Robin Ince is a comedian, writer and presenter who’s work focuses primarily on the world of science. He is the creator of the hugely successful variety shows, ‘Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People,’ ‘Book Club,’ and ‘Uncaged Monkeys’ amongst others. Amongst endlessly touring he finds time to co-host the Sony Award winning radio show ‘The Infinite Monkey Cage’ with Professor Brian Cox and is also the co-creator and producer of ‘The Incomplete Map of the Cosmic Genome.’ In 2013 he was awarded an honorary Degree of Doctor of Science for his work by Royal Holloway University London.
Later on in life you realise that the rise of nylon and poor regulations on two bar fires might have had something to do with spontaneous combustion.
On becoming interested in science
I think like nearly everyone, when they are a, a child, and certainly I mean in the 1970’s there were an enormous number of books and magazines, things like Look and Learn and all manner of things looking at the, the intrigue into the Universe, and also a lot of the BBC TV shows are the things that really got me into, ah, ideas of kind of science. Whether it was David Attenborough, later on Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, ah, Richard Leakey’s The Making of Mankind. So a lot of it in fact was biology, and a certain amount of it was, was cosmology, ah, but I was fascinated and, also there was a lot of science fiction, so there was definitely an overlap. There was, you know, a childhood in the 70’s where, where Dr Who was one of the, the core, ah, cultural experiences and Blake’s 7 and then that mixed with this real science as well. And then unfortunately, a third piece of science as well, which was pseudoscience, was enormously popular in the 1970’s so there were, there were movies, documentaries that were actually in the cinemas about the Bermuda Triangle, ah, about why aliens must have visited the earth to civilise us, ESP – you know I believed ESP was definitely a possibility; when you’re ten years old and you read a magazine called The Unexplained, ah, which is a – in some ways The Unexplained was a, a slight cheat of a magazine because when I got older, I found out that a lot of the unexplained things had been explained and ah, they were not as mysterious as had been imagined. So there was this constant kind of – well for me anyway in the 1970’s a mixture of science fiction, real science and then this pseudoscience which I believed that you know, I would be able to have a telepathic link with my dog at some point – it was a daschund and they are meant to be the best kind of dog to have a telepathic link with.
So that, really until about the age of twelve I loved science and then it, suddenly in, in the education system, the science that was taught seemed to be disembodied from the real world. There seems to be a certain way that sometimes science is dealt with as if it’s a subject separate to the world we’re in, separate to the Universe that we live in, and ah, from that point onwards, it seemed to become quite a boring thing. There as a, I think with the physics lesson that really started putting me off physics was the holding of a burning peanut under a test tube containing some water to find the energy that lay within a peanut. And I remember kind of holding the stench of this burning peanut under a test tube and somehow all of the exciting ideas that I’d heard about the, the idea that you still had all the vibrations of the Big Bang ah, going around the Universe and the enormous number of galaxies and then indeed stars within our galaxy; suddenly it just all turned into a burning peanut under a test tube of water. So for most, in fact for really all my teenage years I’d gone off science. And then it was probably in my twenties that I realised I was missing out on something fascinating.
On The Unexplained
Ah, I mean thinking about The Unexplained magazine which I still have quite a few copies of The Unexplained magazine that have some incredible crayon drawings of, ah, UFO’s, I don’t know why the cheapest ah, drawings you could imagine are, are crayon drawings of UFO’s. And ah, things like spontaneous combustion which was such a fascinating thing that you would see in these magazine; an image of someone’s leg, nothing else left apart from ash and a hole in the bathroom floor and you know, what, what is spontaneous combustion? And then later on in life you realise that the rise of nylon and ah, poor regulations on two bar fires might have had something to do with spontaneous combustion. The link between an old woman in a nylon nightdress going into ah, a bathroom with a reasonably unguarded two bar fire and then this spontaneous combustion. There could – I mean it’s quite a cynical thing to say but there could possibly have been a link there.
