Alumnus Jeroen Baert effortlessly injects self-mockery and sarcasm into the world of computers. Because where science and humour intersect, he feels like a fish in the water: ‘I’m not a top scientist and I’m not the best stand-up comedian, but somewhere in between there’s a place for me.’
‘Before there was ever a computer in the house, I was obsessed with dinosaurs,’ laughs Jeroen Baert. ‘And I've only had two obsessions so far.’ So, after switching out dinosaurs for computers, his choice of study was made fairly quickly. Although he still had some doubts about computer science, Jeroen, on the advice of his high school teachers, did indeed choose to pursue a civil engineering degree in computer science. And he is still happy with that choice to this day, ‘Engineering sciences starts very broadly. The emphasis isn’t on programming, for example, but on the beauty of algorithms. Although I really wanted more computer subjects at first, I did learn to discover and appreciate that bigger picture.’
That Jeroen would choose computer science again doesn’t mean that his engineering studies went smoothly. Student life in the early years of his bachelor consisted largely of excessive studying. ‘It almost became a running joke when someone asked if I would have a drink in [a name of a well-known café on the Oude Markt]. And I didn't know which café that was. Because I was constantly studying, I was just not available.’ Jeroen thought going home during the weekend was a waste of time, so he often stayed in his student room to continue working diligently. ‘Those were difficult years; I spent almost a hundred percent of my time in a student room. That’s how I quickly became a real Leuvenaar.’
The cliché of "a computer scientist who never sees sunlight and eats pizza in his basement" was already pretty well shattered during my student days.
In the end, Jeroen found his way into that turbulent student life. ‘My first really indulgent evening in Leuven was only in my third year. That was when studying started to go smoothly and everything became one big party. The contrast with those early years is almost unbelievable.’ Most of Jeroen's student activities had a cultural aspect. He participated in the VTK Revue, an annual stage spectacle for and by engineering students. ‘I found an outlet in theatre. And that was also true for many of my fellow students; the cliché of "a computer scientist who never sees sunlight and eats pizza in his basement" was already pretty well shattered during my student days.’
The Aldi of Lieven Scheires
Out of curiosity, Jeroen joined the Leuven improvisation company Preparee. ‘I had never heard of improvisational theatre before,' says Jeroen. ‘What madness that someone would dare to do that on stage, I thought.’
Although he didn’t consider himself a natural performer at the time, Jeroen slowly discovered that improvisation suited him very well. And that background in improvisational theatre is now his great salvation on stage. ‘I think pure improvisation is the best thing to do. As an MC or the one who warms up the audience, I don't actually prepare anything in advance. And that’s good, because I’m a lazy bum,’ laughs Jeroen.
In getting on stage more and more he eventually bumped into Lieven Scheire. ‘I had to introduce Lieven when he came to speak at VTK. I remember that I made the point that Lieven never finished his physics studies.’ During that performance, Jeroen was noticed by Lieven Scheire’s manager. ‘It always ended up with me being called in to perform in places where Lieven was too expensive. At that time I was a bit like the ALDI version of Lieven Scheire,’ Jeroen laughs.
Using humor to lighten the load
After his studies, Jeroen earned a scholarship to work as a doctoral student in the Computer Graphics research group. ‘I hardly dare say it, but what most students think is hell, I really liked. Such as when I was doing my thesis, just getting to work on that undisturbed for a whole year. So the idea of a PhD, a thesis that lasts for years, really appealed to me.’
Jeroen effortlessly combined that academic position with his stage ambitions, because there’s a place where those two worlds come together. ‘The scientific facts that I remember best are always brought up in conjunction with a fascinating story or a good joke.’ With that idea in mind, Jeroen wants to make science and technology more accessible, but above all he wants to elicit wonder. ‘The fact that a smartphone works and works quickly already proves how far we’ve come. What we all can do today in terms of technology is a miracle in and of itself. I think that’s very important to pass along.’
Science communication with a touch of humour; according to Jeroen that only works in combination with the necessary authenticity and self-mockery. ‘Why does Lieven Scheire work? Because he’s genuinely enthusiastic about what he says. That’s contagious.’ He received the best advice about this from Fokke van der Meulen from the comedy café The Joker, who said ‘“As soon as you step onto a stage, the audience is ready to pass judgement on you.” And when I get up on stage, people immediately see a computer scientist or a nerd. I can't start talking about "my motorcycle trip through the Balkans". People simply won't believe that.’
Computers in the fight against corona
Since his time as a doctoral student, Jeroen regularly appears in the media as an expert in computer science. According to Jeroen, a successful media appearance means that the audience gets the core message. ‘You only get five minutes on television. You could never explain a complex problem one hundred percent correctly in such a short time. So I really had to learn to take serious shortcuts. And afterwards someone will always say, "Hey Jeroen, that wasn’t completely right, was it?". But when communicating science to a wide audience, the art lies in simplifying difficult matters.’
You only get five minutes on television. You could never explain a complex problem one hundred percent correctly in such a short time. So I really had to learn to take serious shortcuts.
For example, Jeroen will sometimes clarify in the newspaper or on the radio how gaming computers can be used in the fight against corona. ‘I happily keep my opinion to myself about the facemask issue,’ Jeroen laughs. But when it comes to the privacy of corona apps or the computing power of computers, he likes to share his expertise. ‘In the search for a vaccine, there are millions – and that’s putting it mildly – of places where a virus can be attacked and substances that can perform the attack. Trying out all these options manually is impossible.’
That's where computers come into play. ‘With supercomputers – or home computers from all over the world – you can simulate all those possibilities to find the few interesting trees in a huge forest of options.’ The data obtained then goes to scientists who use it to determine which avenues are the most interesting to pursue manually. Once downloaded, using computer power is a passive process. ‘The moment your computer is on, even if you’re not actively using it, the computer processor starts calculating automatically.’
In the future
Jeroen also speaks passionately about computers during the monthly Nerdland podcast. Together with Lieven Scheire and eight ‘fellow nerds’, he takes a look back on the most significant news in the world of science. Entomologist Peter Berx reveals how insects can contribute to forensic research, while electrical engineering professor Marian Verhelst explains the practice of proctoring students during an online exam. ‘The charm of Nerdland is that such a wide variety of things are covered in one podcast. Lieven’s brought together people from completely different walks of life, which creates an interesting dynamic,’ says Jeroen. ‘The panel members are really just ten enthusiasts chatting about something they can't keep quiet about, so it never feels like work.’
The panel members are really just ten enthusiasts chatting about something they can't keep quiet about, so it never feels like work.
During his weekly radio show ‘In the future ... ’ for Qmusic, Jeroen explains bizarre, science-fiction-like predictions. ‘This ranges from an experiment with dream manipulation to an early scientific finding about robots. Now, for example, I don't think we'll be directing our own dreams anytime soon, but it's interesting to philosophize about that.’ And that happens at Qmusic in a very different way than at Nerdland. ‘Discoursing on “the mating behavior of a larva” is, of course, not possible on the radio; that’s really science communication for a very wide audience."
Jeroen prefers not to make crazy predictions about his own future. ‘I hope most of all that the interest in humour and science persists. I don't think that interest is going to disappear anytime soon, but it is a small concern that I struggle with.’ So Jeroen sticks to cautious plans for the future. ‘Nerdland is getting bigger, and maybe I’ll write a book someday, but for now I have my hands full with the combination of my two passions.’