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Stand-up comedy and science collide at BAHFest

Amateur and professional scientists debut non-sequitur theories

This past Saturday, students and visitors filled MIT’s Kresge Auditorium for the third annual Festival of Bad Ad Hoc Hypotheses. Created by Zachary Weinersmith, author of the Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal webcomic, BAHFest featured the outlandish theories of six speakers who competed to give the best argued, most nonsensical scientific presentation.

A panel of four judges graded each presenter’s science, performance, and ability to defend his or her thesis against questions. This year, the panel of judges included Max Tegmark, author of Our Mathematical Universe, and Rosemary Mosco, creator of Bird and Moon: Science and Nature Cartoons.

Each presenter disguised his or her act as a scholarly lecture, abusing figures and statistics to turn correlations to causations. The lecturers not only had to make their hypotheses understandable, but also had to endow their presentation with comedic timing. Each presentation was followed by questions from the judges, which needed to be answered with the right amount of science and absurdity.

Abby Howard, the keynote speaker, began the evening by presenting a theory of her own creation. “The Negative Repercussions of the Repopulation of Deer in the Lower United States” demonstrated the rise of violent deer population through carefully documented research. Using statistical data and YouTube videos, Howard identified a personality shift in America’s deer. She claimed that deer in the U.S. have lived without natural predators for too long, creating a generation of aggressive and obnoxious animals. Among her proposed solutions, Howard suggested attaching knives to MIT’s cheetah and setting the robot loose on the belligerent deer.

The six following speakers came prepared with equally zany theories. Robert Townsend, a student from the University of Waterloo, spoke on the importance of “The Role of Alcohol in Human Evolution.” In Townsend’s reasoning, alcohol provides valuable calories at the small expense of lost motor function. In order to minimize alcohol’s negatives effects, evolution selected for those who could successfully survive a night of alcoholic social events. In Townsend’s model, this created a positive feedback loop in which the most socially adept drunk humans were best equipped to acquire yet more alcohol. The audience loudly applauded Townsend’s proof that alcohol creates better students, as can be seen in the prevalence of drinking on college campuses.

Other well-received presenters included Jacob Falkovich, who identified sleepwalking as an evolutionarily favorable trait. According to Falkovich, those who suffer from somnambulism (sleepwalking) are better prepared for endurance hunting, and make better mates. The most attractive of our early ancestors were those who never stopped working out, even while asleep. He connects the rise of unhealthy living with the rise of sleepwalking, suggesting that sleepwalking now serves as nature’s way of forcing humans to exercise. When asked by Tegmark how college students remained fit while sleeping so little, Falkovich quipped that perhaps Tegmark could find students “sleepwalking through his lecture.”

Some presenters, such as Daniel Harris, kept their theories simple. Harris studied the heartbeats of humans in stressful situations. He proposed that humans with “funky” beating hearts could not resist dancing under stress, and thus died when confronted by adrenaline inducing predators. Other theories twisted and turned, swinging from one tenuous premise to the next. Sanjay Kulkacek began building his hypotheses in an attempt to answer the question, “Why are we disgusted by small dead animals?” He finally concluded that this disgust arose from a natural rejection of cats, which he likened to parasites, who attempt to gain their host’s approval by killing small animals.

At the end of the night, Townsend’s theory of alcoholic evolution was crowned the winner through a combination of judge scoring and audience applause (gauged by a hand-held decibel meter). Zachary Weinersmith himself presented the grand prize, a 3D-printed statue of a skeptical Charles Darwin, complete with an attached speech bubble: “I guess so…?”