Interview - Prof Brian Cox and Robin Ince
The two minds discuss science and comedy ahead of their Uncaged Monkeys show
Robin Ince Am I wrong to sometimes be scared of science idiots? I presented a show about Schrödinger’s cat on Radio 4 [Schrödinger’s Quantum Kittens] and the BBC received complaints that it was broadcasting shows promoting killing cats in boxes.
Brian Cox There are many ways of answering this. One is to bemoan the state of our education system. Another is to criticise our arts and classics-dominated political class who appear to be comfortable admitting that they know little or nothing of this new-fangled science that corduroy-bedecked comedians and academics keep banging on about. Civilisation, in their eyes, is built on an appreciation of Latin, not reason. But my favoured response would be: ‘you bunch of utter nob ends’.
RI I tried to suggest once that science was possibly more important than painting, then people accused me of wanting to burn down the Tate and place the Royal Shakespeare Company on sacrificial pyres, which I don’t think was what I meant. I have no wish to sacrifice Michael Gambon to appease a giant papier-mâché Albert Einstein.
List Are there many gags to be had about science and scientists?
RI I have a problem with telling jokes about physics. Quite often the audience have no idea what you are talking about and, to be honest, I don’t know what I’m talking about either. Do you think there’ll be a time when comedians and audiences will understand modern physics and just as we understand it, will it all change again?
BC It depends on the level of your jokes, I suppose. The famous one-liner about F16 fighter jets, Polish plumbers and singularities in the complex plane, requiring a deep understanding of Cauchy’s integral theorem, is probably never going to work. But I do think that a society in which everyone has a basic background knowledge of, for example, Newton’s laws of motion, Einstein’s theories of relativity and quantum mechanics would be a better place to live. We do expect people to have at least heard of Shakespeare and Beethoven, after all.
RI I have a theory that evolutionary biologists are more vain than particle physicists. As you are always being called the sexually alluring face of pulsars, quasars and electrons, I thought I’d ask you. I reckon biologists see the decay of life as their faces get old whereas physicists think more on an atomic level and so think, ‘oh well, what makes these wrinkles will one day be used again for making stars or planets.’
BC Asserting that someone is the face of quasi-stellar radio sources, which are vast swathes of gas and dust spiralling at ultra-relativistic velocities into a supermassive black hole, emitting light and radiation at a rate of a trillion times that of our Sun, is not clearly a compliment. I was once told that I had a luminous countenance by Queen Noor of Jordan, but that’s pushing it a tad. I think evolutionary biologists are just naturally vain. Why else would you spend your entire professional career trying to work out your family tree?
RI I think it is fair to say we are both fanboys of Carl Sagan [presenter of 1980s US documentary, Cosmos]: how important was Cosmos in turning you into a scientist and do you think we’ll manage to convert our audience into Saganophiles and then will some idiot go on about how science is just another religion and we’ll all get cross again?
BC Carl Sagan played a huge role in inspiring me to be a scientist. Cosmos taught me that science is as beautiful as any symphony, novel or painting. But you are right, cults of personality are the first step on the road to deification, dogma and drivel. And although the world’s premier scientific institution, the Royal Society, has the motto, ‘nullius in verba’, which can be roughly translated as ‘I’m not the bloody messiah, don’t listen to me’, there does seem to be an innate human tendency to follow charismatic figures blindly. The history of this habit is not glorious, and we should resist it at all costs.
List How interested are you in debating the other side of the argument with all those God-type folks?
RI When we do Infinite Monkey Cage on Radio 4, we often rail against the idea of ‘balance’. So, someone might say, ‘Shouldn’t an argument about evolution also have someone who believes in intelligent design?’ Do you think we could get around that problem by simply saying, ‘Well that’s one opinion, but now, in the interest of balance, here is someone who is wrong’?
BC This would be one acceptable compromise! The problem with today’s world is that everyone believes they have the right to express their opinion AND have others listen to it. The correct statement of individual rights is that everyone has the right to an opinion, but crucially, that opinion can be roundly ignored and even made fun of, particularly if it is demonstrably nonsense!
At this point, Professor Cox (he used to be in D:Ream, you know) exeunts stage left to have a think about the Large Hadron Collider and Higgs boson, with Mr Ince remaining to ponder a few last minute queries.
List Which science is the most naturally funny?
RI In one specific area it is physics, as there are many Schrödinger’s cat jokes. Also, many worlds theory allows you to tell one joke and then expound on all the possible different outcomes , which is handy for lengthy stories. Evolutionary biology though, supplies you with lots of strange animal behaviour and peculiar spiked penises, so it can be a better area for a drunker audience at the Royal Institution.
List Is there a science to joke-telling/writing?
RI There can be a science to joke writing, there are certainly rules and patterns that can be followed, but I think most of the best comedy goes beyond the rules.
List Are there any particular crossovers between science and comedy that aren’t especially obvious to the naked eye?
RI The simplest similarity is that both are about looking at the world and questioning why certain things are as they are. The comic can stop when he gets a laugh from it; the scientist goes in search of theories and laws, which can take considerably longer.
List A physicist, biologist and chemist walk into a lab …
RI Ouch, it was an iron lab.
Uncaged Monkeys, King’s Theatre, Glasgow, Sun 3 Apr; Ince and Cox also appear in separate events at the Edinburgh International Science Festival.