Josie Long is a stand up comedian and writer. Her material usually focuses on politics, science and social justice. In 2006, she won Best Newcomer at the Edinburgh Fringe and regularly tours the world performing stand up. Josie is a co-founder of the Arts Emergency Service charity.
When you’re talking about the Universe it brings up a lot of poetic and artistic feelings that you’d want to explore
On science at school
What went wrong with my science education? Well, I think it is the enforced separation of subjects, and also I think it’s individual personalities of teachers, but it’s so artificial to say that chemistry and biology and physics are blocks of knowledge and you can look at those but you don’t have any interdisciplinary stuff, even between those and then, on top of that, you can choose those or you can choose humanities or you can choose arts, but you are allowed this much and that much of each of these things.
Like, with GCSE options, that was sort of the death of my ambitions as a renaissance woman and enlightenment gentlewoman because it was so prescriptive. We had to do three separate science GCSEs, one humanities and one art. So you either get history or geography, which is in itself ridiculous because it’s like, either you want to find out about the past or the world, but you can’t do both, which is ridiculous, and then also the fact that history and geography…we did do history of medicine as a module but it’s sort of like the idea that history’s in itself a little pod of things that aren’t relevant to science. Like, you wouldn’t learn about the history of science and then, geography, ugh, my God…
And then you could only do one of art, music and drama. When I was a kid I really loved drama and I really loved art and I wanted to do art, drama and music and I did not want to do biology, chemistry and physics because they seemed dry and prescriptive and it felt like we were being taught by rote and it felt like it had no relevance to me as a creative individual and as someone who wanted to have a fantastic interesting life. Which is so sad cause last night I was doing the recording of The Infinite Monkey Cage with Robin – who is sat there, but you don’t even know that – and, um, Neil deGrasse Tyson was there and he was talking about his view of what it meant to, kind of, be a child and be struck by scientific wonder and he was talking about curiosity and empowerment of, kind of, finding things out and being really interested in the world around you and stuff like that and all of those things for me were how I approached art and creativity. It was always about, like, what do I want to find out, what do I want to make for myself, how do I question things and, sort of, liking things like philosophy and literature a bit later on. So for me it’s like, the same human spirit of enthusiasm and of commitment to getting bigger and better, that’s the heart of everything. And that’s what looks at science and what looks at art and looks at other things.
That was a real digression. Basically, at my school I couldn’t choose art, music and drama and I had to do biology, physics and chemistry and I just hated that. I hated that control put on me and so I didn’t want to engage with it. Especially chemistry; I was like, ‘This is so annoying and so stupid and so irrelevant’. And now it is a shame because, like, experimentation is such a wonderful concept.
But I suppose what makes me think I am an artist, or like an artistic personality…oh, I’ll tell you what, as well, Neil deGrasse Tyson was talking about playfulness and about being a child and keeping that childlike wonder that you have. And that, to me, is like the hub of creativity, like, you’ve got to be open like a child to mucking around and failing and stuff like that. But I prefer artistic experiment to scientific experiment because I don’t like rigour, I don’t like the idea of having a control, I don’t like the idea of having to redo things, although I like performing over and over again the same thing, but, for me, I much prefer the directness and the scattiness that comes with just performance and stuff like that.
So I think it’s interesting. And I think you have to take it right back to what it means to be a human being and what it means to look at the world and have an attitude of looking at the world that is positive and engaged and then you realise that art and science is…it’s stupid to even have terms like that when it should just be living well or living badly or furthering knowledge or not furthering knowledge or making other human beings lives better or not making other humans lives better, you know.
On taking it out on chemistry
So, I was like, ‘If you’re not going to let me take art GCSE I am going to put my head on the desk in chemistry and I am going to rebel’. So pathetic. But what I did was, the day after I finished my chemistry GCSE I took all of my notes and I ripped each page individually out of them and I scrunched them up into a very hard ball and I built a bonfire and I lit it from the bottom. But then obviously I recorded how fast it burnt so that counts.
I did not do that. But I do remember chemistry where you recorded how fast a peanut burnt. That was fun. And I think that chemistry is quite exciting but I think as well, like, they take these concepts of, like, the chemistry of energy and of violent massive reactions in chemicals and of actual chemical and physical changes that are…if you think about that, that is wonderful and fascinating and they reduce it to, ‘Sit quietly with your partner with a tiny amount in a thing’, and, you know, it’s really hard to see the bigger picture and even when the chemistry teacher is doing experiments for you, and I had some chemistry teachers who were great. Like, I don’t think I had particularly bad teachers at all, I think they were lovely but, you know, even if they’re trying really hard to demonstrate it to you, if they’re in this sanitised kind of class environment within the fake lab of the school and stuff, I think it’s really hard to keep that sense of being big and vital.
It’s the same with physics as well, like, the classroom is not necessarily the easiest place to feel the immensity of it, you know, and the importance of it. But I also would say it’s deliberately and artificially separating it from the rest of your life because when you’re talking about the universe it brings up a lot of poetic and artistic feelings that you’d want to explore and it brings up a lot of philosophical things that you want to explore and all of that is better.
On science being labeled dull and hard
Oh, I’ll tell you something! I found out last week that, well, the thing is science isn’t boring and hard, it’s just that celebrity culture is so skewed towards the arts – which is fair enough in a way – and also, since as child you’re really told to divide things up into those distinct categories that are separate from one another or should be compared against one another, so when you’re choosing your exams and it’s like, choose maths or choose art, only one from those brackets, when there’s loads of ways maths and art interrelate. So what I would say to people who aren’t interested in science is, I found out, and I didn’t know this, that whales, all aquatic mammals, they all evolved out of the sea, and then went back in again!
