Infinite universes and dead strawberries: an interview with Brian Cox and Robin Ince

The hosts of the popular BBC Radio show The Infinite Monkey Cage talk about making science fun


Since 2009, an award-winning show on BBC Radio 4 called The Infinite Monkey Cage has blended side-splitting humor with discussions of mind-bending science. Hosted by physicist Brian Cox and comedian Robin Ince, each episode is a half-hour panel discussion between academics and comedians / celebrities like KT Tunstall, Eric Idle, Richard Dawkins, and even Sir Patrick Stewart. The show grew so popular that it also caught fire in the podcast world. That extra exposure increased the international demand so greatly that TIMC is coming to the United States for the first time for a short tour. The run starts this week in New York, and the show will also make stops in Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

To promote the tour, Cox and Ince took some time to speak with The Verge about the challenge of making science relatable, how to know if a strawberry is dead, and what happens if you play The Infinite Monkey Cage backwards. Unfortunately, troubles at the BBC with Skype fractured the interview in two. It's a shame — on and off the air they are a dynamic duo, though Ince prefers the terms "the glamorous and the wise" and "the facetious gnome."

"The glamorous and the wise"

Brian Cox is a professor, a particle physicist, and a popularizer of science. In the simplest terms, he is to England what Neil deGrasse Tyson is to the United States. It's why he's commonly referred to as the "rock star physicist," the kind that dresses in all black and appears on Conan or The Colbert Report. But while he has his moments of exuberance, he also has a gentle way of relating seemingly unknowable ideas in extremely direct ways. It's a knack that few have, and it's why he's also commonly compared to Carl Sagan.

One thing you guys do really well on the show is that you come up with ways, whether you’re planning to or not, to relate these ideas to the audience. For example, one that’s come back a couple times is the question of "when does a strawberry die?" It’s one of those simple things most people have never thought about, and I imagine that’s a really great hook.

Yeah, and that one is a good example because it just appeared. I said it, it occurred to me during a discussion about something else on Monkey Cage. I just asked someone, because I don’t know about seed germination.

Actually, the definition of what is alive is complex in biology. Biology’s struggled with coming up with a textbook definition of what it means to be alive. What is it? It metabolizes? Or does it need to have the means to reproduce? Does it process information in some way? Would a computer be alive if it were conscious? You go off into different areas, and we’ve debated all of those things I think on Monkey Cage at some point. But yeah, the strawberry one is great. It makes a good t-shirt as well.

In some ways it’s been a tough go of it recently for popularized science, with the reversal of the BICEP2 findings and the problems we saw space-faring companies like Virgin Galactic run into last year. How do you find a balance between educating and bringing humor to people, but also setting real expectations and dealing with things when they go wrong?

BICEP2 is a good example of physics in action. That’s how science works. You make a measurement, you might publish the measurement, you might publish your interpretation of it, and then people go and check it. And often, it turns out to be wrong. In fact I go so far as to say that there are no physical theories that we currently have that are right, absolutely 100-percent right.

The Infinite Monkey Cage

So I think what you can do with stories like that is you can use them to say this is how science is done. Science is often presented as being dogmatic, when actually it’s the opposite of that. I’m just writing a new book actually, with a colleague of mine Jeff Forshaw at Manchester [University], and it’s really about how to think like a scientist. And in it we say that there’s an implicit preface — the start of every scientific book or every theory, the sentence should start "of course we might be wrong, but…" Could you imagine if every other area of human thought began with that? Imagine if the Bible started with "of course we might be wrong. However, in the beginning, God created…" Fantastic!

"Imagine if the Bible started with 'of course we might be wrong.'"

Really what that does is it shows the workings of science. The reason it works — in the sense that you can build an aircraft, or to address a current political controversy in the United States, make a vaccine — the reason you can do that is because of this process. Someone presented something, and instead of everyone going, "Oh well that’s very nice. I don’t wish to offend you by saying you’re wrong," the scientists go, "Right, we’re going to have a go. I’m going to demolish that, I don’t believe it." That’s the process of science. So when you see it, it should be a gift to people. It’s a gift to the Monkey Cage to say, "Well look, this is how science is done!"


