Inspired by Science

01 March 2009
Presented by Ben Valsler, Helen Scales.

This week we're seeking the science of laughter and music. We're speaking to comedian Robin Ince about how geneticists and astronomers can inspire stand up comedy, listening to the music of the world's first online science music festival, and genetically profiling comedienne Kathryn Ryan. We also get the giggles to find out what happens in your brain to make laughter so addictive. Plus, we'll follow the footprints of human evolution, find out how Jupiter and Saturn acted as celestial bulldozers, and discover how a cheeky octopus left an aquarium knee deep in water!

In this episode

17:23 - When Science meets Comedy

Comedian Robin Ince is currently touring the UK wilth 'Bleeding Heart Liberal', a show inspired by science and scientists. He joined us to tell us about his favourite astronomers...

When Science meets Comedy
with Robin Ince

Robin - Bleeding heart liberal was originally going to be a more political show than it is but it started edging more and more into things about Carl Sagan and Voyager and Robin Incewhat was put on a golden record that went through space for whatever lucky extra terrestrial would find out about it. There's some poo jokes in it and when there's not poo jokes it's probably me either talking about my favourite geneticists or astronomers. I think at the moment it's a very enthusiastic show. I think that's what I am. I'm halfway between being a self-loathing curmudgeon and an Open University lecturer who's actually eaten some mushrooms he found under the bark of a tree.

Ben - It sounds like a risk actually to talk about, as you said, your favourite geneticist. I'd imagine a lot of people don't even have a favourite geneticist.

Robin -   I think part of the key to it is to, right from the start, lay out the fact that you are not smarter than the audience. You can sometimes look supercilious or superior whereas I am playing it very much from the angle that I'm not from a scientific background, I've got increasingly into science. I try and make it as silly as possible. Part of the humour is perhaps the ridiculous man jumping up and down doing nursery rhymes that were supposedly invented by Gregor Mendel.  

Ben - I take it from that Mendel's your favourite geneticist?

Robin - Do you know what, they're so troublesome! You know the way that James Watson just suddenly fell out of the chart last year, whether it was justified or not? I just find I'm always fascinated by intellectual monks. Whether they're inventing tonic wines, whether they're noting moments where the moon has been struck by a small asteroid or whether they're counting wrinkles in smooth peas.

Gregor MendelBen - Well that's the Mendel story. You said you mentioned your favourite astronomer. They're in the news a lot at the moment because it's the International Year of Astronomy. Who would be your pick for that?

Robin - In truth what I often do is I have a pretend top 3, of which I never reveal two of them, which allows me to constantly change my list without anyone realising, year by year. Ultimately it is probably Carl Sagan, just because Carl Sagan's my favourite scientist. I know that many people would say that  his level of scientific achievement in terms of discovering a new theory or whatever it may be is not great but  his zeal, his passion, the fact that he brought so many people onto science, reading  his books which combine magnificent poetry with hard facts. I find I'm quite obsessed by him. Eratosthenes, I've been trying for five years to write a routine about Eratosthenes, the man who first got an approximate idea of what the circumference of the Earth was through shadows, sticks and wells.  I still haven't found it. Maybe when I come to Cambridge or Norwich I shall attempt another making Eratosthenes funny routine.

Ben - Science inspires you, how are your audiences responding?  

Robin - Every now and again there are some people who are a little bit confused. I was doing a gig  in Bromsgrove. Because I was just sitting, waiting outside the stage door I just heard a couple go  past go: "well to be quite honest I didn't quite understand quite a lot of that." It's a starting point hopefully. What I've found that is lovely is finding that people have gone out and bought books by Richard Feynman and books by Carl SaganCarl Sagan and other science books off the back of seeing me tour and play music festivals. I think that people are much smarter than we imagine. For instance, when I play Reading and Leeds music festivals they said afterwards, if I was you I might dumb down for Reading. I found at Reading you can play to 3000 reasonably drunk teenagers and they will get what you're talking about. If you approach something passionately and hopefully there are some jokes in there as well they don't immediately switch off. It's not just about drinking and shagging and the things which TV seems to believe is the only thing that an audience can handle.

