Bay Area Science Festival’s BAHFest has audience rolling in their seats

Columnist
Graduate Division

Why do we sleep? Why do cats sprint around the room randomly? At the first BAHFest West, six scientists defended ridiculous hypotheses answering these and other questions before a panel of judges. The verdict: scientists are excellent comedians! 

The BAHFest West, deciphered as the Festival of Bad Ad Hoc Hypotheses, took place the evening of Oct. 25 at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco before a sold-out crowd of popcorn-eating science lovers. 

BAHFest was originally held at MIT during the Cambridge Science Festival in October 2013. In this science-comedy fusion event, several “brave speakers present well-argued and thoroughly researched but completely incorrect evolutionary theory” (www.bahfest.com). These speakers were judged on force of science, artistry, parsimony and strength of defense. The event was an immediate success, and came back this year in double force with BAHFest East and BAHFest West. 

Kishore Hari, Bay Area Science Fair (BASF) director, said beforehand that this was the event he was most excited for this year. Clearly his excitement was shared by others, because the event sold out in advance. BAHFest embodies the BASF’s major themes: “blurring the lines between science and culture,” and “putting more scientists in front of an audience and just letting them interact.” 

Judging by the huge turnout, buzzing energy, raucous laughter and applause, BAHFest West was a huge success and will surely return to the BASF next year. Not only did BAHFest achieve the goal of combining science and comedy, but it did so with an ease and flair as if it had been an established style of theatre. Not once during the night did any speaker feel awkward, dry, or inaccessible. This is an impressive feat for a novel genre of entertainment. The organizers, hosts, judges, and contestants were all excellent speakers, quick on their feet, and very funny, which are exactly the qualities needed to make science more accessible to the public. In the words of co-host Zach Weinersmith: “We like your terrible ideas. We hope they turn into real ones.”

The energetic hosts of BAHFest West were Zach Weinersmith, cartoonist of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal (SMBC), and his wife, Kelly Weinersmith, a graduate student in parasitology at UC Davis. The three judges were Phil Plait, a popular science blogger also known as The Bad Astronomer; Dr. Elizabeth Iorns, an assistant professor at the University of Miami studying breast cancer; and Dr. Andrew Sih, a professor at UC Davis studying behavioral ecology.

The night began with a keynote address from Matt Inman, cartoonist of The Oatmeal, who used a cartoon presentation on Jibbers Crabst, a fictional god living among Saturn’s rings, to claim that “trying to use science to prove the existence of god is like trying to find your car keys using Bing.” At times R-rated, his presentation was an opening act that set the mood for a night of side-splitting and clever humor. 

A shout-out is also in order for the two ASL (American Sign Language) translators, who at several points during the evening received separate applause from the audience for their comic gestures.

The first presenter was Terry Johnson, a bioengineering lecturer at UC Berkeley. He proposed the hypothesis that dietary deception is a behavior that evolved as a selective advantage. Using differential equations, he showed that the human population can be divided into “cheaters” and “suckers.” The cheaters generate anxiety about certain foods, deceiving the population into avoiding them through dieting, thus increasing their availability. Furthermore, the cheaters have evolved a self-deceptive behavior that results in their eating more than they perceive. With more calorie intake, they have an evolutionary advantage and are more reproductively fit. 

In response to Johnson being asked how he is self-deceptive, he said, “I have been a vegetarian for about twenty years… I think.” At this point, the audience’s raucous cheering and applause drowned out any further explanation.

Up next was Catherine Hofler, Director of Research at Emerald Therapeutics. Her research question: “Why do cats randomly sprint around the room with no apparent reason?” She presented an elaborate hypothesis involving heartbeats, coevolution with humans, crazy cat ladies and human reproductive rates, all leading to the conclusion that if cats lived too long, there would be a “cat-astrophe.” Thus, cats have evolved a behavior that purposefully increases heart rate and limits their “Goldilocks” lifespan to 12-15 years, keeping both human and cat populations in check. 

Alex Lee, a scientist for the State of California and a docent at the Cal Academy of Sciences, presented another coevolution hypothesis: that goldfish evolved to teach mortality to human children. He claimed that goldfish have the optimal level of charisma – a range from naked mole rat to fluffy kitten – that allows them to impress on human children their own mortality without traumatizing them. This ability makes goldfish an important pet, and has allowed them to spread to all the continents of the world except Antarctica. He further claimed that his hypothesis could save endangered species: for example, lowering the panda’s high level of charisma could improve their reproductive success. 

In a stroke of improvisational genius, Plait took issue with a graph that Lee presented in which the spread of goldfish around the 17th century marked an increase in human population: “I’m concerned about confounding factors… have you considered the effect of Pepperidge Farm Goldfish crackers, and if not, have you gone to them to sponsor this research?” 

Indre Viskontas, who has a PhD in neuroscience and Master of Music in opera and is affiliated with both UCSF and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, asked, “Have you ever wondered why your hand is shaped like a turkey?” Under her Handshake Hypothesis, humans evolved opposable thumbs but not opposable toes, as other primates have, in order to create the perfect interlocking handshake. The microbiome of the human palm is transferred during handshakes, she continued, and thus this seemingly friendly gesture is actually our most aggressive weapon. “What my theory lacks in data, I make up for in terms of the breadth with which it explains all of our different behaviors.” One such behavior is the tendency to pick one’s nose or ears, and the tendency to be secretive about it – one wouldn’t want one’s enemies to see that one was colonizing one’s hands with bacteria in preparation for a handshake. The rest of the evening involved several fist bumps in place of handshakes.

Shamus Roeder, an undergraduate student at the University of Iowa, outlined the Smelly Grandfather Hypothesis. He claimed that the smell associated with older humans is in fact an evolutionary mimicry of the striped polecat’s smell, which repels predators. 

The last speaker was Sarah Hird, a postdoctoral fellow at UC Davis studying phylogenomics, who addressed the question: “Why do mammals sleep?” Hird proposed that sleep is needed to deal with stressors, in particular, “Our thoughts, and our feelings, and definitely our personalities, cannot be tolerated 24 hours a day. So my hypothesis is that sleep evolved as a mechanism to remove us from these stressors that we cannot otherwise escape from: our lives, and ourselves” (wild applause). 

Hird's Model of Basic Satisfaction, or “how satisfied an organism is with its life,” ranged from self-acceptance to self-hatred, and accounts for the number of hours a mammal must “allocate of their day to being unconscious.” The giraffe and elephant, who sleep the least, are mammals with the highest levels of self-acceptance as a result of their quality of life; they live on the beautiful African Serengeti and their diets consist of organic foods. As for the koala, who lives in beautiful eucalyptus forests but sleeps 22 hours a day: “their diet is exclusively poison and poop” – referring to eucalyptus toxicity and koala mothers feeding their offspring feces to counteract that toxicity. At the end, Sih responded, “Wow. That is genius.”

Combining their scores with decibel meter measurements of audience applause, the judges ruled Hird and her model of mammalian sleep patterns as this year’s BAHFest winner. Her prize included $500 in a briefcase, a signed SMBC Science book, and a 3D-printed statue of a shrugging Charles Darwin.

The entire competition was recorded and can be viewed on the BAHFest YouTube channel. The BASF continues with events for all ages through Saturday, November 1.