I want to find tech solutions to all the problems in my life… I get disconnection anxiety and I'm always completely lost when my phone battery dies.
Helen: It's definitely encouraged my latent nerdiness to flourish into full on Nerdism. It doesn't matter how niche my interest in science comedy appears to be, there are hundreds of thousands of people online who love what I do, love the same things as me, and love to share them too. The old stereotype of nerds as anti-social loners simply doesn't ring true any more, there are huge nerdy communities out there. Mainstream media just haven't caught up yet. Probably because we're all too busy having a good time online to tell them that being nerdy is the new awesome!

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