Ben - This year is also an anniversary of two hundred years since Charles Darwin was born and 150 years since the Origin of the Species was published. How does Darwin fit in your show?

Robin - I think the first time I became truly fascinated was reading an essay by Jacob Brunowski where he talks about, if you drove past down on the 3rd day of the 3rd year you'd have seen a young man playing a bassoon to a flower. It was Darwin making his son playing a bassoon to see how it affected flowers. I thought this is an interesting man. Obviously I also am a reasonably big fan of the theory of evolution. It seems like a pretty good theory to come up with. The show does end up on about 15-20 minutes about Charles Darwin, about having 20 years locked in your head - having this amazing theory - and then I can't resist a little  bit about the woolly-headed nature of creationism.

Portrait of Charles DarwinBen - Do you think there is a movement towards more science-inspired comedy. Several of your peers: Ricky Gervais is obviously pro-science - not a lot of it makes it into his stand-up routines.

Robin - No I don't think a lot of it will make it into his new show which is titled 'Science.' There is a huge and accidental rational movement basically. I think after we put together the show 'Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People' where we, on the science side you have Simon Singh and Ben Goldacre and Richard Dawkins and various musicians - people like Jarvis Cocker and Darren Hayman. And then comedians and all of them were doing something on the rational world. You have people like Dara O'Brian, Chris Allison, Stewart Lee and Josie Long. All of them are approaching things from a rational perspective, especially Dara who has a physics background. He's very excited about talking about science. I think the reason is perhaps because TV isn't really pandering very much to intellectual programming. I hate - that's a terrible thing to say but knowledge, learning and anything like that. There has been an accidental rational/scientific movement to start in comedy.

24:35 - Addicted to Laughter

What happens in the brain when we hear laughter? Is there a neuronal basis to why we find the giggles so compelling...

Addicted to Laughter
with Professor Sophie Scott, Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, UCL

Helen - Professor Sophie Scott from University College London has looked into finding out what's going on in our brains when we see other people laugh.  Hello Sophie.  Thanks for joining us on the show today.  What's going on inside our brains when we hear other people laughing?

LaughterSophie - What's going on when you hear any kind of emotional sounds, when you hear somebody screaming as well as going 'ugh' as well as laughing what we find is the part of your brain which you would use to process heard sounds is activated.  Also we find the parts of the brain you would activate to yourself produce facial movements and noises is also activated.  It's part of what you're doing when you hear people expressing emotions in their voices.  It starts to join in a little bit with the type of emotion their expressing.  Interestingly, we're finding it's much greater for laughter than it is for a highly contagious emotion like disgust.  Nonetheless the laughter effect is much bigger.  It seems that when you hear somebody laughing your brain is really strongly responding to an attempt to get you to start smiling.

Helen - So basically your brain is getting ready to smile, even if you're not at that point of smiling.  Do we know if that's what's going on really?

Sophie - That's what going on.  There are people who aren't smiling, they're not laughing but they're just listening to the sounds.  They're told not to move or to do anything.  Nonetheless even though they're being told not to engage with these sounds at all their brain is gearing up much more when they hear the laughter.  We're interpreting that as the precursor of people actually starting to smile.

Helen - How are we finding this out?  How are you looking inside people's brains and finding out what's going on when they're hearing different sounds or other people?

Sophie - We're using a technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging which is a way of taking photographs of activity inside people's brains when they're, for example, listening to different sounds or they're doing different things.

Helen - Why do you think this might be?  What are the ideas behind it?  Why should we want to mimic laughter?

