Benedict Cumberbatch

Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch is the Cambridge Science Festival's guest director this year. He spoke with Naked Scientist Ben Valsler...
06 March 2013
Presented by Ben Valsler


Benedict Cumberbatch


Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch is the Cambridge Science Festival's guest director this year, meaning he's been assisting the Cambridge University festival team with putting together the programme for the two-week event, which launches on March 11. He spoke with Naked Scientist Ben Valsler about his interest in science and his role in the festival...

In this episode

Benedict Cumberbatch

00:00 - Benedict Cumberbatch gets naked

Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch talks to Naked Scientist Ben Valsler about his role as guest director of the Cambridge Science Festival

Benedict Cumberbatch gets naked
with Benedict Cumberbatch, Actor

Benedict - Well, I found out because I was at the Royal Society I think last summer it was and I met Barbara Sahakian Professor of Clinical Neurospsychology and I...basically I was there because I narrate this documentary that Prof Stephen Hawking does for the Discovery Channel called Stephen Hawking's Universe. But at the end of a little clip of the highlights of the coming season they then had this fantastic discussion about where science is, where it could be in the next 20 years and what are the issues facing both science and the world and what the world needs from science.  And it was so eye opening, so articulate, and the level of discussion was so invigorating that I just, I kinda went out on a high. I hadn't really heard such extraordinarily clear ideas, brilliant communicators, fantastically interesting subject matters discussed with such intelligence for a long, long time. And I met Barbara afterwards in the corridor and we were fired up and we were talking about certain aspects of what came up and in particular I think an understanding of science as in the media image of science, the need for lightbulb moments and eureka headlines in order to gauge the public interest, to fire up funding, and all of the sort of social and ethical issues that are complexified how science presents itself in the world. I got talking and of course I started getting very excited thinking about the ethics of science re: my work and Frankenstein and the little sort of shards of involvement or links to her incredible expertise that I had and an interest that I had in them and we talked and talked and she said should we keep in contact and I said I'd love that. I want to have more conversations, I want to hear more conversations like the ones we've just heard tonight. And she was good to her word and I kept in contact with her and I got a call a few months I guess later saying how would you like to be the guest director of the Cambridge Science festival and I went Oh God, what have I got myself involved in? I'm not a scientist. I wouldn't know where to begin! And how on earth do you cover as broad a canvas as what science is, I mean how do you begin to encompass, say, for example,  Barbara's specialty, in Neuropsychology with Stephen Hawking's specialty, in Astrophysics. And just how on earth you answer the questions the very very large how and why is the universe in existence to what a very specific trial psychotropic drug might do to an Alzheimer's patient and I thought well that's exactly it isn't it? And then all you have to do is personalize your interest with your work and what you have engaged with as a lay person outside of the requirements of roles and performances or jobs, and dive in. And I kind of did, and they've been brilliant, they've been very supportive and I sort of suggested a couple of things and I wrote the introduction and I wish I could be there in person but as I begged them to realize early on because of my very fortunate position at the moment I seem to be working nonstop and that's a very good thing in an actor's life so I have to just keep on doing that until the offers dry up but I'd love to be there in person. I just think it's fantastic. I think, to have a forum where adults, young adults, curious lay people as well as experts and as well as children can come and literally get incredibly messy with handpaints and light and whatever interactive tools they are going to use for the family events and then sort of working your way up for that the sort of jovial things like the crime scene, which I think might be a fun thing for the family to go and visit and try their hand at being a detective, to some of the leading experts in the world coming to talk about their disciplines is terribly exciting, and to have that all under one umbrella, it's a great thing, it's a great reason to shout out about it. So here I am shouting out about it.

Ben Valsler -   It's very interesting that you should mention both Professor Barbara Sahakian and Professor Stephen Hawking because they both exist in very different realms of science, and, arguably, they both have very different reasons to want to communicate their science. Barbara, for the uninitiated, is a Neuroscientist, and works in Schizophrenia, in smart drugs, in conditions that are very heavily stigmatized in the public, and clearly a drive for her to help people to understand what these conditions are, where they come from, how we can treat them.  Stephen, on the other side, of course, is working on Cosmology on some of the biggest questions we can ask, which is far more abstract and the drive to communicate that is far more about getting people interested and asking people to be curious about the really big questions. Do you think you can easily bring these two aspects together into something like a science festival?

Benedict - Well for the very reason, I think the answer is in the question. The very variety of disciplines and the extraordinarily different disciplines that science encompasses, answer questions as varied and broad as How can we use a new drug to patterns in the brain that may determine whether or not Alzheimer's is going to take hold or you know psychotropic  drugs that need to be researched and marketed and have an immediate application to questions of how  we came into existence and what existence is and the very nature of our know, I think that's what's wonderful about the science festival is that you  can basically cherry pick which end of those polarities you want to explore and rather than being something that specializing like a conference perhaps would in one specific discipline, you have the ability to go to your interests within this program, which is one of the reasons I applaud it. I think the Science Festival is a really amusing and entertaining and informative way of engaging with these very important and influential topics.

Ben Valsler - I suppose for the same reason that science festivals are a fantastic vehicle for children to find out what it is that they might be interested have a child who has a sense of wonder about the world, a sense of enthusiasm for science. An event like this will allow them to see what it's like to be a biologist, what it's like to be a neuroscientist, what it's like to study the cosmos and to actually start to form aspirations towards being a scientist.

Benedict - Yeah I think anything that encourages curiousity. Children sometimes, sometimes in a very difficult way, ask Why? and that level of curiousity, that seed of wanting and questing and thirsting for knowledge is what's so extraordinary about what science can give as far as a view into understanding the Whys of the  world. It's a great introduction, I think, for children. There are lots of very child friendly events as well as adult and expert events and it's natural. It's a very instinctive biological imperative, a hard-wired imperative, something that's just utterly , well, for want of a better expression, in our DNA, is to understand our environment. To intuit, but also to try and volitionally explore and conquer and create and move and understand and I think anything that bridges the gap between curiousity and knowledge is a very very healthy thing in our society and I think that's why Science Festival is a fantastic event to take a child to.

