Heckled by Equations – the perils of being a renaissance fool

During a recent radio interview, I was asked why I did shows about science.
What was the point?
This wasn’t asked acerbically, just a plain question of “why?”
Why, after becoming intrigued by science in my twenties, did I feel that it was a subject for comedy?
And why should an idiot like me take the risk of constantly being heckled by physicists, furious that I had misunderstood quantum electrodynamics.
I was unfortunate enough to air my first science joke in a basement comedy club that just happened to contain the writers and crew of a BBC Horizon documentary on the cutting edge of 21st century cosmology. I could barely understand the heckle it contained such a lengthy equation and language that was arcane to me.
I am a renaissance fool. I have read just about enough on a broad enough number of subjects to be wrong about almost anything. Frequently, i have just enough knowledge to misconstrue. This remains useful, as audience members will corner me in the theatre bar to explain where I went wrong. I leave with sheafs of scribbled notes and diagrams, intoxicated by both alcohol and information.

I used to be scared of science and scientists. It seems so complex, so otherworldly, that to even approach it would just be a reminder of my shortcomings. But then, it became irresistible. I had been reading a book about Charles Darwin (Annie’s Box by Randal Keynes, I recommend it), and as I sat on stationary train, I looked out of the window and realised there was more life framed by that window, a horse, a couple of trees, some grass, and things too small to see, than there was in the rest of the known universe.
Then, I thought of all the life within me, mites, microbes, and bacteria within me, and thought of the walking menagerie I am and you are.
Looking at the stars that night, I thought of the journey of the photons that were now hitting my retina.
Sitting on chair, I pondered all the empty space of the atoms it was made from, and yet the lack of paranoia that the atoms would forget what they were doing, and I would crash to the floor.
I read about the Caputo Effect, and so I stood in front of my bathroom mirror in low light and and stared directly into my own eyes. Sure enough, after a few moments, my face began to change. My head seemed to vanish. Others find they seem to become aged or monstrous. A simple experiment that shows that, when input is minimal, you mind might just start making things up.
I think these theories and ideas make the world more fulfilling, an escape from the humdrum into thought experiments and questions. I enjoy talking about physics on stage because afterwards, physicists approach me and explain where I have gone wrong, so I am constantly still in class.
I have learnt not to fear scientists. You may think your question is stupid, but if it something you want an answer to, bite the bullet and go right ahead, you’ll find that scientists are happy that you are interested. they don’t expect you to understand quantum mechanics, cosmology, or Lagrangian mechanics as they do. Don’t trust the maxim, “better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt”, who learns anything that way.
When the show is over, it is not over. People go home and try the experiments, they share their results, the conversation continues. With each new idea, your image of your world and the universe changes, the same picture becomes different, the background becomes fuller, brighter, more detailed. It can make the seemingly mundane and everyday sparkle.

I consider the advice, “better to be presumed a fool, than to talk and remove all doubt”, dubious. I keep opening my mouth foolishly, and it often leads to a bout of education.

I was hoping Brain Cox would now type something erudite here, but he’s missed his deadline. You could watch this space, or use your time better by watching space, it’s probably what the professor is doing now.

For USA readers, we are off to a few of your cities in March 2015.

To UK readers, we are doing a series of Christmas science shows in London. See www.robinince.com

And to Australians, I will be visiting in April 2015.