Also there’s another wonderful thing which is ESP research where, um, I think it was – I may get his name wrong but JBS Rhine I think it was who did ESP research where there was incredible bodies showing that there did seem to be people that had a power to guess these famous symbols; the wavy lines, the circle, the square and all these things and triangles. Ah, they did, there was a predilection that some people may well have had that ability. And then you actually read into his work and find out he discounted all the really negative results because he didn’t realise those people must be deliberately trying not to use their powers and once, once you then dig into that, that’s actually one of the things that got me back into science; was my childhood kind of being led away from, from, from real, ah science, from the majority of real science by, by pseudoscience and Loch Ness Monsters and Bigfoots and all of those things that then in my twenties when I returned to looking at these things and finding out that they had been explained, the – ah, or at least very nearly explained – and certainly the best, you know the Ockham’s Razor version of events.
I mean things like the Bigfoot which is again, for anyone growing up in the 70’s and 80’s and watched things like Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World, a very big show, ah, famous footage, this grainy footage taken of what appeared to be the Sasquatch, the Bigfoot, walking through the wood and then just casually looking over to the camera and then continue on walking. And, there’s various things – why didn’t the people decide to go any closer, why did they go, “Oh, we’ll just stand here, don’t try and follow it or anything like that.” And then finding out how scientifically the Bigfoot footage had been debunked was fascinating because you have, first of all, you could go, “it seems reasonably clear it is a man in a gorilla costume” but that’s not science just to say it looks like a man in a gorilla costume and it seems highly likely it would be a man in a gorilla costume, the fact they’ve never seen this thing again.
To then ah, the the way that they definitely found out it was a man in a gorilla costume, wearing an American football helmet to bulk out the gorilla head, obviously to make it more, ah, traditionally Bigfootish, was there was a, a reflection on one of the eyes, and they said “well, you don’t normally have a reflection on eyes”. And they thought, “hang on a minute, that suggests a glass eye”. And eventually they found the man who had one glass eye who said, “oh yeah, it was me, I dressed up in a gorilla costume”. So I like the fact that there the scientific method was used to ultimately prove something that looked reasonably clearly to be nonsense anyway, but to actually take it the full distance and go, “Now we can effectively disprove this and say, that wasn’t the Bigfoot, that was a man in a costume with a glass eye”.
On introducing science into stand up
I started doing stand up in the early 90’s and originally I was interested in it for lots of different ideas, political ideas etc and as you start playing the clubs I think you can some times forget that standup can hopefully be quite an effective medium of, of getting the beginnings of ideas across. And I got very bored of standup; having loved standup as a kid, having always wanted to be a standup, and then towards the end of the last century, I thought, I’m not really into standup any more and I was doing a lot more writing and stuff. And then as I started to read more and more science I realised the idea of trying to convey some of the bizarre ideas of ah, quantum mechanics, ah, some of the intriguing ideas about evolutionary biology, that standup was quite a good way of, you know it’s quite a crass way, I always return to a line by George Carlin, the US comic who, who said that you know, comedy is a very low art form but it’s a very potent art form so you know, we’re we’re not hight art or, or anything like that, anyone who’s a standup. But you can deliver ideas and leave people going, “now what was that thing he was talking about?” Like with my standup on science um, if it is standup, it is, I don’t expect anyone to leave any one of my shows and go, “I now understand this idea”. What I hope this that they might leave and go, I now need to do more reading about Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace, Max Planck, Niels Bohr, Richard Feynman, Marie Curie, Rosalind Franklin whoever it might be. Um, and a, and so that’s why I, I just found it quite exciting that the starting point for the standup was that I did lots of, kind of, what you might call skeptic standup in the first bit of the 21st century, ah, which, you know, the psychic stuff, the wonderful story of the psychic who, a very famous psychic, ah, who um, was asking, saying, “I’m, I’m getting something, I’m getting that someone here, ah, that their dad ah, – no that was it – I’m getting that someone here, I’m getting cheese and pickle sandwiches, cheese and pickle sandwiches, does that mean something to someone?”
