A winning formula: Comedian Robin Ince is heading out on a nationwide tour with a group of scientists
Thursday 07 April 2011
In the last few weeks I have been asked 11 times, "is science the new rock'n'roll?" As we know, in the last 20 years, anything that starts to play to audiences above 17 can be classed as the new rock'n'roll. This is a very limited historical view of what drew the crowds as it only goes back to 1956. Perhaps it should be "is science the new hangings at Tyburn?" or "is science the new barely-armed slaves fighting a hungry tiger?"
Nevertheless, I am pleased to say that whether or not science is the new rock'n'roll, it is playing rock'n'roll venues. In the next few weeks, up to 3,500 people a night will be listening to talks on Schrödinger's cat, the big bang, many-worlds theories and the reproductive behaviour of the Komodo dragon. For three weeks I will be touring with the mathematician Simon Singh, bad-science destroyer Ben Goldacre and particle physicist and occasional keyboardist Brian Cox. There will also be guest appearances from the likes of geneticist Steve Jones, comedian and stargazer Dara O Briain, Chris Addison and comic-book legend Alan Moore. I hope that Moore reprises the mini lecture I saw him perform at Christmas where he explained that worshipping a sock puppet Roman snake god called Glycon was as logically acceptable as many ideas in contemporary physics. The initially skeptical science crowd was soon looking down to its socks in wonderment. So why did I, an idiot without a single Phd, decide to risk my hairshirt on a grandiose science tour?
A little over a decade ago I became re-enthused by science after reading Richard Dawkins's Unweaving the Rainbow and Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World. My childhood enthusiasm had lain dormant since I stood in a classroom burning a peanut under a test tube to discover the energy within.
Fourteen years later, I realised that this one moment of boredom had turned me off from something quite wonderful. I had been wasting a lot of time on nothing in particular and hastily started reading about the aggressive behaviour of Squirrel monkeys and the improbable behaviour of particles. I had had no idea how ignorant I was until now, even if my knowledge of American independent films and Seventies sitcoms wasn't half bad.
I started to write stand-up comedy about the science I was reading, which was a lot trickier than those old routines I had about things that occur in supermarkets. The problem with physics is that it can take three paragraphs of set-up before you get to the punchline. I realised that there were many people like me who had had their childhood enthusiasm for science bored out of them and just needed a nudge to draw them back in.
For a couple of years I hosted a show called The Book Club, a celebration of weird and tatty books I had liberated from charity shops interspersed with puppeteers, accordionists and occasional interpretative dance. I became jaded reading from Crabs on the Rampage and Mills and Boon's Rash Intruder and wondered if, rather than praise entertaining trash with tongue in cheek, I should make a Book Club night that celebrated great books and magnificent ideas. In this age of cynicism, sneering and irony, would there be an audience for the embarrassment of watching people standing on stage and being genuinely passionate? The first night of what would be called The School for Gifted Children included musician Martin Austwick singing about melancholy philosophers, Simon Singh discussing the big bang, comedian Stewart Lee going through the tracklisting of comedian Franklyn Ajaye's album, I'm a Comedian, Seriously, and Ben Goldacre overrunning so much that he was still talking about statistical anomalies after midnight. It was rough around the edges, but the audience left enthused, which was the intention.
More nights were organised and then I was spurred on by a spat with a particularly vain and bigoted religious fundamentalist to organise a Christmas rationalist special where a mix of comedians, musicians and scientists would perform pieces about the universe and what lay, floated or revolved within it. It started in a 500-seat theatre, then another night was added, then another night, but this time in the rather large Hammersmith Apollo. Friends thought it was a step too far, that I was Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams, but we built the night and they came. What they saw was Richard Dawkins talking about cobwebs, Jarvis Cocker singing "I Believe in Father Christmas" and then Chris Addison revealing why he was the ape that got lucky.
Now, three years later, the culmination of it all is the Uncaged Monkeys tour from Aberdeen to Basingstoke; the once shameful idea of nerdiness is now something to celebrate. There have been some nay-sayers. The most common criticism is "aren't you preaching to the converted?", a presumption that all those attending will be Phds and professors of classical physics. This is far from the case. The most exciting part of putting on these shows is receiving Tweets and messages from people asking about Richard Feynman or Carl Sagan or what the best book on the triune brain theory is. Far from being a night when scientists can nod sagely at how clever they are, the audience is full of the interested and unsure, people who are not afraid to admit they don't know everything. As host of the shows I would like to say that I play the part of passionate idiot – it's the role I was born to play as it is exactly what I am; I am the vessel between the audience and the science popularisers about to take the stage.
These are exciting times. After a decade in which the gossipy, the banal and the celebrity have been the dominant images in the foreground, it seems that a large number of people are hungry for something more than seaside cellulite on soap stars and boob-job horrors.
So why are we doing this? Because once you start finding out about the wonders of the universe, you want everyone to feel as amazed and bamboozled as you do. Even the boredom of looking out of the window of a stationary train held at broken signals can bring forth thoughts of the astonishing. Staring at the few trees and occasional birds in my view, I suddenly thought that even this small patch of life was more than all the life in the rest of the solar system. Go to the zoos on any of the other seven-and-a-half planets in our solar system and all you would see is rocks and gas.
Also, I hope one day to live in a world where I can present a show about Schrödinger's cat and not have letters of complaint declaring that I am promoting the killing of cats in boxes.
Is science the new rock'n'roll? Well if it is, you can be certain if there is any stagediving, someone will be observing and recording the arc of the diver and making sure there is a control group too.
'Uncaged Monkeys' tours 1 to 17 May (www.robinince.com)
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