A girl smiling or laughing.Sophie - It seems to be that, obviously different emotions have different functions.  Laughter has a very important function as a group activity.  People like to group to laugh with other people.  We laugh more when we're with other people.  In fact, if you look at groups of friends talking to each other they'll try and make each other laugh all the time.  It's actually something we do as a strong social bond.  You'll find this in other primates.  We're not the only species of monkey that laugh.  There's groups of chimpanzees that do laugh.  They do this in the same way to reinforce bonding.

Helen - I wonder if we would start smiling if we hear chimpanzees laughing.

Sophie - You would do.  It sounds very much like a human laugh.  You can hear that it's not human, it's different.  It's definitely a laugh.

Helen -   Babies make laughing sounds too don't they.  Do we know that's a similar reason why gurgling, happy sounds come out of us when we're still very tiny?

Sophie - I think that's a very good point.  It does seem to be one of the first kinds of behaviours that really emerges.  Children often cry from the moment they're born but babies start to smile and laugh around six weeks.  That seems to be a really important function for establishing close bonds with their care givers.  Parents are always absolutely thrilled when their baby starts smiling and laughing back at them.  Then they'll really go miles to try to get the baby to laugh.  It's got this really strong positive bonding quality.

Helen - Presumably we do feel good when we laugh.  Is that part of it as well?  Are there hormones that are making us feel happy when we laugh?

Baby and mother chimpanzee at Baltimore ZooSophie - Absolutely.  And I'm supremely unqualified to talk about them but I'm talking about the activity side of the brain.  I'm not really addressing the chemical changes but undoubtedly there's going to be all these feel-good hormones.  It feels great if you sat and talked to good friends and have a good laugh.  It's a lovely feeling.  That's going to be one of the things that's enforcing the quality of the interaction.

Helen - We think that maybe we've been laughing longer than we've been talking.  Is that right?

Sophie - There are some people who've argued that because you find laughter in other primate groups and some people have argued in other mammals.  Laughter would be one reason for us to get together and have social bonds form between us even before we talked to each other.  It's something we could do as a group of people before we could even necessarily have words.

Helen - I like the idea of wordless Stone Age jokes, wonderful!  There are different types of laughter, aren't there?  We think about laughter just being something to do with a joke or something that's funny.  We laugh when we're nervous or perhaps as cruel laughter as well.  Do you think the brain's going to respond differently to different types of laughter?

Sophie - I think this is almost certainly going to be the case.  I'm just looking at one type of laughter.  We were taking quite genuine sounding laughs that didn't have any particular quality to them.  There weren't any evil laughs or nervous laughs.  When you consider that people actually laugh in lots of different ways.  If you ask what makes people laugh they will tell you different things.  In Germany people will give you a different answer than people would here.  That's associated with different qualities of laugh that people in different cultures are better attuned at hearing.  I think there's undoubtedly a whole story within this of different kinds of laughter and different ways that we use it.

Helen - Is it all about the sound of laughter or if we look at someone else or see someone else laughing.  Is that going to give us a similar response in our brains?

Sophie - I think so.  You must have had the experience of sitting in a meeting and you can see in your peripheral vision that one of your colleagues has started giggling and they're not making any noise yet but they're shaking in the way they're laughing.  It starts to have that effect on you.  I think it's something that's not bound to be expressed in the auditory modality.

Helen - Sometimes people make nasty sounds: screaming and retching.  You said there wasn't such a strong response.  We're not pulling a face as much or preparing ourselves to pull a face when that happens.

Sophie - There was a degree of an effect there but it was a much less strong effect than the negative effects we looked at.  It did seem that there's a little bit of understanding emotions made by other people seems to be that you engage motor areas - these areas you'd use to make actions yourself.  They're much less strong than they are for these positive emotions like laughter.  It can't be something to do with the contagion of emotion itself because we know that disgust is really contagious.  If you're with somebody who looks at the bowl of food and goes 'ergh' you're going to feel a little bit sick.  You'll probably not want to eat that food yourself.  It's very contagious but it doesn't seem that when they go 'blergh' you have to start going  'blergh' as well.

