The Week in Radio: Blown away by the science masters' brush with death

  • @FionaSturges

When it comes to science it doesn't take a lot to blow my mind. I'm still reeling from what happens when you chuck a load of Mentos into a bottle of Diet Coke (if you haven't done it, you have yet to witness one of life's miracles). So I've got a lot of time for the long-running Radio 4 show The Infinite Monkey Cage, a programme that manages to simultaneously expand your brain power while lulling you into thinking you're chuckling away at a panel show for simpletons.

If you're not familiar, it features Dr Brian Cox, the comic Robin Ince and assorted guests engaging in gleeful live discussions on subjects such as science fiction, cosmology and Schrödinger's cat, all the while mocking each other's smartarsery. A new series began this week asking "What is death?" to which the answer apparently isn't as straightforward as, "When you're being lowered into a hole in the ground in your best clobber while Robbie Williams' "Angels" booms out of the vestry."

As ever, the conversation ventured bravely into the realms of the mysterious and unknown. Sample questions included: "Is death necessary for life?", "Why is it not possible for a single-celled organism to be immortal?", "When is a strawberry dead?" and "Are giant pandas characters in a Beckett play?" All this on a muggy Monday afternoon when much of the population has hit a sugar low and has already started daydreaming about the post-work hiss of tonic hitting gin.

But The Infinite Monkey Cage's fearless pursuit of out-there topics isn't the only reason I find it engaging. It's also that I can finally witness Cox being smart and funny without being told how incredibly hot he is. The BBC is forever instructing its female viewers to drool over Cox, which for me has the opposite effect. His happy stoner vibe always reminds me of the beads and tie-dye-wearing guy at raves who would hug people for way longer than was comfortable.

But here you won't find footage of him standing on mountain tops in billowing shirts while running his fingers through his Britpop hair, or gazing at faraway galaxies with a camera trained intently on his teeth. Here he is in his element, able to be clever without distraction.

Anyway, thanks to The Infinite Monkey Cage, I now know that death is crucial for humankind's ability to carry on living, and the machinery of self-destruction is present in each and every cell. Without death there is no evolution, and without evolution we're all pretty much screwed.

Death is meant to be is one of the last great taboos, an event to be feared more than anything, but here it was discussed with the same wonderment as shooting stars and solar eclipses. "Death is a wonderful thing," remarked the forensic anthropologist Sue Black. "It's the last great adventure. No one knows what's coming. Fantastic. Bring it on."

If I ruled radio, I would prescribe a dose of The Infinite Monkey Cage, plus a sharp slap around the chops, to the terminally disgruntled listeners of Feedback who this week were carping about the axing of the science programme The Material World.

Not only has The Material World been running roughly since early man discovered the wheel, but few seemed to have noticed that a new show, Inside Science, has been lined up to replace it. There is also more science on the radio now than there has ever been.

It was up to presenter Roger Bolton to placate the moaners by consulting the editor of the BBC Science Unit who patiently explained how, like the subject they trade in, science shows must evolve. Perhaps now Radio 4's listeners can do the same.