Like, they went out and then they were like, ‘Nope. This isn’t for us. Back in.’ That is amazing! And I had no idea because I just thought, you know, start in the sea, everything came out but stuff that didn’t come out stayed there, but no, man! And goats are really closely related to whales. Goats are. And that is true, that isn’t even a joke, it’s 100% fact, evolutionary fact. Goats are related to whales. And in Pakistan they found like loads of weird, you know, old skeletons because they came out, because Pakistan used to be higher, and that’s true. They went out, came back in. If that doesn’t make you consider it a treat then I don’t know what does.
On the science of stand up
I was talking to Adam Rutherford the other day at one of Robin’s gigs and he was showing me these proposals people had done for different experiments, it was like a fun competition where members of the public get money to fund certain experiments about any sort of range of science. Some were, like, psychological and some were about birds and all kinds of things and just then, thinking about all the different factors was really exciting to me. ‘Well, you have to factor in this and of course you have to factor in that,’ and thinking of all the things that could affect an experiment, that to me is very similar to writing stand up, where what I’d have is a thing I want to write about and just try and bash out all the different directions it could go and all the different places you could take it. So it’s a really similar feeling of excitement that, you know, you’re doing something unique and important. I dunno. Not important.
So there’s a scientific method to my stand up. Very often. Very often. Cause I try my hardest to think what’s logical and what makes perfect sense and what can be joined in…yeah, I do have a very scientific method. Of jokes.
On rediscovering scientific wonder
It was when I was thinking about the size and the scope of the universe. I bought myself Astronomy For Dummies about five or six years ago and just, just sitting still and thinking about it; it’s the same thing as imagining and creating, just suddenly you let yourself really, really think about it and really feel that you can’t properly take it on board and it’s, that is the, you know, the absolute essence of what it is to wonder: it’s something that’s like, ‘Ah, it’s astonishing’, it’s exciting. So that, and just thinking about astronomy in general actually, and thinking about the fact that there’s so much romance and poetry about it but it’s also something that’s, you know, thinking about the relations between very, very small things and very, very big things and how they mirror one another and the idea that loads of meteors come out of space and land on your head and they’re that tiny that you’ve got billion year old meteors on your head, just walking around, and things like that. And the time limits of the universe as well. It’s astonishing and it’s delicious.
On having irrational beliefs
I sometimes think that I can think what other people are thinking, and not just through empathising with them or through being an experienced human being, sometimes I think, ‘I can read your…’ or I worry that other people can read my thoughts and I think, ‘Well, they wouldn’t tell me, but they probably can’. And sometimes I also think I really want to see a ghost even though I don’t believe in ghosts. And I also know that I can’t read other people’s thoughts and they can’t read my thoughts. But sometimes I do think, yeah…
I also have a mystical belief that the person that I’m supposed to marry will make themselves known to me in a superstitious way. That’s quite mystical. And, what else, I’ve quite a few that I don’t want to have but they definitely exist, unfortunately, yeah.
On taking things on faith
There’s a lot of things that I don’t feel like I have the time or the brain to find out and so I will definitely, ah, like I will trust the scientific consensus about most things because I think, ‘It’s not a prank’. You know, I trust people who, um, do those things as their living, like, a lot of the time as well, with politics it’s quite tricky but there’s a few people who I really trust the brains of and I trust how they analyse things so I’ll rely on them as news sources and stuff like that.
And there’s things you can’t empirically know. I mean, there’s that thing, the Bertrand Russell thing of going, ‘Oh look, there’s loads of stuff really, I suppose, but come on, let’s just get on with it’ and that’s fine. I’m happy enough with that about certain matters of empiricism, things like that, I’m perfectly happy to think that reality coheres with me being awake and stuff like that. Because the times in my life where I’ve felt like reality was bending, like I’ve been very upset or very traumatised or very tired, and the times I’ve thought, like, ‘Oh God, this doesn’t feel real’, that’s too frightening. So I’d rather just go, ‘This is a table, this is a chair, let’s just get on with it’.
And saying science is another religion? That’s mental. It’s not. It’s constantly being added to and tested and tinkered with. It’s the closest you can come to certainty and yet it’s open enough that things can change and things can be moved on. It’s the opposite of faith; it’s evidence based. And that’s good. Evidence and physical things based. And even when it isn’t, like, they were talking about the Higgs, Brian Cox was talking about the Higgs boson and how initially that bit was just added on to make the maths better and then it’s been proved retrospectively in real life. So even things like maths that people are like, ‘Well, you know, it’s abstract, can you know it’, you can be like, ‘You don’t understand what abstract means, ok?’ So it’s all alright.
It doesn’t make things less beautiful to think about how they work. It doesn’t make things less real or tangible if you analyse them in a physical sense, for example. It doesn’t mean that you don’t feel in love with somebody if somebody says, ‘Well, actually, what your brain’s doing is it’s releasing these hormones, blah blah blah’, it doesn’t mean you go, ‘Aw, now I’m a robot and I don’t have any feelings. What a shame.’
Of course it [science] makes you happier because it’s down to medical science that you can stay alive, you know? It’s not something that robs the world of beauty and colour, it’s something that adds to it. And it relates to all other things, like, the science of sound doesn’t mean that music feels less magical, it’s just another thing. And the more that you can learn the more that you can find out about, you know, the more alive you feel and the more kind of enriched and invigorated you are, I think. And the more things you’re interested in, the more alive you feel.