Helen - Just as well to hear them!  Where are you going to take this next?  Are you going to start planning to look at more detail at what is going on inside our brains when we're preparing to laugh and smile?

Sophie - There's all sorts of things we're trying to do with this.  One of my colleagues who's been working on this since I started has been off looking at laughter in other cultures.  She's been off working with people living in very un-westernised societies in the Namibian Desert.  Lo and behold they actually laugh in the same way.  It is interesting to look at the really strong commonalities across groups.  It's also interesting to start looking at these things in terms of understanding normal and abnormal brain function.  Can we find some of these patterns of these responses to very positive emotional noises; are they reduced in any particular clinical groups?  People who really aren't finding life very funny, are they showing depresses responses?

32:14 - Profile of a Comedienne

As part of the Routes programme from Channel 4 and the Wellcome Trust, Nivea Funny Women award winner Katherine Ryan volunteered her DNA for profiling. We hear from Katherine about the...

Profile of a Comedienne
with Katherine Ryan, Steve Jones

Meera - At the end of January Channel 4 and the Wellcome Trust launched an 8-part online miniseries called  'Routes' which saw award-winning comedienne, Katherine Ryan, send a sample of her saliva  to a lab in a bid to help her understand what's hidden in  her genes.

Katherine RyanKatherine - For the routes project I had to spit in a tube and send away my DNA to have a full genome profile done.

Meera - Before you did it how did you feel about having your DNA sequenced? Were you nervous?

Katherine - I was always open to the idea of - I'm not afraid of information. I think that  it can only help you. I really was interested to know the result.

Meera - You already knew a little bit about your genetics before you did this, didn't you?

Katherine - Yeah, I've had some bad news already, I guess. I had a melanoma two years ago that was a little bit advanced. I had to have a few surgeries to get rid of that. That's a particularly aggressive form of skin cancer and there are different genes they can test, different markers that might say you'd have a higher probability of getting cancer than someone else. It was just something that I'd love to do to see what else is in there and I'm having a baby this year. I really wanted to see what I might be a carrier of.

Meera - What did you find out?

Katherine - Funny things. I found out that I'm not resistant to malaria or the norovirus. I'm not resistant to AIDS, which is weird.  I didn't know anybody was resistant to AIDS! I learned that Lupus [Systemic Lupus Erythematosus] is closely related to coeliac disease, which runs in my family. They're both autoimmune disorders. I have a prostate cancer gene, but I don't have a prostate gland so I'm okay! I don't have schizophrenia or Parkinson's or cystic fibrosis carrier traits. Some good news and bad news all mixed in there. It's a huge profile that you get back. Some of the information was that my eyes are blue, I knew that. I'm very white. I think that some of my ancestry comes from Ireland and nowhere else. It was all very interesting. I add research to it all the time. They compare your results to people with the same background and there's always something new to learn.

Meera - That was comedienne Katherine Ryan discussing her experience of having her genome profiled. How is this profile actually done and how relevant is the information that it provides us with? I met up with Steve Jones, Head of Genetics at University College London to find out, starting with why spit is such a good sample to use.

Steve - To start with it's not really spit. Spit is just an organic liquid. More important is what cells float in it. Cells are what your body is made out of. There are trillions and trillions of cells. That will contain enough cells for them to take off to the lab, take DNA out of it and do this magical sequencing.

Meera - Once a sample has been sent off what actually happens to get a sequence of someone's DNA?

Steve - It's quite a complicated business. There's a whole variety of methods of actually doing it. One way is to basically take a set of molecular scissors which snip, at a particular point, 3 letter sequences. You snip all the way along the DNA into tiny little fragments often overlapping with each other. You look for the overlaps and then rebuild up the whole sequence. That's how you do a DNA sequence. I think what this young lady had done probably wasn't quite a sequence, it was looking at individual points in the DNA to see whether they varied compared to the population as a whole.

