Science as an Inspiration
Ben - Broadcaster and comedian Robin Ince incorporates a great deal of science into his comedy, quoting from Carl Sagan, Charles Darwin and Richard Feynman among others in his sets. I asked him if he felt science could find a home at music festivals?
Robin - Well, I think it's all moving on a lot now. If you go back a few years, most music festivals were only two tents, and now, if you come to somewhere like Glastonbury or Latitude, or Bestival, or the Secret Garden, they've got lots of spoken word and other kinds of poetry and stand-up. And also, there are these great things which are breaking out where someone will say, "Do you want to go into a maze or into a forest and explain something to people?" I think it's probably Glastonbury that's quite a tough one because it is so enormous, but I can see that happening. For the show I do on Radio 4, Infinite Monkey Cage with Brian Cox, we're already talking about trying to do it at Glastonbury next year - taking over a comedy tent - and I think that would work really well. And I think also, sometimes now, there's so much music that people want a break and it's nice to go to sit down and allow ideas to waft over you and also waft into you as well. If they just waft over you, it's a disaster.
Ben - It's probably not premature to say that you're one of a frontline of people who are bringing science into popular culture, but at Glastonbury, it's a festival of performing arts. Do you think science actually has a place?
Robin - I think science could easily exist in the Glastonbury festival. I think you could start with the poetry and spoken word tent - it was very small a few years ago and it's got bigger and bigger. If you started just by having, say, three hours a day in one of the tents that became the science tent, I think people now, due to things like the Wonders of the Solar System and obviously, the Year of Darwin was a great way of getting things out and people are getting more and more into that. And obviously, with CERN and all of these things that are going on, people are really interested and I think they would come. If you put someone in a tent, if you got Brian Cox in a Tent, or Simon Singh, or Olivia Judson doing one of her pieces about the Sex Life of Animals, people will be interested. They'd come.
Ben - There's a lot of people here talking about the politics of issues that have, at their heart, a scientific problem. Water Aid are here, clearly the issues of clean water and sanitation are a scientific problem. Do you think there's too much focus on the politics?
Robin - It's very difficult when you say, "Is there too much focus on the politics?". What we need to do, I think, is to educate the people and the charities to get the science ideas out there. I did something at climate camp yesterday and obviously man made climate change a very big issue, and unfortunately, due to the nature of the media, we have a country where it seems to be 50/50 in terms of people who believe in it and people who don't. Mainly, it's arts graduates writing in newspapers saying it's all rubbish with no scientific backing. To work out a way of making palatable science communication about major issues is a very important thing to do. I think somewhere like here, if people could find out more than just the political angle in the "these children dying", but to get, "these are the solutions". Because that's a great thing that science gives - science doesn't merely say, "Look at the faces of starving or the collapse of infrastructure and the biosphere - all of these things." Science says, "And if we do this...", so it doesn't become a negative thing. Often, I think with some of these charities it is driven by the negativity in the tragedy. But [with science on board], as well as giving money, not only will we be able to [help], but if we get enough money, we can start really to work out a solution.
Ben - Do you think there's a risk of alienating people if you push the politics before the science?
Robin - When you watch something like Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot where he muses on this Mote of Dust suspended in a sunbeam - I think even if people just realised how tiny we are and that we are here, suspended in this obscure part of a not particularly impressive galaxy - that immediately gives you a focus in going, "Yeah, we've got one attempt on this, on getting it right". We're this tiny little lump of rock. There is no other known life as yet in the universe. We are the only example we know of of life in the universe. This makes it a very precarious thing. Why do the other 8 or 9 planets, whichever you prefer, in our solar system appear to have no traces of life on them? Why, when we ventured out further into the galaxy, are we not picking up any sense of life? That means it's not often happening. I think just to even focus - anyone who hasn't ever watched the Carl Sagan Pale Blue Dot clip that's on YouTube should look at it because I think that gives you more focus than even 100 marches.
Ben - When you first started weaving science into your comedy sets, it was mainly focused on scepticism. What are the things that are catching your interest now?
Robin - I started off obviously by talking about psychics and homeopathy and bunkum, new-age things. Now, I'm trying to focus more and more on the actual beauty of the ideas within science. So when you look at DNA and the system of replication, mutations - that to me is a very exciting thing. The moment that you think that every single human being and every single living thing on this planet is a mistake. I always like thinking that the great thing about DNA replication is that it's cack-handed. By being cack-handed, we have thumbs, we have eyes, we have ears, we have all of these things. Other beasts can see colours that we can't see, and you look at a tree and you think of the history of the tree that's led to that. So I'm trying to talk more and more about the passion behind it rather than the negative side: that it's a great pity that a lot of people believe in something with no rationalism or empiricism behind it.
Ben - And just lastly, have we just had a Glastonbury exclusive that we should expect Brian Cox here next year?
Robin - Well, I think Brian Cox will be on the pyramid stage. He will actually be suspended like a mote of dust in a sunbeam... It's quite incredible actually. I was with Brian Cox at the Cheltenham Science Festival and, since the last time we hung out anywhere in public like that, people just go, "It's Brian Cox! It's Brian Cox!" As a rockstar, he never became a famous rockstar. He's realised that physics should have always been the route to being the famous rockstar and I think what he does is fantastic. It is very much in a tradition of things that Carl Sagan's Cosmos which was a great influence on him. People watch Wonders of the Solar System and they do go, "Wow!". That's the great thing about science. I don't like using that term "wow factor" but there is. Every day, there's something I read or there's something I look at, or just looking at the sky and the sun, and I think, "This is incredible." This is what we need to instil into society. It really is absolutely wonderful that life exists in so many different ways, and what a pity that the one beast that has learned to live by altering the landscape may well be something that destroys, or doesn't destroy, the landscape. As George Carling said, whenever we talk about how we don't want to kill the earth: we won't kill the earth - we might kill ourselves, but there'll be other creatures that will still exist. It's just that they might not have self-consciousness. Maybe self-consciousness is a glitch.