And a so there was this great – and I’ve, I’ve got the whole transcript of this guy, and no-one in an audience of over 500 could think of a dead relative who liked cheese and pickle sandwiches, which is intriguing when you think of the probability of, of a room of 500 predominantly middle aged people that none of them could think of, and he starts pushing the audience going, “come on, think harder, someone here is blocking cheese and pickle sandwiches” and eventually someone puts up their hand and says, “My dad liked cheese but he weren’t allowed to eat it” and he says “That’s it!”
And so I would do these, just these stories about bizarre psychics and things like iridology which I loved which was ah – I’ll probably mispronounce the guy’s name – but I think his name was Ignaz von Peczely and ah, he was the person that worked out that if you looked directly into someone’s eyes, in the eye, you can see, ah, various different parts of the iris, traces of how they will become ill, things about their health, all manner of stuff. And ah, he discovered it, after, I think it was, ah, he broke the wing of his owl accidentally and noticed a new mark in its eye. That to me was such an incredible story, a man, who who, – and again I suppose it’s rather charming – you know, he’s cack handed with his owl which is unfortunate but intriguing that he would look into his, you know the eyes of his owl with such depth and so I was going through these stories and finding out these wonderful and ridiculous ideas and then I started to realise that this was, in one way, quite negative, a lot of fun, but I wanted to work at the much harder thing of trying to convey ideas of actual scientific process, or actual scientific method and where human beings have currently got and using, you know, the kind of low art of stand up to do it.
On curating science variety nights
It’s interesting, when I actually started putting on proper variety science shows, which I’m very glad most people thought was a ridiculous idea and yet, you know, in the weekend that’s about to arrive (May 2013) we will be doing a Feynman celebration which will include tap dancing, hula hooping to demonstrate different trajectories of certain particles and harp playing to the Aurora Borealis, which is everything I’ve really dreamed of, and ah, when I started doing a show called Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People it actually came out of meeting, on a TV show, someone that I find pretty repugnant really, a man called Stephen Green from a group called Christian Voice which I think is not, doesn’t really in any way represent the majority Christian voice in Britain to be honest, but I had an argument with him and he kept saying to me, he said, “You want to ban Christmas.” And I kept saying, “I don’t want to ban Christmas. Why do you think I want to ban Christmas? I don’t want to ban Christmas. I think Christmas is fun, it’s enjoyable.” And I realised that people, there was this image now of atheists, that everyone was this Scrooge like, ‘Look at those people having fun believing there’s an afterlife. Aaah, the Universe is pointless and your life is finite and miserable.’ And that’s actually not my experience of most atheists, including some quite high profile atheists, so I started this show called Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People. I think the first run of it, it probably had quite a few digs, but it was predominately digs at fundamentalists. I mean, one of the things I’ve always tried hard to do is to avoid just, you know that idea that all religious people are crazy, every single one of them is a creationist, everyone is a homophobe misogynist, um, because I certainly think in the UK that’s not true, and ah, as the show, even as it went on it’s first run in 2008, I realised to turn it into a celebration which is to at Christmas time, for those that don’t, you know, a lot of people are celebrating the idea of the birth of Jesus etcetera, so I thought it might be a nice time for people who are not as into that to celebrate the birth of ideas, the birth of different ideas, to celebrate ideas whether it’s a Newtonian Universe, whether it’s idea of genetics and Crick, Watson and Franklin, all of those kinds of things, so that’s the transition to get away from the negative, which is rather than to go, these people believe something, this nonsense, instead to go, here are some wonderful things that we currently believe in our journey, the phrase I always use, our journey to becoming increasingly less wrong about the Universe that we’re in. It’s been a very freeing thing as well.
On the joy of science
The more I begun to take the journey to trying to understand scientific ideas, the more I’ve realised the joy of it is you’re not looking at 100% rightness, you’re not looking at something being 100% correct. You’re seeing a journey, particular in the last four hundred, five hundred years, of human beings getting less wrong images of the Universe and I think it’s, in many ways, a very exciting thing to know that there are things we believe now that will be proved wrong, but many of them are very important stepping stones. A lot of the things we believe now, ideas of medicine and technology and cosmology and biology and all of those things, many of them are a good point to then move up to the next step from. And then we move up to the next step in a decade, in one hundred years, in one thousand years, there’ll be another idea where we go, you know what, I think we can improve that again.
