Highland Park comedian tackles the humor in science

By Jennifer Fisher, Pioneer Press via the Chicago Tribune

For the first time in his long career as a comedian, Aaron Freeman’s jokes are being fact-checked.

“I’ve never had anyone fact-check my jokes,” says the Highland Park resident. “It adds an extra degree of difficulty.”

An extra degree of difficulty, however, comes with the territory in Freeman’s new role as artist-in-residence for the Chicago Council on Science & Technology, a regional consortium on science and technology education and policy.

What exactly does an artist-in-residence do?

“My job is to try to find ways to talk about science that will make people laugh out loud without doing violence to the actual science,” Freeman explains.

The three-month residency, which started Jan. 1, involves interviews with local scientists and promotion of science research from around Chicago. Freeman draws on his background as an NPR commentator and former host of WTTW’s Chicago Tomorrow, a show that covered science and health. He’s also hosted the public television documentary, “Skokie, Invaded But Not Conquered,” which won an Emmy award, and has performed with The Second City and Goodman Theatre.

Among Freeman’s work for the project so far is an interview with S. Jay Olshansky, a researcher at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Olshansky determined that presidents do not age any more quickly than the rest of the population — even though they may appear to go gray faster.

“I was watching TV when Barack Obama came in to Chicago for his 50th birthday, and there were some people on TV saying, you know, he looks a whole lot older, and my understanding is is that you age at twice the normal rate while you’re in office,” Olshansky told Freeman. “And I said, well I don’t know that to be true and I work in the field of aging.”

If presidents really age at twice the normal rate while in office, they should die sooner than the average person in their era. But when Olshansky researched the lifespans of presidents, he discovered that wasn’t the case — perhaps because they tend to have better access to health care than the average person.

There may be some truth to the idea that presidents age faster, however. Olshansky said it’s possible presidents go gray faster and get wrinkles more quickly while in office, due to the intense stress of the job.

More seriously, Freeman has also discussed racism in science with Herman White, a senior physicist at Fermilab who was among the first African-American physicists at the national particle physics laboratory.

White described one instance where he was giving a talk on an equation he had developed when an audience member started grilling him, asking White if he knew how certain particles decayed.

“This is kind of unusual because I know he’s well trained and he must know this,” White told Freeman. “I said, ‘Is that some attempt to embarrass me, if I don’t give you the right answer? Is that what we’re doing?’ And of course it got very quiet in that meeting.”

On Freeman’s to-do list as artist-in-residence is a video on the neurobiology of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and coverage of a poetry slam at Fermilab, edited down to “2:10 very funny minutes.”

The Chicago Council on Science and Technology, known as C2ST, was formed in 2006 as a consortium of scientists. When it began, it served as a way for scientists to meet each other, but since then its mission has expanded to making the broader public more aware of science and technology in the area.

That’s where a comedian can help, Freeman says.

“So many of us approach science with anxiety. We’ve had our normal scientific curiosity beaten out of us,” he says. “But … the assumption is that when you see a comedian is talking about anything, you’re going to be able to have fun.”