The words “rock star” and “scientist” rarely go together. This is because the world of science is closed to most of us who last properly paid attention back in school, and are now only lured into reading something scientific if there is a funny headline about a study finding that riding roller coasters makes it easier for people to pass kidney stones. Accessing science, and especially the complex debates that are currently roiling the scientific world, can seem like an impossible task unless you’re willing to wade through a lot of jargon. As always, podcasts can come to your rescue.
A clutch of popular shows attempts to welcome the curious listener back to this universe, with a number of different approaches towards making science more palatable to the lay listener. “Radiolab”, for example, is one of those shows that uses the documentary style to break down complicated concepts, and as a result is frequently cited as one of those podcasts that got people into the medium. The Guardian’s “Science Weekly” offers more of a magazine package, catching you up on the latest discoveries and debates through interviews and reporting.
“Rock star scientist” Brian Cox has a different approach altogether, one that might make it even easier to jump in for those who have not had to think about science after the academic horror of studying organic chemistry in school. Cox was a keyboard player for two British bands before he become a professor of particle physics, but it isn’t the musical background that makes him a rock star. He’s famous in the United Kingdom for being one of those people, like Carl Sagan and David Attenborough, who uses mass media to popularise science.
Cox co-hosts the Infinite Monkey Cage, a BBC Radio 4 show recorded in front of a live audience, with the internet getting the full hour-long version rather than the one edited for the radio. Co-hosting with him is Robin Ince, a British comedian who offers the perfect humorous foil to the nerdy, physics-obsessed Cox.
The Infinite Monkey Cage, a BBC podcast hosted by comedian Robin Ince and physicist Brian Cox, which puts scientists and comedians together to create a show that actually makes the world of science fun and accessible without dumbing things down.
Episodes to listen to:
- Improbable science, in which the panel for the first time discusses a question that has yet to be answered: When is a strawberry dead?
- The Mind vs the Brain, a recent episode that takes a look at whether the mind is simply “a product of the biology of our brain, or something more than that.”
- Parallel Universes, a mind-bending episode on the idea that ours may not be the only universe out there.
- Six Degrees, in which actor Stephen Fry and science writer Simon Singh join the hosts to discuss if there really are just six degrees of separation between all people.
Most episodes feature four panel guests, usually three scientists all of whom have an expertise in the topic picked for the day, and one comedian. That unusual mix, comedians and scientists, is what makes this one of the best science podcasts out there. Ince and the guest comedian often act as a funny audience surrogate, asking the sorts of questions that ordinary folks might have, which keeps the show from simply being a jargon-heavy academic discussion. And the co-hosts introduce unusual themes to ensure that the experience is fresh. Recent seasons, for example, had episodes on predictable topics like antibiotics but also branched out into things like the teenage brain, the secret life of birds and one entitled, ‘are we living in a simulation’?
Previous guests have included people like writer Alan Moore, actor and author Stephen Fry, actor Patrick Stewart and astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who runs a similar scientists-and-comedian podcast of his own in the United States, called “StarTalk” (currently suspended while the parent company looks into sexual harassment charges against the host), and a host of scientists who are experts in their fields. The title comes from a theory, often cited by creationists hoping to rubbish evolution, that an infinite number of monkeys hitting keys on a typewriter will “almost surely” eventually type out any given text, such as the entire works of Shakespeare.
“Monkey Cage” is a great gateway to the world of science and science podcasting, and because its subjects are so fascinating, you can easily binge listen all of its archives too. If “Monkey Cage” has inspired a resurgent interest in science, you can go on to shows like “Stuff You Should Know”, “The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe” or “Invisibilia”, all of which use different formats while attempting the same thing.
In some ways, this corner of the podcasting universe reminds you exactly why the medium is so compelling: You might not otherwise have returned to this world because even accessible scientific writing can occasionally feel like a drag, but here are a few comedians to handhold you through complex debates, without dumbing things down. Maybe if you have listened to enough of the show, you might even start thinking about the answer to some of the toughest questions that come up, including the one that has turned into a Monkey Cage t-shirt: When is a strawberry dead?