The joy of something like the Large Hadron Collider is when you see these incredible results and you see, I mean, this really beautiful piece of work, I often talk about William Morris, the critic and designer, he said, ‘Have nothing in your house apart from that which is beautiful and that which is practical.’ And you look at what is going on with the Large Hadron Collider and with other colliders as well, and you look at the beauty of the design and you think about the practicality of what it’s attempting to do and this trying to understand these particles that were there at the beginning of the Universe and knowing that when the results do come through and when it appears, you know, ideas of the boson and the Higgs_field that that will then generate a load more questions. The idea of, ‘We’ve got the answer! Hurray! Is that the end?’ No, we’ve got the answer and it turns out there’s loads more things that we need to find out and this opens up another area.
Like genetics, you know, mapping the Human Genome, there was this thing, we’ve mapped the human genome now, it was wonderfully described once as, really what it means is if you were given all the letters that make up The Brothers Karamazov or some other great novel, and you went, ‘We’ve found all the letters! We’ve found the map of The Brothers Karamazov. But now we have to put it in an order and work out how each sentence works.’ There was a hope and a belief that, you know, we’d go, ‘There we go, that’s that lot there, which means that someone does that and that’s something that means someone has that and that’s something that means someone has that,’ and then it’s turned out to be far more complex and it becomes very, very exciting. That, you know, having the human genome and going ‘This gene does this,’ it’s not as simple as that. That nature and nurture and so many other questions are generated.
On finding an entry point back into science
I think the entry point to science, because people do often think it’s too hard, they’re not even going to bother doing it. But really, I think the thing is, or what I try and tell people as a non-scientist, as someone who does not have in any way a wise or smart brain, or a brain that can comprehend the majority of equations and some of the, what seem to be, fantastical ideas of human thinking and human imagination, is, just accept that you don’t have to understand it all. Just accept that when you get to the end of a book, you don’t have to put it down and say, ‘Now I understand quantum mechanics.’ You can just enjoy the adventure of finding out new things and having it make you look at the world in a slightly different way. You don’t have to believe, ‘What’s the point of getting involved with science unless I’m going to get a doctorate at the end of it.’ Well, it should be the fun of the journey, it should be the, you know, even the great, especially the truly great scientists many of them go, they know it’s a journey, and we know that at the end of it when you die you still die with an enormous amount of ignorance. Again, going back to the Feynman phrase, ‘The boundaries of our ignorance increase daily,’ this is going to happen.
So I think the starting point is first, accept that you may well not, you’re not going to know everything, no-one knows everything, but it will hopefully, my personal experience, is it does improve the way you look at the world and I think it can give you some form of happiness. I think that the more that I thought about evolution and the more that I thought about the current appearance of the rarity of life in the Universe, ah, we may well, we’ve seen very little of the Universe, we’ve seen very little of our galaxy, who knows it might be incredibly rich with life, there might be life all over the place, but in our own solar system the thing that we currently know reasonably well, but there’s still an enormous amount that we don’t know, it appears that we may be, certainly the only complex life form. And if we, what incredible richness, what incredible beauty to look out of any window you see and know that when you’re looking out that window to know that you are seeing more life that there is in the rest of the known Universe beyond the planet Earth. That in any window you see, when you’re travelling on a train, when you’re travelling on a bus, travelling in a car or just looking out your bedroom window or whatever it might be what you see framed there, alone, even in the single tree you might see, or a small lawn that you will see, knowing the richness of that, that I think, to me, it does make life happier and more interesting and more exciting. The downside of life being finite and knowing that I’ll be dead before I finish even the books I’ve bought so far, and being someone who was described as being bibliosexual, I know that I’m not going to stop buying books, yeah, the downside is the finite nature of life but the upside is one, it gives you a certain amount of momentum to try and do things and two, it makes you go, ‘Well, this is pretty exciting to be on one of these planets that is not a dead rock or some predominately poison toxic gas.