And the second one, with Virgin Galactic. So I know Richard Branson, so I should declare an interest here, but that doesn’t have a bearing on my opinion, which is that test pilots are heroic. And this is what happens when you’re testing aircraft. It’s extremely difficult and extremely dangerous to develop and test supersonic aircraft, and that’s what you see. Every time you get on a commercial aircraft, the reason it’s safe is because somebody risked their life being a test pilot, and a lot of them lost their lives being test pilots.

Is that the hardest thing for people only casually interested in science to resolve, the idea that not everything is 100-percent right?

Well nothing’s 100-percent right, that’s the thing. Literally nothing is 100-percent right. What science is is the best statement of our current knowledge about nature. That’s all it is. It’s nothing else. There’s no claim to be right, because there are no absolutes in science. Our theories change over the years. But the most important thing is when you say that sentence, then you open yourself up to all sorts of bullshit. People go, "Yes, therefore there’s a universal consciousness." And it’s like no, no, no, stop. Science is the best view we have of nature at the moment. It is then subjected to robust intellectual challenge, to experimental challenge, to theoretical challenge, so the current statements are in no sense absolutely right, but they’re the best we can do at any given time.

So if you’re putting forward some theory that says that, I don’t know, the Earth is 6,000 years old, we can say, "Well here is the list of measurements we’ve made and the interpretations of the measurements that suggest that that’s unlikely to be the case. The more likely case is that it’s 4.54 billion years old because of this, this, this, and this." That’s the way you need to take science.

You’ve covered a lot over the years on TIMC, but is there a topic or discussion you want to have that you haven’t gotten to yet?

Yeah, god, I’m actually looking forward to having Sean Carroll on the show in LA, because I think that he’s not only a great cosmologist, but he’s also a great popularizer of science. And we’ve actually had some disagreements over the years on some areas, particularly some areas of really basic quantum theory, which is, again, part of the scientific process.

I’m also interested — in my series that I’ve just had on the BBC called Human Universe, I came to the conclusion in one of the programs that it’s at least possible to argue that we’re the only civilization currently active in the Milky Way galaxy. There have to be other civilizations out there in the universe, because I suspect the universe is infinite in extent, so there must be. But if you take the Milky Way, it’s possible to argue that there are very few, perhaps only one civilization at the moment. And that would be interesting to talk to Seth Shostak, who I know has a different view. I know that he thinks there will be enough to allow us to contact at least one of them if we build sufficiently big radio telescopes and we take it seriously.

I tend to like programs where I have a genuine academic disagreement with someone on the panel, and genuine academic disagreements are good things because the science isn’t settled. One of you may be right, or none of you may be right — but you won’t both be right, which is good.

Is there a place you’d like to bring the show that you've never brought it before?

Oh I’d love to do more in the US, we’re just trying it out really. We’re doing four shows just because we’ve never done it before. It’s quite a big risk for the promoter, we don’t know how they’ll do, although they seem to be doing okay. And if it goes well then we’d love to come back. Monkey Cage works by accessing academics, really, and then the comedians kind of turn up. So what we want to do is go around the universities in the US, different universities with different areas of expertise to get access to different academics. It’s easy in Britain because Britain’s so small. We can record the shows in London, but we can bring academics from anywhere in the UK. But when you’re talking about the US, it’s hard for us to bring them over from the US to the UK, and it’s also hard to move people around in the US really. It’s hard to go West Coast to East Coast, and fly people backwards and forwards. So the answer to access US academics is to go to the universities. So that’s what I want to do.

The great thing about it is that when you’ve got someone like Neil Tyson on, you don’t know what you’re going to talk about really. I mean we could end up talking about anything. I have no real idea. And that’s the format I like, essentially. That’s what I like it to be.

