Why so serious, science?

Tom Lawson talks to Robin Ince, comedian and co-host of BBC Radio 4’s award-winning The Infinite Monkey Cage, on how comedy is bringing science to a wider audience

Can science be silly? Can physics be funny? Comedian Robin Ince thinks so. But it’s not just about getting laughs. Ince, who has been performing stand-up for more than 20 years, believes that comedy can be a powerful tool in helping people open up to new ideas.

Despite having a limited background in science, for almost a decade he has pioneered the idea of combining the funny with the fascinating, and of bringing scientists and comedians together to both entertain and inform.

I chat to him about why science inspires him, find out how to make jokes about particle physics and hear about his new show, Blooming Buzzing Confusion, in which Ince explores the wonders of the human mind.

Positive News: You studied English and drama at university, so what sparked your interest in science?

Robin Ince: Astrophysicist Carl Sagan once said that all children start out as natural scientists and they kind of have it beaten out of them. I loved science up until the age of about 13, but then secondary education made it very dull, and it became a thing that was separate to the rest of my world. So it wasn’t so much that I found science, more that I returned to it. It was probably in my mid-twenties that I started reading people like Sagan and Richard Feynman and my curiosity reawakened.

“We need fewer cynical voices and a lot more passionate voices.”

Did this interest show through in your early shows?

In terms of stand-up, the early shows had more scepticism – about psychic mediums or UFOs or whatever – and then I felt as though I had to go beyond making fun of charlatans and see if I could write jokes about physics.

Fortunately comedy has always been a good place to explore different ideas and it’s such an enormous world that it allows different pockets of ideas. You don’t have to do just basic observational day-to-day stuff – there’s room for everything.

Was bringing science into your act daunting?

Yes, because the trouble is you have to have enough of a basic understanding of the idea itself to then be able to make jokes about it. At school things like multiverse theory and quantum mechanics weren’t dealt with. So it can be tough to get enough of an angle to find the joke and at the same time be able to summarise an idea briefly enough to arm an audience with the equipment to laugh at it.

Have you ever been criticised for inaccuracies?

All the time. There’ll be some scientists at the bar after a gig and they’ll say things like: “Ah, you obviously don’t know about the most recent paper about black holes and singularity.” I’ve always made sure I stress the fact that I’m not a scientist. I’m curious, I’m interested, but I’m not an expert.

Do you think it’s easier for audiences to relate to you because you’re not coming from a science background?

I think there was a point where if someone said they were a physicist you’d go: “Oh I don’t really know anything about science,” and immediately there’d be a kind of shut down. But I think now we’re going through quite a good period for popular science and people are less fearful. Moments like when the human genome was sequenced, that was a very exciting moment for a lot of people who have no scientific background or maybe don’t have much of an interest in science.

What we try to do with The Infinite Monkey Cage and the live shows I do with Brian Cox is stress that there really aren’t stupid questions. I’ve found that most scientists are very happy to be asked what may well be some of the simplest questions in their area of expertise, because they know that most people haven’t addressed them in the first place. A stupid question is a question you ask that you already know the answer to.

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You seem to enjoy taking the mick out of Brian Cox quite a bit. Do you think that joking around and making fun of scientists make them less intimidating?

With Brian we’re friends as well so we mess around, but you don’t want there to be any messiah figures – that’s a dangerous thing. We’re careful not to say “here’s science, be careful with it and treat it with reverence.” You can be jokey, you can be silly. We got a letter the other day about The Infinite Monkey Cage which said: “Brian, I really like the way you explain science and Robin, I really like the silly voices you do.” That pretty much sums it up.

What makes comedy a good way of communicating science?

I think that the advantage you have with comedy is that by being able to make people laugh they actually lower their guard a bit and are then able to take in ideas. Even though it does mean that it may have a level of flippancy to it, it’s still hopefully quite potent in terms of some of the ideas you can get across.

At the beginning of the century there was a lot of cynical comedy and it’s still quite popular, but there are now more and more voices that are being heard that really care and they take you along a journey and leave you really excited by what you’ve heard. We need fewer cynical voices and a lot more passionate voices.

What do you think audiences get from your shows?

Hopefully they’ll be entertained by the show, hopefully they’ll laugh and hopefully they’ll be interested enough to go and buy a telescope or read work by people who really know what they’re talking about or whatever it might be. I don’t see it as an education, I see it as a stepping stone.

“We got a letter the other day which said: “Brian, I really like the way you explain science and Robin, I really like the silly voices you do.” That pretty much sums it up.”

Why do you think it’s important that more people become interested in science?

We are one of the luckiest, if not the luckiest generation. We have a level of comfort that has not been experienced for the majority of human experience. For me the best example is to look at the decrease in mortality rate – we have far greater security in things like child birth and disease.

I think it’s very important to understand why we are where we are now. We can’t be nonchalant about why we have what we have now, about what climate change may bring, about vaccination. We don’t have to understand how everything works, but we have to realise the enormous processes that have taken place.

Your current show, Blooming Buzzing Confusion, focuses more on psychology. What kind of ideas are you exploring?

It’s about what we’re beginning to understand about our own brains and the way we view the world, and the fact that a lot of your brain doesn’t even know you exist – there’s just this surface part of the brain where the ‘you-ness’ of you and the ‘me-ness’ of me is.

The two main things I explore are questioning our perception and talking about the idea of shame and the beauty of being able to have thoughts – that we have an inner monologue, that we are aware of ourselves.

One example is intrusive thoughts. A lot of people don’t realise that when they have a thought like “Oh my god, I’ve just imagined shoving that person in front of the train,” or whatever it might be, that’s not a sign of illness, it’s a sign of human imagination and of evolution and all manner of things. But there are people who have been fearful of some of their own thoughts, not realising that they’re commonly shared.

Finally, do you have a favourite scientific fact?

That life might be a very, very rare thing but that in the known universe there is a planet which has a self-conscious, curious creature on it.

Robin Ince’s latest live show, Blooming Buzzing Confusion, runs until 20 June at venues across the UK.