Meera - What does looking at particular points or markers in someone's DNA, what can that tell you about someone?

DNASteve - In some ways looking at a short length of DNA is a bit like looking for a surname. If you look for a surname in the European system it passes from fathers to sons, to grandsons and so on. Any short length of DNA, as long as it's short enough will travel down the generations as a block of letters. By looking at that block of letters you're really sorting out your identity in relation to the other people around you. They look at predetermined points, spots in the DNA which they know varies from  person to person, and which quite often we know predisposes to certain inherited conditions, perhaps in association with the environment.

Meera - once someone has their genome sequenced in this way what is the result of this sequencing that they see?

Steve - What you can produce is what's called the haplotype which is just a statement of what your identity at particular points of the DNA is. If she's interested in health there are particular genes which predispose to certain diseases. Some are well-known diseases like cystic fibrosis which she'd probably know already if she had but it could possibly tell you that maybe, for example, in order to get lung cancer you need to smoke. You need to have one rather common genetic variant. There was once a hope that you could screen lots and lots of people and tell them I'm afraid you've got the gene that if you smoke you will almost certainly get lung cancer. The hope was it would stop people smoking. It doesn't.

Meera - Some people worry about genome sequencing because they are concerned about finding out what diseases or disorders they might get. Surely it's not just your genetics. Environment also plays an important role, doesn't it?

Steve - There are occasional rare genetic diseases, things like cystic fibrosis that if you've got them really obviously it's the gene that makes a big difference. The environment doesn't make all that much difference. There are many more like heart disease. If you have particular genes it is particularly important for you to avoid a fatty diet, not to get overweight, not to smoke and that kind of stuff.  I don't deny this is true. This is certainly true.  That's true for everybody.

Meera - Geneticist Steve Jones explaining how Katherine's sample would have been analysed to provide her with her profile of susceptibility and resistance to certain genetic disorders.  To find out more about Katherine's experience or play the range of interactive games that Channel 4 have developed to explain the world of genetics visit the roots website at

38:41 - Geek Pop - Science and Music Collide Online

The world's first online music festival - Geek Pop, is dedicated to science inspired music - Vicky West explains more...

Geek Pop - Science and Music Collide Online
with Vicky West, Geek Pop

Ben - Geekpop is an online music festival dedicated to  music about, or inspired by science. To give you an idea of the sort of music we're talking about here's a sample of the song 'nanobot' by 'A Latin Punk Circle.'

 ALatinPunkCircle - Nanobot

Ben -   Hi Vicky, thanks for joining us.

Geek Pop 09Vicky - Thank you for having me.

Ben - Geekpop is a fantastic idea. How did you come up with this?

Vicky - It was a bit of a pet project really.  Me and a couple of fellow geeks were doing a post grad course in science communication which is very serious and all about expelling the myths of scientists being these labcoat-wearing, bespectacled people.  We just thought, it's not all about this.  Sometimes there are geeks who are quite happy to be geeks and have a bit of fun with it as well.  We threw it open on our Facebook group just to come up with some science-related pop music.  We had the usual suspects: Atomic Kitten - fairly tenuous links.  It just kind of snowballed from there.  We started getting contacts from lots of bands who were either working in science or were writing about scientific matters.  They were asking to get involved and whether there'd be a platform to share their music. That's how the GeekPop festival came about, really.

Ben - As you said, it's an online music festival.  When I think of music festivals I think of very large, muddy fields.  I think of knackered tents, big stages, loud bands.  How does this work online?

Vicky - It's basically, if you imagine your favourite festival, in the comfort of your own home or car or wherever you listen to your mp3 player.  We've got 4 different tents.  There's the tetrahedron, (other shapes are available), the reproductive stage, the tesla tent and the experimental stage as well: much like many of the big commercial festivals.  There are lots of different styles of music at each tent.  You obviously don't have to pay.  It's free-of-charge.  We ask people to get online - - and download it to your mp3 player.  Then you can have this virtual festival experience whenever or wherever you like.