"The facetious gnome"

Tricia Yourkevich/BBC

Robin Ince is a stand-up comedian and writer, and an extremely funny one at that. He can talk you in circles almost like Cox can, he's just going to make you laugh hysterically while he does it. After wrestling with some of the BBC's finest computers, he was able to hook up a Skype connection long enough for me to talk to him... until he was kicked out of the studio.

If you want, you can send everything [Brian Cox] said, and I’ll just then put some kind of snide addendum to each point he’s made eloquently.

Yeah I can type out his responses, send them to you, and have you mark it up in red.

Yeah, I’ll change the font.

It’s funny because I wanted to ask you guys about how you feel your timing has evolved in the nine or so years you’ve done the show, but then...

To be honest, we actually are much like Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney doing "Ebony and Ivory." We’ve never actually met. I record all my bits, Brian records all his — cause we just don’t get on at all — and then they glue it together. We’ve recorded every word in the dictionary, and then our producer just takes different words and puts together whatever required, whether it’s about particle physics or some kind of chemistry experiment gone wrong.

So what you’re saying is the next tour in the United States might actually just be holograms of you two?

Well who’s to say this one won’t be? Either that or those cyborgs that we’ve been working on. They may well, in fact, be full automatons. This is the beginning of slow, robotic takeover, and we will not be following Isaac Asimov’s laws.

I think that’s everybody’s dream as they grow up, right? To be part of the robot apocalypse?

Yeah it is, the robot apocalypse. I love those moments where people go, "Soon they’ll be sentient and they’ll take over!" Do you know what, it’s taken a long time, hasn’t it? To get to self-consciousness and general sentience? As much as I’m impressed by human ambition, I still think that those robots that are going to aggressively take over, it’ll be merely us that accidentally aggressively take over by pressing the wrong button. It’ll explode, and then we’re left with this kind of Walking Dead scenario of melancholy and death.

I think what probably scares a lot of people from approaching science themselves, whether it’s in pop culture or them picking up academic papers, is when most people look at it as full of truisms, whereas I think your show does a good job telling people, "Hey, scientists are wrong all the time. That doesn’t mean you should distance yourself from the work that they’re doing."

That’s where you get arguments with some people who go, "Well even scientists aren’t certain!" No, no, no, especially scientists aren’t certain, but it doesn’t mean that there aren’t less wrong statements and less wrong ideas about the way that we model climate change and the way that we deal with disease. That helps for people to understand that this is an ever-changing body of knowledge, and that there are sometimes magnificent leaps made and sometimes there are just stuttering movements forward. And sometimes there are errors along there as well, but all of those things are required to think imaginatively. There’s no one at this point and time who will live long enough, I believe anyway, to hear the statement "well I think we’ve finished science now. That’s pretty much done. I don’t know what we’re going to do now. Let’s just do some paintings."

There’s that beautiful thing, when you see the work that was done at CERN with the Large Hadron Collider and other colliders around the world, where you go, "Oh, we’ve come up with this amazing result, and this seems to be the solution to this particular problem. By being the solution, this has now lead to 1,000 more questions." That’s the great thing, we’re just not going, "Well done, we will now close that book."

All of us will live lives where there will be fundamental changes in our understanding of the universe, or our understanding of the human brain, or the understanding of the behavior of particles.

Is there ever a time where the audience just gets lost?

You never hear those bits. Our producer’s very good. Quite often when we’re meant to be wrapping up — or when we’re about 15 minutes over — there will normally be a point just when our producer is really red-faced and waving her hands saying we’ve got to, we’ve got to let them out now for legal reasons, before Stockholm syndrome kicks in, that’s when Brian will suddenly bring up an arcane point of physics with one of the guests. And it’s there when you think, "This will never make the edit." The 15 minutes of that kind of enjoying spectacle where everyone sits and thinks they don’t really understand what’s going on or what’s being said, but there is a certain delight, sometimes, in being lost.

So that’s sort of the added value of getting to the show instead of listening on the radio?

