~ Posted by Samantha Weinberg, April 18th 2012
"Inside and outside the theatre, you are requested to obey the laws of physics—and allow neutrinos to go through you," announced Robin Ince at the start of his new touring show, "Happiness through Science". It was a science joke, of the sort that Ince, primarily through his BBC Radio 4 show, "The Infinite Monkey Cage", has brought to an ever-wider audience, who are now comfortable with jokes about subatomic particles and the principles of dilution. In Bath last week, the cardiganed comedian spent two and a half hours riffing on eugenics, the Higgs Boson, trepanning and Comic Sans typeface. He says local radio hosts ask him: "How can shows about science be funny; what can you talk about?" Ince replies: "Everything that is—and is going to be."
Science in Britain is in rude health: the British government has maintained spending on science, while slashing almost everything else; in his Dimbleby lecture in February, Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel Laureate and current president of the Royal Society, announced a massive new scientific institute next to St Pancras station, and the likes of Ince and his "Monkey Cage" companion, the luminously youthful Professor Brian Cox, are listened to and watched by millions. Our own current issue carries a major feature by Bryan Appleyard on "extremophiles", the little critters that live in the hottest, deepest, most seemingly inhospitable parts of Earth (and beyond) and the "This Season" section about upcoming events now features science alongside dance, theatre, music and film.
Richard Holmes called his recent book about early-19th century Romantic science "The Age of Wonder". The early-21st century may be another. "Science," Ince told his audience in Bath, "far from destroying the magic, as so many people fear it will, only adds to the beauty and mystery of life. Just think: every time we take a breath, we breathe in a million billion billion atoms of oxygen. And in every breath there will be atoms breathed in by Charles Darwin." He paused. "You are breathing homeopathic Charles Darwin."
Samantha Weinberg is assistant editor of Intelligent Life