Glastonbury MudBen - So you're not tied down to particular times of live events that you're streaming across the internet?  You can actually download these and listen and stop and start wherever need be, go back and listen to a song again.  This is actually a lot better than going to a real festival where you'll get caked in mud and all the really good bits you'll have to rely on your (somewhat shoddy) memory for.

Vicky - Indeed.  Memories aren't always the most reliable at festivals, are they?  I don't know what your experiences are like, Ben.  It's pretty much that.  Although it feels like a live experience you can revisit it any time you like.  If there's a particular band you're into.  We also have some exclusive green room areas as well.  If you want to find out more about a band or the science behind a song we have lots of interview about those bands.  There's some online content as well.  You can literally pick it up and put it down as you wish.  It's an annual event.  Last year's turned into a much bigger event than we ever anticipated.  We've got big hopes for this year's event as well which kicks off on the 6th March, which happens to be our national Science and Engineering week as well.  Purely coincidental.  It'll be up there for some time so you can pitch in at any time you like.

Ben - That's good to hear.  The last clip of the song we heard was clearly and very obviously a song written about a scientific topic.  I've been sent a sample by a band called The Standard which seems to be rather less directly scientific but more inspired by something.  Let's have a play at that.

 The Standards - 11 Dimensions

Ben - That is a tiny bit tenuous.  Have you had to turn anyone away?  Has someone turned up and said - 'I've got this song, it's all about science I'd like you to publicise it for me on the net,' and you've had to say, 'well, I'm sorry but that's just misleading science?'

Dawn breaks at Glastonbury Festival in the year 2000Vicky - Absolutely.  We do have elements of quality control.  It's not a free-for-all.  Everyone's had to audition in a virtual festival environment.  The bands that have made it through - I hope that anyone that downloads it will agree - they're all really good quality bands.  Very diverse and like you say lots of them are directly science related and lots of them quite tenuous.  Yeah, they've all earned their place at the festival.  We've got lots of people that will be frankly gutted, I would imagine!  There's always next year.

Ben - Where do we have to go online to listen?

Vicky -   You can head to  As of March 6th the brand new festival will be up there.  At the moment you've still got an opportunity to listen to last year's festival.  You can also join us - we've got a Facebook group which is very popular.  Just look for Geekpop.  We also have Twitter as well.  If you're into Twittering you can join along.  The week before the festival things are getting very hyper and lots of Twitter activity going on there.  We've also, being a festival we do have a lost and found facility as well, albeit a virtual one.  We're appealing for people at the moment to get involved to anticipate things they might lose and indeed find at a festival.  If you want to take part ahead of the release day then do get in touch either by Facebook or the website.

45:37 - Google Power?

How much energy is used when you do a Google search?

Google Power?

We put this to Eric Teetzel, Program Manager for RE(less than)C at Google:

RE(less than)C is an initiative that we started to advance technology and renewable energy, to make it cost competitive with fossil fuel power generation. We've done the calculations internally and I think anybody that's tried to do carbon accounting understands there's a lot of complications and nuance. The basic premise is that one Google search uses about 0.0003KWh worth of electricity. That's Ã?,± some and that then translates, based on emissions load, into somewhere around 0.2g of CO2 per search that we answer. To actually do the things that we do all of our online services require machines. Those machines are basically all housed in facilities we call data centres. Those machines are typically servers and networking equipment. The way in which we do the energy calculation per query - we look at not just the exact machines that touched the query as it comes in our data centre but we also look at allocating networking routing costs as well as what we would call just 'overhead.' It takes energy to build the index to be able to effectively answer the query as they come in. We also allocate those costs across all of our search presence. That's how we come up with the number of 0.2g per search or 0.0003kWh worth of electricity.


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