Comedian mixes science with humor

Audrey Deng, Entertainment Editor

Physicist Brian Cox and comedian Robin Ince host the U.K. radio show “The Infinite Monkey Cage,” which combines science and humor with questions from non-scientists to propel discussion. WSN spoke with Ince about the show before the pair’s performance at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts on March 5.

WSN: Why is the show called “The Infinite Monkey Cage”?

RI: It is called “Infinite Monkey Cage” because the title offered to us was “Top Geek.” Brian and I were not so keen, so I locked myself in a room and worked on every possible pun, scientific play on words and confused cluttering of letters, and IMC is the one from the list of 2,000 that we went with. We wanted something that didn’t tell you too much about the show, but suggested what it might be. We still get letters from people who have different definitions of what they think the title
really means.

WSN: Where do you get the inspiration for your topics of discussion?

RI: The inspiration for the topics often comes from us sitting around in bars, drinking and getting worked up. Sometimes, Brian and I see or read something and think, “Hell, I want to know more about that, let’s use our radio show as a honey trap to get a bunch of scientists together whose minds we can drain.” Brian is never too keen on neurological
stuff — that’s when we have the biggest arguments — he gets worried it may lead to philosophy, and you know how some particle physicists get tetchy with that. If he had his way, he would want us to do 10 shows on quantum cosmology for one on anything else.

WSN: Do you each have a particular topic which you most enjoy discussing?

RI: My least favorite topic is quantum behavior in photosynthesis. I got very confused when we did that, but generally, I love them all. I am a universal idiot so most subjects we cover will at least be the first sticking plaster over that predicament. Very often it is not about the subject, it is about the passion of the guests. There’s nothing I like more than watching two planetary scientists violently arguing against each other about where we should go next to look for life — “I say we go to Enceladus.’ ‘No way, we’ve got to go into the caves of Mars.” and on it goes.

WSN: What do you think is the main problem with science education today?

RI: In the U.K., I don’t think there is enough time given to teaching curiosity about why we are as we are, and the cosmos is as it is, is taught. So many facts and equations, not enough passion. We need more critical thinking taught too, to work out who to believe and why we should and how we can test them. People shouldn’t fear scientists; they are not another species. Never fear asking a question; however stupid you may fear it is, if you want an answer, take that risk — there is no shame in not knowing, but there is in not wanting to know. Risk being a fool, you may well learn something.

A version of this article appeared in the Thursday, March 5 print edition. Email Audrey Deng at [email protected]