Ben Moor is a comedy writer and actor whose shows often take a scientific approach. As well as presenting shows for BBC radio which have seen him travel to CERN amongst other places, Ben’s solo live shows have tackled things from extinct fish to super colliders. His latest show, ‘Each of Us’, will be playing throughout 2013.
Imagine the biggest ring at CERN being just an accelerator to get them up to the next level of the Superconducting Super Collider.
On getting into science
I did history at university and when I left university I said ‘I’m never gonna read another history book in my life’, and then decided I had to read other books, because you can’t go through the rest of your life not reading any books at all, so I started reading, well, conspiracy theory books for some reason, which wasn’t very useful, but also science books and books about quantum theory. This was in the early nineties. And eventually, for some reason, I did some comedy bits on a BBC2 science show called ‘Big Science’ and I’d always wrap the show up and go over the closing credits and do silly little puns and it would always be edited, chopped around, it was like a ‘Tomorrow’s World‘ for BBC2 in those days, and it was very interesting little bits of clips of the science world. It was like a magazine show and me and Dave Green would write these little monologues and I’d sort of stand there and do them. And Dave Green and Danny O’Brien and I – Dave and Danny, founders of Need To Know, the Private Eye of the internet as it was in the nineties – we’d write and present little science bits on a Radio 4 show, ‘Big Bang’, which went out on a…I think Tuesday mornings, after ‘Today‘ and before ‘Woman’s Hour‘ and it was a live radio show in those days but it had clips, presented by Jez Nelson, and we’d do a little bit every week, either another monologue about the week’s science stories or, eventually, bits of science journalism ourselves.
[In] one series we’d tried to find the real science behind movies and things like that, so we went off and did some pieces about ‘The Crucible‘ – the Daniel Day-Lewis movie ‘The Crucible’ had just come out – so we did a piece about crowd psychology and the possible ergot poisoning in the Salem witch trials: it might’ve been caused by all these people eating bad bread and having hallucinations. So we’d do little science packages about that.
We did one also…the new Star Wars movies were coming out and we’d talked to people who were involved in lasers as to how functional a lightsaber could be and what…or whether they’d ever actually be made and how you’d do the different colours and what size of cooler you’d have to carry around on your back in order to power one of these. There were interesting sciencey bits and bobs.
And then in 1997 I wrote and performed a show called ‘A Supercollider for the Family‘ at the Edinburgh Fringe which was taking the ideas and spirit of quantum physics and using those metaphors to tell a romantic comedy story. It was a sort of James Bond international espionage scientific – lab coat and dagger material we called it – and the guy, my character, would travel the world, meet all these amazing women like a James Bond adventure but still actually be in a relationship with his amazing wife and it all tied up, full of metaphors inspired by quantum physics. It was just after they cancelled the Superconducting Super Collider that was going to be built in Waxahachie, Texas – it’s a great word Waxahachie – um, and it just sort of inspired me, like so many great things in science; if you can take a beautiful, brilliant moment in science and find a metaphor for human connection and for human life and human love, it’s a great way of combining the stories that we all love to tell with the excitement and the imagery of extraordinary science stories as well.
On the superconducting supercollider
The Superconducting Super Collider is a massive 87km circumference machine that was never built, in Texas. What we have in CERN is the next size down, it’s still a very big loop, but, ah, it’s like a cascade of larger rings, um, so first all the particles have to be generated in a linear accelerator then they’re put round a small ring, then once they’re at the right level there they’re moved into a medium ring and then they’re let loose into the main, huge ring, which is what happens at CERN now, but imagine an even bigger ring. Imagine the biggest ring at CERN [27km] being just an accelerator to get them up to the next level of the Superconducting Super Collider. It’s crazy. It was never built because of budget cuts by George Bush Sr, no, by Bill Clinton actually, when Bill Clinton took over, yeah, it was planned by Bush Sr, because it was going to built in Texas, but it was never built and Clinton cancelled it and they put all the money into the International Space Station which is good, but not as cool as that.
On trying to comprehend quantum theory
Like many people, I think the best book I read on the subject was John Gribbin’s ‘In Search of Schrodinger’s Cat’, which is just fantastic the way it lays everything out bit by bit and every chapter you read you feel cleverer, you feel like you get it better and it just was an inspiration and he put things like, ah, paired particles. So you can have an experiment and collide two particles, send them off in different directions, and when you do a measurement on one, apparently the particle on the other side of the universe knows that you’ve just done an experiment, a measurement on it or an experiment on that one, and has changed its state because of a change in the state of the other particle. And that’s a great metaphor for couples, for people in love, that once you’ve affected one part of the couple then the other person shows the effect too and that’s, kind of, one of the metaphors I used in ‘A Supercollider for the Family.’
But there’s tons of others. There’s, you know, light, the wave particle duality of light, which just blows your mind, where you do an experiment on light: ‘Is it a wave?’ You get the answer: ‘Yes! Light is a wave.’ You do another experiment: ‘Is light a particle?’ You get the answer: ‘Yes! Light is a particle’ as if light knows what experiment you’re doing on it. What?! So that is cool.
On the joy of science
So, I think the thing about science is…I’m an idiot, I don’t really understand much of it at all. Every now and then, as I say, I read a book and I go ‘Oh! That’s a great metaphor for that’, like a relationship between a father and a son or when you fall in love for the first time or when you’ve lost something, like, for example, in my new show [Each of Us] I’m talking about the discovery of the narrative gene. It doesn’t exist but it’s a great idea that there’s a gene that wants to tell stories and wants to be passed on.
I think what you can also do with science is you can take a story about a certain thing, from physics or biology or from meteorology or something like that, and apply it to certain parts of your life and suddenly the wonder of the scientific story is relevant to the wonder of our existence. For example, one of my other shows was called ‘Coelacanth‘, which is the name of a prehistoric fish but it wasn’t really about the fish, it was about tree climbing, which is irrelevant particular???, but the reason I called it ‘Coelacanth’ was…there is a moment in the story, a chap finds in himself a feeling that he thought had died out long ago. Now, we all have those moments where we rediscover something we’d forgotten, but having read about the story of the coelacanth, the discovery of this extraordinary fish that seemed to have disappeared from the fossil record millions and millions of years ago but then in the 1930s was rediscovered as a living species and it had done no evolving, it was just what it had always been, it was what it was, still existing, still in a long meanwhile. I thought, what a great metaphor for these feelings inside us that we think are gone and disappeared forever but are then suddenly reignited, like when you watch an old television programme or find a book that you’d loved all that time ago or meet someone that you didn’t realise you were still in love with, for example, that’s in that story. And also it’s a great word. Coelacanth. And it looked really good on a poster. And so that’s why I called that show that, and how the inspiration of a scientific discovery can be used in a normal story just to go ‘Ha. Wow. There are brilliant metaphors out there.’ And I think the more we…the more people look out for them, the more excited, the better they are at communicating those. Sometimes I think with science communication, it’s all to do with the human connection. I think if you can make a human connection with an audience or with kids or people out there and say ‘It’s a bit like this experience we all have in our lives’, then I think you get much closer and people go ‘Yes, that is what life’s like. Wow, I didn’t know science was full of those things as well’, and I think, you know, I’ve been quite lucky, I’ve nicked two really good ones so far. Sorry, everyone. But there’s more.