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Dr Richard Vranch

Richard Vranch might be best known to British audiences as ‘Richard at the piano’ from the original series of Whose Line Is It Anyway? or as a member of the Comedy Store Players where he has performed improvised comedy twice a week for as long as he can remember.  A regular on British radio and television, before turning to comedy he worked as a research scientist and completed a PhD in physics in the 1980s.  He often incorporates the two in his comedy, as well as being half of the comedy-science-hula-hoop act Dr Hula.

 I wanted to call the PhD “Fission Chips” but they didn't let me.

On working in science

When I was a scientist, and that’s back in the early seventies as an undergraduate and in the early eighties as a research student and then briefly a fellow of St John’s College Oxford, I was at Cambridge in the Cavendish laboratory and I loved physics because it made sense, and when I went to church those stories didn't make sense so I was good at physics and I liked music and I like electronic music, people were doing things with synthesisers and electronics in those days, so by doing physics I could learn how to make synthesisers by buying transistors with my pocket money and stuff.  

So I ended up being a research scientist because in 1980 when I finished my degree I could’ve got a job in Ipswich doing research for British Telecom, who at that point had a world-class research lab doing fibre optic stuff, or I could've stayed at Cambridge to do a PhD, and a girl I really liked stayed at Cambridge to do a PhD and that really clinched it.  So I ended up for no other reason other than a girl I liked, staying at Cambridge and doing a PhD, and my PhD was all about the way that radiation from nuclear bombs or from space, the way that it damages silicone chips.  I wanted to call the PhD “Fission Chips”, but they didn't let me and they are right, retrospectively.  So, yeah, it was about the way that radiation damages chips.

On silicon chips

The thing about silicone chips is, they're very tiny and there are very small channels where the electrons go and interfaces between the silicone and the silicone dioxide and the silcone’s a semiconductor so you can make it do things and silicone dioxide is like an insulator that sits on the top.  That boundary between the two is really unstable, and the atoms don’t fit together, so if radiation comes along - a big energetic particle of radiation - it hits those weak bonds and splits them, and that makes the device not work very well.  And in the early days of space travel, when they sent up satellites into space like Telstar, there’s a lot of radiation in space, some is natural and some we made by exploding bombs in the upper atmosphere – yes, we used to do that - and when you fly a spaceship through the radiation,  all the ships packed up. Now people got very worried about that because you can’t repair them up there.  People also got worried about people because you can’t line a spaceship with lead, it’s too heavy, so you can’t protect people against radiation, so space is a radiation environment where both people and chips are in danger.  

One of the things I learned was they're more worried about the chips than they are about the people, and one of the reasons I gave up and became a comedian full time was because I didn't like the fact that not only was my research helping them make circuits which would survive radiation in space, but it was also helping them build circuits which would survive nuclear war on earth, and I personally think one of the reasons there wasn't a nuclear war was people were afraid to press the button because all of their own systems would go down and I was effectively helping them make their own systems stay up, and so I thought this was a morally untenable position.  

Also I liked the idea of becoming a full time entertainer rather than a physicist and I’ve never regretted it.  But that’s what was going on in the early eighties, they were trying to find out ways of making silicone devices more robust in a radiation environment, whether that was space or whether it was nuclear bombs.

So they started using other materials like germanium and gallium arsenide and all sorts of stuff, I’m sure its moved a long way since then.  But I found out what was going wrong with the radiation, it buggers them, basically.

On using science in comedy

Nowadays, and indeed for the last 30 years, I’ve been doing comedy, improvising an unscripted show every Wednesday and Sunday at the Comedy Store Players.  Now we've been going since the mid-eighties and from our show came a lot of other improvised formats, for example the TV show Whose Line Is It Anyway?, and when that show got made, because I’m a bit musical I ended up getting stuck behind the piano on that show, so everyone knows me as Richard Vranch at the piano from Whose Line…  which is nice, because people remember, but on the other hand it’s a bit annoying because it’s the only pure music job I’ve ever done.  I’ve always been more into jokes than music so I don't really do music work, but it’s odd, when you get into show business weird things come your way.  I also did a science series, I did a science series on Channel 4 in the nineties called Beat That Einstein, which was an odd title but it was like a challenge thing.  Members of the public came along and had to solve some seemingly insurmountable problem using just the kind of junk you'd find in the shed, but if they put their minds to it and kind of used common sense, I’d say actually that’s good science because what they're doing there is using a pulley, or using a lever, or using thermodynamics.

And it was a quite a nice programme but in those days, science wasn't as popular and trendy as it is nowadays, partly thanks to Robin Ince and Brian Cox, it has to be said, you've done wonderful things.  So Channel 4 had very few slots for factual entertainment and commissioning editors have to do their jobs and commission things, so we only got offered that series and then they replaced it with Scrapheap Challenge, I think, which is fine.

So I’ve had a go at doing science in an entertaining way on television but there days the only way those two things overlap is in my new show, Dr Hula - not Dr Who, Dr Hula - and my very good friend Pippa the Ripper,  who is one of the world’s best hula hoopers, and she is a Guinness world record holder for fire hooping, she’s amazing, she can do stuff with hoops, she can do 100 hoops, she can make them all move, er…so, I thought we can do atomic theory with one atom going round, or two atoms going round for helium, but I’m a bastard, I make her do the two hoops in different directions and they've got different spins.  So we actually do explain some of the minutiae of atomic theory using hula hoops and it’s the sort of act that is fun because you see Pippa being brilliant hula hooping but you see me doing jokes about hydrogen and helium and it kind of works and we've done it a few times in Robin’s Bloomsbury shows, the Xmas shows and so on, and we’re trying to work it into a bigger act.  Live performance is always the most fun because you just get up and do it and there’s not a twelve year old telling you why that’s not funny.  So doing a bit of science and comedy live is great fun at the moment, really enjoying it.

On the importance of curiosity

It’s very important that people think about what’s going on around them. That might sound obvious, but most religious people I would not put in that category, because if you believe in imaginary friends to explain or justify what you're doing or what’s happening, you really need to have a good hard look at yourself.  The fact that the world is changing so rapidly, not just climate change but also the way the internet has finally delivered the promise it failed to deliver at first, people are communicating in a different way, opinions are going round in different way, science is affecting the world hugely and yet people seem to feel that just by having a pig-headed option that science isn't right and God is right, thinking that they know better without reference to experimentation or evidence, and I can see the world going to hell in a handcart, which it couldn’t have done without science because without wheels you wouldn't have a handcart.  This worries me a lot, plus having done an experimental PhD it means now that if something goes wrong, I’m pretty confident in changing a plug.

Science has done amazing things, we’ve got vehicles going round Mars analysing the rock on Mars, this is beyond science fiction, this is absolutely wonderful.  But the scientific invention that still hits me the most here [points to heart] is the telephone, not Skype, not video, but the telephone.  The fact that you can pick up a phone and hear the voice of someone on the other side of the world, particularly someone that means a lot to you, I think that’s the most staggering thing that science has done, more than Skype, which I hate, because if I see them I want them to be there, but they’re not, so for me, the telephone really is the one.  I mean, obviously, you know, disease and other things we’ve conquered, but in terms of my personal pleasure and wonder, the telephone.

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