Uncaged Monkey Business

On Wednesday I went to see Uncaged Monkeys: A Night of 200 Billion Stars at the Hammersmith Apollo, which is sort of a stage version of the brilliant BBC Radio 4 comedy science series The Infinite Monkey Cage (the title apparently caused complaints, before the show had even first aired, that they were condoning the keeping of monkeys in cages. Ignoring the fact that an infinite monkey cage would be, as Robin Ince was quick to point out, quite roomy). The radio series is hosted by Robin Ince and Professor Brian Cox, and each week they discuss a different area of science with a panel of scientists and comedians who know a bit about science.

The stage show was a bit different to the radio show in that it was basically several lectures by scientists, interspersed with science-based comedy from Ince, and musical interludes from Helen Arney (who did a couple of cute science-based songs on the ukulele) and Tim Minchin (who did a 20-minute set at the end of the show. More on this later). There was also a Q&A session with the scientists answering questions tweeted to Robin by the audience.

During the show I learned:

  • that Moby Dick is at least as good at predicting events as the Bible, thanks to mathematician Dr Simon Singh, who talked about codes, in particular why the Bible Code is rubbish, and also how the Enigma code was broken (using a real Enigma machine to demonstrate how it works, which was really cool).
  • that every time you inhale, you breathe in at least one atom of oxygen that has passed through the lungs of Charles Darwin (and every other person who has ever lived), and so I am, in fact, breathing homeopathic Darwin.
  • that pharamaceutical companies routinely ‘lose’ drug trial data that produces negative results and only publish the positive trials, and that this shocking practice is endemic to the world of medicine, leaving doctors prescribing in the dark based on a small (skewed) percentage of the total research data that exists. Dr Ben Goldacre would be happy to tell you more about this, I’m sure.
  • that if you splice together the footage taken during all 135 NASA Space Shuttle missions (which flew between 1981 and 2011) you get an amazing 8 minute film full of wonder, comedy, and tragedy. Thanks to Dr Adam Rutherford for sharing his film with us.
  • that despite being the birthplace of the internet, CERN has trouble making a live link-up to Hammersmith via Skype.
  • that the Higgs boson might actually exist, maybe.
  • and that Professor Brian Cox plays piano quite beautifully.

The lectures were all extremely interesting, and delivered with humour as well as authority. Brian Cox told us about the exciting things that have been happening at CERN recently, in particular the report published this week that provides the first hints that the Higgs particle might really be real. He also explained the basic principles of particle physics and why the Higgs boson needs to exist for these basic principles to be correct. Which was great, because physics tends to go over my head, and I never had really understood what it was all about (I am but a lowly biologist, after all). I understand it now. He also attempted a live link-up to some of the scientists at CERN to get their reactions to the good news, which apparently worked better than it had the previous night, but was still a bit patchy. Which is not to say that it wasn’t awesome.

Tim Minchin was the final act of the evening, and he did several songs including the brilliant statistics-based rationalist love song, If I didn’t Have You

He was also joined on stage by Ed Sheeran for his second song, Prejudice (if you haven’t seen it, look it up and you’ll see why Ed was there!), and on the final song was accompanied by Brian Cox on piano! Who was surprisingly good (yes, I know he used to be a keyboardist, but let’s face it, the quality of musicianship in the average ’90s pop band was not particularly high).

The whole night was absolutely inspiring, and great value for money: they were on stage for 3 hours (not including interval). The nerds were out in force – Brian and Robin kept marvelling over the fact that they were standing on the same stage on which David Bowie performed his last show as Ziggy Stardust, in a venue that has hosted Motorhead more times than any other band (fact), talking about particle physics to a sold-out audience and getting laughs from jokes about Linux commands and Carolus Linnaeus performing unsanitary acts with donkeys (don’t ask). I think it’s a great sign that there is still a healthy interest in science in this country, and I’m so glad that there are people doing shows like this. There should be more of them! I would definitely be there.