Ben Miller is an actor, writer and director probably best known for being one half of the comedy duo Armstrong and Miller. He has starred in the TV series of the same name as well as a huge variety of television shows, films and plays, including most recently the film What We Did on Our Holiday and the West End hit The Duck House. After studying Natural Sciences at Cambridge, Ben was part way through his PhD in solid state physics when he moved into the world of comedy. In 2012 he wrote and toured his best selling popular science book ‘It’s Not Rocket Science’.
I mean, we just don’t have a theory of life, we don’t know what life is.
On becoming interested in science
Well, I think from a very young age, I mean, I think everyone starts out interested in science but some of us lose our way. But, you know, I think every…I mean, I’ve got young kids now and they're interested in all those questions: what are the stars, where did we come from, all those kind of ideas. I think it was when I was 8, 9, 10, I remember I was at a jumble sale and I found this little book, it was called the Schoolboy’s Science Pocket Book, and it had basic rocket science in it, how to build a rocket, how rockets worked, in fact it was one of the reasons I called my book ‘It’s Not Rocket Science’, it was just for myself because this was one of the first books I found. And it had all kinds of great stuff in it, it was very definitely aimed at kids of my age but it was the kind of book I suppose you don't get now, a little pocket book with all descriptions of how electricity works and all that stuff, and I just loved this little book and I remember this was the first time thinking that there was a subject that you could study, there was actually something that you could do as a job, I suppose.
On studying science
Well, I got into physics because I was interested…I’ve always seen it as part of the same thing as just being curious about the world, really, I’m curious about people and I’m curious about the world. I remember one of the first things I was really interested in was time, you know, what was time. And, I think, what the nature of time was, what the nature of space was, those very first questions. And my father was like a…so, my father, although he was an academic in American literature, he was very interested in physics and we used to together read a lot of Thomas Pynchon, an American author who was also a physicist and wrote some great novels, like The Crying of Lot 49 about information theory, and other great books like Gravity’s Rainbow, that all involve lots of physics and I think we were both interested in physics and literature as well. It’s always been a joint thing for me, there’s always been a connection to the two. And when I started my degree it was actually not in physics, it was in physics and philosophy, but I kind of dropped the philosophy bit because when I was at university I got more interested in the physics side of things.
On science influencing comedy
I don’t think have a rational scientific approach to anything, I just think that it’s another flavour, it’s another way to think about the world, it’s a thing of great beauty; I like it just as a, kind of…in the same way that I love going for walks in the mountains, I just think its very beautiful, I find the people who do it very awe inspiring, I love reading about people’s theories and discoveries, and I just like it as a kind of aesthetic really. I mean, it is useful sometimes, you know, I suppose in practical way, being on a film set, I know how a camera works, I know what they're trying to do so and I suppose on a basic practical level that sort of thing works. I’ve always felt very comfortable with the technology because I know what it is and what it’s trying to do but, apart from that, I read about science in the same way I would read, you know, Ted Hughes’ poetry, really, I find it beautiful and it enriches my life.
On writing a popular science book
Well it was funny, really, I realised I just felt I hadn't done any…I did a few programmes in the 90s, some various radio shows where I had a chance to get up to date with what was happening in physics, which was my main area of interest at the time, and with Rocket Science I suppose it was a chance to…I thought, either I go to night school and I do a course or I find a way to do science as a hobby, and I just found I was able to meet so many people and talk to amazing scientists first hand and I just thought why would I not do that. It was a chance to do a couple of things, one was to sort of, to try and write, you know…I think there’s a kind of…there’s a scientific canon, a collection of ideas everybody should know about, whether you’re attending a scientist or not. Just as there are certain poets or certain novels you should read just to understand the culture. And I wanted to try and get those ideas down. So that book was really about what we know and the book I’m doing at the moment is more about what we don’t know, which is the other really fantastic bit about science, it asks those questions to which there often isn't an immediate answer.
On the theory of life
The theory of life, I mean, we just don’t have a theory of life, we don’t know what life is. We've approached it from so many different directions, from a biochemical direction, from the ideas of Erwin Shrodinger, through a physical direction and it’s just such a fascinating question. We have a sort of list definition of life, we can kind of list the things that life does but it’s just so unsatisfactory. And to me, as a physicist, I mean, biologists generally are probably not that interested in a theory of life but as a physicist I’d just love to know, just to have something tangible, to understand what life is and what makes it different from non-life, and that’s really the subject of the book I’m doing at the moment. It’s called The Aliens are Coming [out April 2016] which essentially asks that question, what is life, why is it here, is our universe special, and if it’s special, what’s special about it that means that life exists, and it feels like the answer is somewhere in the nature of information, and it would just be fascinating to get a little bit of insight into.