Billy Bragg is a folk singer-songwriter and prominent left-wing activist. He is regarded as one of the greatest protest singers of his generation and his lyrics primarily deal in themes of politics and romance. He has performed all across the world and has regularly appeared on science and rational themed shows including ‘The Infinite Monkey Cage’and Robin Ince and Brian Cox’s Hammersmith Apollo science shows.
If the world was completely rational there would be no need for people like me
On first encountering the world of science
Well, on the way home from our primary school there was a big garage that had a giant tyre in the forecourt – it must’ve been a tyre from a big digger or something like that – and we used to hide in there. Hide away from school. And the garage forecourt was next to a glass manufacturers and they used to throw out stuff in their skips like, um…and I don’t know why they were throwing them out because they looked to me like fine test tubes. So we used to get these test tubes and take them up and put stuff in them and try and set fire to it. Like we did at school with bunsen burners, except we didn’t have a bunsen burner, we kind of had the gas stove so…
On a relationship with science
My relationship with science, being a singer-songwriter, is not great. You know, if the world was completely rational there would be no need for people like me and I’d be out of a job because, you know, you scientists would be able to explain why you feel the way you do when your girlfriend doesn’t call you. So I’m, you know, I’m working off the, ah, the inability of science to explain love. So the whole thing would be gone like that. I’d have to get a job driving a minicab if you could explain that.
On using scientific thought in songs
I’m a great believer in doubt. Doubt, I think, is the most forgivable of all human sins. Never trust anyone who has no doubts. So either a religious fundamentalist or some Trotskyite trying to sell you a newspaper on a street corner. And in my experience neither have got very much of a sense of humour so they’re best avoided. But I think the thing is about exploring things. You know, science, the willingness of scientists to try and imagine the unimaginable, I think that’s what we have in common. You know, I’m with Faraday. I think the whole thing is just a giant experiment. The universe, everything, what we’re doing now, you know, what some people are doing, some organisms are doing somewhere else on the planet we don’t know, the whole thing is an ongoing experiment. And the fact that it could turn out in a number of different ways, that kind of keeps it on the side of the imagination, so for someone like myself who’s working mostly in trying to evoke people’s imagination, ideas and feelings and sentiments, I prefer science to be like that. I’m not so sure if everything was explained and the pool became absolutely flat and calm and everything was explained, I’m not sure that would be such a good thing.
On human discovery
I’ve come across theories that I feel are our pathetic attempt to make the universe fit into our rationale. Dark matter is one of my, you know, one of my bug bears about that. The insistence by scientists that there must be this stuff out there that we can’t see, can’t smell, doesn’t weigh anything, can’t touch, because this is the way the universe is behaving: I think you start to get close to, ah, you know, things where we shouldn’t really go. Things like, ah, you know, things like intelligent design. This is the way it is therefore there must have been a supreme being that did this. The universe is moving this way therefore there must be a dark matter. I don’t know, it might be that at mega, mega, mega levels there’s something else going on and I rather plump for that. You know, I’m more interested in the mystery of it rather than the explaining of it! I don’t want to know if there are or aren’t ghosts because I still want to have that tingly weird feeling when a door slams somewhere in my house or that momentary sort of spike of fear. I don’t want to be, ‘Oh yeah, that’s just the wind blowing through the window and that totally explains everything and I’m not going to worry about it’.
On imperially explaining everything
Well Brian can come back and tell me that when he’s explained consciousness! You know, it’s the way that we see the world, the way that we perceive the world, the way that we deal with the world, but science doesn’t even know where it exists or how it functions right now. Until then I think people like me will be working on the dark side! I think we’ve got the upper hand over people like Brian but, you know, I’m interested to hear people’s theories because it would be an incredible thing to be able to understand and I’m very interested to hear the latest developments, but, ah, big ole science can’t even explain why people are getting this app! They’ve got a long to way to go haven’t they? There’s plenty more work for the likes of me!