Yeah, this is very much the bonus track, this is the lengthy third B-side track hidden on a Nirvana CD in the late ‘90s.

What happens if you play the show backwards?

What you hear is a creationist explanation of the universe.

Do you think this is a hurdle that shows like TIMC could help us get over?

It’s a difficult one, because I suppose I’m trapped in my own little reality tunnel of the world, because I end up touring around the UK, Australia, and other places, often playing quite small towns. And the conversations I have afterwards with people — I have an optimistic sense that the kind of level of doubt and curiosity in a lot of human beings, in the positive way, is increasing. If you offer people the really interesting ideas that scientific human imagination has come up with, then a lot of people are prepared. As long as they’re not trapped in a very fundamental frame of mind.

Some creationists are just kind of knee-jerk creationists, but they haven’t been offered any other better story. I have found with some people who I’ve met who’ve been creationism or intelligent design proponents, that once you start giving them some of the information about ideas of why creatures have evolved in the way they have through mutations relating to natural selection, and shown them some of the more bizarre images of red-lipped batfish or the blobfish and all those other things, then they are quite open-minded. I’ve had various people come up to me sometimes when I’ve been walking on the street and go, "I came to see one of your shows, and before that I had a very different kind of view of what science meant, or what the story of life according to science meant." I think it does open people up.

Wikimedia Commons
The red-lipped batfish. (Wikimedia Commons)

You guys have brought the show all around the UK, and to places like Glastonbury. Is there anywhere different or bigger you’d like to bring the show next?

Glastonbury is always such a joy, because when you are performing in a kind of circus tent with 5,000 people who have been drinking heavily — and probably doing other things as well in a countryside field in England — and you start talking about quantum cosmology, there is a beautiful sound of brains mashing.

I love doing the kind of rock venues, and things like the Hammersmith Apollo, where so many great things have occurred in the past. It’s where David Bowie retired Ziggy Stardust. We were doing a live link-up with CERN just after the results that suggested that discovery of the Higgs Boson, and it was great because the Skype link kept going down, and of course we’re talking about cutting edge science yet the science of communication is failing us. But we were standing on a stage dicking about where bands like Nirvana have played, David Bowie have played, Guns N’ Roses. And now it’s two middle-aged men trying to do a link-up about physics.

So any one of those, any music venues. I love taking this thing to music festivals. One of the things I would really like to do with this US tour, if everything works out I really hope that we could get slightly more off the beaten track as well, and not just do the really big cities. Let’s go through Texas.

What about doing one from orbit someday?

That’s, uh, having met a few astronauts I find that they have a tremendous calmness, whereas I’m far too furious to be placed in any small capsule. I would simply be ejected out by those who knew what they were doing and wished to survive themselves. The idea of at least doing a show where in the background there was a view of the whole of the planet Earth, that kind of Earth-rise image that we saw, that wonderful image that was taken from the Moon, that would be an incredible sensation.

Do you know what? I wouldn’t even mind if we weren't recording a show. If I just got that chance to orbit Earth, to do it outside where we attempt a spacewalk while at the same time doing a live link-up with BBC Radio. One of us would eventually lose our grip, something would go wrong, but what a death that would be, a death in broadcasting, to drift away slowly out into the solar system.

I’d imagine if you’re having trouble linking up from the Hammersmith, you’d have even more trouble linking up from space.

Yeah, there may well be a certain time delay issue there. You know, once we’ve terraformed Mars — at which point Brian and I will be very old, but hopefully we’ve worked some form of serum to at least keep us reading or looking through a telescope — but once Mars is terraformed we hope to do the first live event coming from there.

The Infinite Monkey Cage's first show in the United States is this Thursday in New York City at the NYU Skirball Center. The panel is titled "Science: A Force for Good or Evil?" and will feature Neil deGrasse Tyson, comedian Lisa Lampanelli, and astrophysicist Janna Levin. The rest of the show's US tour dates can be found here.

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