In November 2009, we had no idea what Pluto looked like. We didn’t know the Higgs boson existed. And we were just starting to realize that humans may once have interbred with Neanderthals.
That was also the month that The Infinite Monkey Cage began, a BBC Radio 4 comedy and popular science show hosted by Professor Brian Cox and comedian Robin Ince. Now almost a decade on, the show is about to celebrate its 100th episode on Wednesday, July 11, with a host of guests lined up including Neil deGrasse Tyson and Alice Roberts.
But before that milestone, we decided to catch up with Brian and Robin to get their views on the last decade of science. What are their favorite discoveries? What’s the biggest threat facing our planet right now? And would they live on Mars? Find out below.
How does it feel to have reached the 100th episode of The Infinite Monkey Cage?
Brian Cox: It feels very different. The first episode was a small studio show, the suggestion was it was going to be called Top Geek.
Robin Ince: They did try and do that, the Top Gear of science, but we were always against that idea. You did a panel show, which was going to be about the week’s news in science, you and Kevin Fong and Adam Rutherford.
Brian: Yes, and that didn’t work, partly because no one could tell us apart. The idea was just three scientists with similar voices and very similar views, in other words prioritizing reality over anything else. And so they thought well, instead of that, why don’t we try with a comedian. I didn’t really know Robin.
Robin: We’d met a couple of times and I guested on that show, and that led to the job that’s lasted 100 episodes! The first two series, there were things they wanted, we had sketches in the first series, and we had Matt Parker, a brilliant stand-up mathematician. But it took two series before they went, actually, you can just have a half-an-hour conversation about science, which doesn’t belittle it or mock the science itself.
What have been your top science discoveries since the start of the show in November 2009?
Brian: Well certainly the Higgs [boson].
Robin: It’s weird isn’t it. Because it almost coincides with when you became so busy on TV and radio that you weren’t at CERN anymore. Then you left, and suddenly with you out of the way, bloody hell. Sterling work wasn’t it! Now he’s gone we’ve collided the correct particles together.
Brian: If you think about it, Higgs’ paper was published before I was born. So my whole life was waiting for that moment as a particle physicist.
Robin: I do [like] the Neanderthal story. I went out and met Svante Pääbo, who did really the main piece of genetic research, they got the DNA and helped realize how much coupling there was between what became Homo sapiens and Neanderthals.
Brian: It’s a technology revolution. The fact that sequencing DNA was extremely expensive and difficult back in 2009. And now it’s basically trivial. You can do it for a few thousand dollars. And that’s why these big advances in biology arrive. Also if you think about it, recently we went to Pluto. We had no idea what Pluto was like. And Cassini was really just beginning to return science, and now we suspect the rings of Saturn are young for example. We didn’t know.
Robin: I found the images from Curiosity on Mars [when it landed in August 2012] were something that was so, that was the moment that felt startling. That ability to have such clear images of another planet. That felt like a tremendous moment of enlightenment. It was beautiful and astonishing.
And what’s your least favorite discovery of the last decade?
Brian: I don’t think there is such a thing. You can be a theoretician and a discovery could be made that disproved your theory. But the true scientist is delighted when that happens, because they’ve learned something about the universe. So I don’t think there is such a thing as the acquisition of a piece of knowledge which is to be regretted.
Is there something you hoped would have been discovered now that hasn’t?
Brian: I think many of us at the LHC thought we would see a theory like supersymmetry, which would provide an explanation for dark matter. That is slightly surprising and intriguing that we haven’t seen that. If you’d asked me in 2009, before the LHC switched on, I would have said we’d probably find a Higgs-like object, but we may well find supersymmetry as well.
In March 2018 we said goodbye to Stephen Hawking as he sadly passed away, and Brian you went to his memorial service of course. But what has the world lost most with his passing?
Brian: Stephen was unique, he was one of the great scientists of his generation undoubtedly. But also, he made a profound contribution to public engagement. He was iconic, and that’s important, to have an icon who’s a scientist. He was still making contributions scientifically right up to the end of his career. So we lose that. But we also lose probably the most iconic scientist in the world. And that’s essentially irreplaceable.
Robin: He has an impressive IMDb page, doesn’t he? You look and go, that’s interesting, there’s a human story. And then that is a gateway into looking at the physics.
Brian: It’s an almost unique story. [Cosmologist] Carlos Frenk said he had to develop a way of thinking that was unique, because of his disability. He couldn’t write equations down, for example, so he couldn’t do mathematics in the normal way. He began to think more geometrically, which is very useful for general relativity. That gave him a tool that other physicists didn’t have. And that meant he made discoveries that other physicists may not have made for quite some time.
We recently celebrated the birthday of Henrietta Swan Leavitt, an unsung hero of cosmology who helped discover our galaxy was one of many. But who are your unsung heroes of science?
Brian: Well Henrietta Swan Leavitt is a good example actually. It was a beautiful example of seeing patterns in data that nobody else had really seen, because she was working with that data every day. And so I think that essentially the basis of the distance scale in the universe constructed on her work is a quite remarkable legacy. There’s also Emmy Noether. There’s a thing called Noether’s theorem, where she’s written a deep connection between symmetry and conservation laws like momentum and energy. And that connection now is in all textbooks, and it comes from the work of Emmy Noether. You don’t really hear about it until you get to the second or third year of an undergraduate degree.
Robin: Do you know the website Trowel Blazers? It’s a great site of a bunch of women who worked broadly in the Earth sciences. And every single week you find someone and go wow, there’s only this one black and white photo left. They’ve been entirely left out of the story.
In the last 10 years we’ve seen the rise of Elon Musk, and a lot of discussion about colonizing Mars. When we spoke last time Brian you said you wouldn’t live on Mars. Have you changed your mind?
Robin: You’ve got a smashing house in France.
Brian: Mars is a horrendous place to live. It will take a very special type of astronaut. It’s very different from going to the Moon or sitting on the International Space Station, where you’re always a few hours away from Earth. Psychologically, no one has been that far from Earth. And we’re talking about months, perhaps a year from Earth. And I think that’s a challenge that we don’t fully understand.
Robin: Even every one of the Apollo astronauts, having spent days on the Moon, that was enough to change their psychology quite remarkably. Whether it’s Charlie Duke, Alan Bean, or Buzz Aldrin. Being that distance away, it seemed to have a very different effect on those people. There’s a worry of a false alternative option, if you keep looking and going ‘I think we should populate another planet,’ which certainly at this point in its existence is not made for life.
Brian, you were involved in Asteroid Day on Saturday, June 30, discussing ways to protect our planet from asteroids. But what’s the biggest threat facing our planet?
Brian: It’s very unlikely a large asteroid will strike us. We know about most of the really big ones, if not all of them, the dinosaur-level extinction-event asteroids. But we don’t know about the city killers, the small country killers. But the biggest threat I really do think is still human stupidity, or however you want to put it. I still think the most likely way we’ll wipe ourselves out is nuclear war, either accidental or deliberate. The long-term threats yes, science can deal with them. But it’s the short-term threats, those between humans.
Robin: The popularity of zealots.
Brian: That’s a great name for a band!
Robin: Even a year ago Brian would go ‘but if you just show people the evidence’. But we are realizing now there’s got to be new ways of showing the evidence.
The Infinite Monkey Cage’s 100th episode will be broadcast in the UK on Wednesday, July 11, at 9am on BBC Radio 4 when it will also be available to watch on BBC iPlayer, and then on the BBC Red Button from Monday, July 16. If you’re in the US, you can download the podcast from a number of places including iTunes.