This week saw the start of the Uncaged Monkeys tour – the first ever national science tour to be let loose on the British public. Robin Ince (co-presenter of Radio 4’s ‘Infinite Monkey Cage’) is the host, and he’s joined by Simon Singh, Ben Goldacre, Helen Arney, the ‘Peter Andre of particle physics’, Brian Cox, and a smattering of other sciencey people over the different dates.
I watched the Birmingham leg last night at the Alexandra Theatre, a curious, timeworn place where you expect Ken Dodd to jump out from behind a curtain at any minute, waving his feather duster. The theatre was completely sold out and busier than Berlusconi’s bedroom. Maybe it’s the Brian Cox effect – two girls sitting behind me were discussing whether to hire the binoculars when he came onstage. Either way, it felt a long way from my undergraduate physics days.
The master of ceremonies, Robin Ince, is a very, very funny man. I’d quite happily pay to see him perform his own stand-up show. But last night was all about the science, so on with the boffins. First up was Ben Goldacre, who gave a talk based on his ‘Bad Science’ book about medical scandals, drug trial farces and Daily Mail scare stories. A lot more fun than it sounds, especially when he laid into TV nutritionist ‘Dr’ Gillian McKeith and talked about signing up his dead cat, Hettie, for the American Association of Nutritional Consultants.
As expected, Brian Cox did the wide-eyed ‘Wonders of the Universe’ thing that he could probably do in his sleep by now. This man seems to have a superhuman ability for memorising long numbers, and all credit to someone who can explain both relativity and the Standard Model in five minutes without batting an eyelid. He also played this clip of Carl Sagan describing the ‘Pale Blue Dot’ image, taken by Voyager 1 as it looked back towards the distant Earth – really beautiful, humbling stuff.
Simon Singh kept on the astronomy/cosmology theme with his Big Bang talk, as did Helen Keen with her irreverent overview of the Space Race (conclusion: we owe our space successes to Nazis and Satanists). The other Helen, of the Arney variety, provided an awesome musical interlude in the form of ukulele songs about animal sex rituals and Countdown presenter envy. Just a normal night at the theatre, then.
Science in a theatre worked surprisingly well. OK, so the production values were virtually non-existent (the nearest we got to special effects was Simon Singh electrifying a gherkin), but the presenters and their Powerpoints were alone enough to captivate the audience for the full three hours. Bells and whistles obviously aren’t needed when the subject matter is this mind-blowing. Or maybe that was just the effect of Prof Cox’s velvety tones…