Ben Valsler - Was it nice to know as well that your portrayal of Sherlock Holmes has actually directly inspired one of the events, The Sinister Scientist?

Benedict - Yes, I was sort of waiting with baited breath to see what might come about. It sounds terrific, and I genuinely wish I could go there. Because, I mean, you can imagine, I've had a few conversations with policemen in my time of playing this role, and of course there's only so much they can talk about.  I'd love to go on a crime scene. But this is sort of the perfect safe way to do that and not get in the way of some very important and serious work and try your hands out at the sort of expertise that I'm supposed to be a master of as Sherlock Holmes, but thank God for Conan Doyle and Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss for making me appear that way! So, yeah, no, I was thrilled that they did that, and I'd love to visit, if only for that one event. But, sadly, I think I'll be doing the real thing, as in playing Holmes, at the moment that people are doing that so I might miss it.

Ben Valsler - We can hope as well that that will actually inspire the next generation of forensic scientists, people that have seen this on television and think: That's the job for me.

Benedict - Well, you never know, I mean, there's an awful lot, he, he's the origination of fictional detectives I think he really is the unique template and I think there have been an awful lot of other fantastic creations that have come since, but with him, yes, you're right, I'm sure it'll romanticize that job enough to a level that might intrigue people enough to follow up and try to find a career in it because it's a fascinating of what we all are genetically hardwired to do, which is to understand and ask why, and how. We live day to day with using that reasoning and I think from childhood onwards, that first step into adulthood is start asking why to gain an understanding of your world, why it works the way it works and how it works is really what learning and becoming an adult I guess is all about. Yeah, I imagine it might inspire a few. Who knows? But, it'd be good if it did.

Ben Valsler - I confess, as a scientist, one of the things I like so much about Sherlock Holmes is that he takes the mystical and he takes what appears to be intuition and he breaks it down and he explains how we can arrive at these conclusions based on facts, based on inference and experimentation.

Benedict - Yeah, that's what's extraordinary about him. He has a sort of superhuman ability but it is actually a very human, studied, achievable ability. It is an extraordinary effort, and requires a hell of a lot of sacrifice, which is maybe why he's...ahh...slightly sociopathic at times and impatient with mediocrity and the sort of mundanities that most of us are graceful enough to put up with, with a bit more patience than him. But, you know, he genuinely achieves what he is capable of by hard work so that is inspiring. And he unpacks the mysteries of the me, that's, again, it's this age old question about what mystery is, what the unknown is. We can all stand in awe of the unknown and the majesty of what we are part of in this life but I think the beauty of science is that it is as beautiful to me as any religious or spiritual revelation to untag an understanding of your world. There's so much to wonder at even though we have a really specific understanding of these things that we wonder at. It doesn't diminish the romance of these discoveries, you know? You can still be in awe of something even if you understand it and I think that's what's remarkable about Holmes and of course he does it with a flourish which is entertaining and that can be quite fun. He likes to pull back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz, he likes to see, you know, what's going on, what makes the machine work rather than just standing back and going Gosh, isn't that just fantastic! And I think that's a good thing I can completely see why that marries with scientists and their investigation of the world.

Ben Valsler - Some of your more recent roles, in particular in Star Trek and in the new Radio 4 adaptation of Neverwhere involve touching on aspects of science. Obviously, Star Trek being Science Fiction, there's a lot of Cosmology, a lot of space flight.  In Neverwhere there is a lot of discussion and the effects of altered states of perception. So, do you think that actually, through discussing these issues in art, we can, for example with Star Trek, again, we can encourage people to look more into space technology? With Neverwhere we can encourage people to consider the effects of altering our perception and the way this might effect them culturally, rather than necessarily in terms of scientic facts?

Benedict - Yes I think, you know, any gateway into appreciating science and investigating the real world of science in more detail is welcome, and I think if SciFi or fantasy fiction can do that, that's  great. Sometimes fiction and art can marry with science and that's a great thing.  I mean, we were working in this extraordinary space in a lot of the sequences that we did for Star Trek: a real location in Northern California not far from San Francisco called NIF (National Ignition Facility) and it's a place where Ed Moses and his team of extraordinary scientists are basically trying to create fusion, not fission, but fusion, they're trying to create hydrogen fusion, and they're using lasers fired at the most extraordinary speeds through various lenses that reflects the rays and change them from x-rays to gamma and I can't remember what they end up with when they hit the target, which is half the breadth of human hair, of hydrogen in this huge cell. Hopefully, one day, and I think it is a question of when not if, create this alternative energy supply. It's terribly exciting. One burst of this could power San Francisco for over a year. I mean, it is the stuff of science fiction. And, yet, there we are, running around, pretending that we're in space, doing certain things I can't talk about because the film hasn't come out yet, and we're in this amazing futurescape that's there now, that's part of our lives and culture now. That was really exciting, exhilarating, and there was a huge trade-off between the scientists working in the facility and all of us with our truckloads of cameras and dollies and lights and bells and whistles of the circus and us running around and all the actors in costume and our interaction with these people. They loved it, and we loved being with them. It was a was a really special moment, actually, a really, really special moment. It was a privilege to be there they loved the entertainment of seeing this crazy circus come to their town! And so yeah I really do think there is great fruit borne by literature and art and music and film, in any form of expression that can go beyond pure science that can intrigue, and really captivate people, motivate people within world of science but also outside to take an interest in science. I think that's great.

(transcript courtesy of


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