The Infinite Monkey Cage, season 13

Professor Brian Cox and comedian Robin Ince, who are both enjoying an alternate reality as puppets over on the children’s web-tv program The Quest for Wonderwelcome another bag of good gets in their comical science panel show on BBC Radio 4. If you’re unfamiliar with The Infinite Monkey Cage, it’s a radio show of comedians and scientists discussing one science topic per episode, and who nearly always manage to crowbar in the Great Strawberry Debate.*

By far, the highlight of the season, and perhaps the entire 13 seasons thus far, was the episode “What is Race?” It begins with Robin unable to stop making jokes that sound racist but aren’t, and winds up delving into fascinating science facts about race and ancestry. Did you know:

  • You only have to go back a few thousand years to find a common ancestor to everyone alive today, and slightly further back is the iso point (every person alive that year is the ancestor of everyone alive today OR no one alive today
  • Shappi Khorsandi says that the DNA testing to see your racial makeup is a high brow version of star signs because the test compares your genome to the genomes of people alive today, not the actual people from the past who you are related to. Therefor, if the test says you’re Scandinavian, it means the people who currently live in Scandinavia. The actual people in your ancestry line may not have emigrated to Scandinavia yet.
  • East Asians have a mutation that gives them dry ear wax and skin oils that don’t stink.
  • Oxytocin is a hormone that makes you friendly and social.

“What Is Reality?” is an episode that will take you for a spin. Indeed it made my head twirl for a couple days. In this episode, Robin talks about how when you stare into the mirror without blinking for too long, you start to hallucinate (something I used to do all the time as a kid), and David Eagleman says it’s to do with the internal model, which is not what you actually see but what is going on in the “theatre in your head,” that is, what you think you see. If you don’t move your eyes, your brain starts making up reality, like when you go to bed and dream. Similarly, when you do move your eyes, your visual cortex is turned off, meaning you are functionally blind 15% of the day. Your eyes only take in new information while they are still. Your brain–the internal model–fills in what it expects to see so that you never realize you’re blind. Other interesting facts and ideas from this episode:

  • Sophie Scott says “orange” is a recent addition to the English language.
  • Night animals don’t need color, so they lose that ability. Primates have somehow got color back.
  • Neural pruning: You have more synapses in your brain at age two than in the rest of your life. You don’t need that much information so you lose it.
  • Baseballs move faster than the conscious mind can interpret, so you can focus on prioritizing hitting the ball and your mind reserves experiencing the story of hitting the ball until later.
  • Inuits have a cultural fear of going mad for a day, running around with no clothes on, stealing, and eating feces with no memory of it the next morning.
  • David Eagleman says past experience leaves imprints on your nervous system.
  • We use 100% of our brain all the time.

Other highlights of the season:


Proudly, Jo Brand admits she’s never seen Star Wars or read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Trying to save her from the tutting of his nerdy fans, Robin Ince tries to save her with, “Were you more a fan of the Dirk Gently series?”


  • Robin and Jon Culshaw have an extended impression-off, which includes impressions of Brian Blessed, Tom Baker, John Peel, and an excellent Brian Cox.
  • In the episode “Artificial Intelligence,” they determine that real intelligence is the ability to make tea in someone else’s kitchen; whereas playing chess is narrow intelligence and much easier to program.
  • It takes 200 million years for the Milky Way to go all the way around.

I wasn’t terribly into the episode “Maths of Love and Sex,” though Paul Foot is one of my favorite Monkey Cage guests. “Climate Change” was really interesting because it moves on from the same old stuff we’ve been hearing for the last few years about climate change deniers and tells us where the world is actually at now. CEOs are actually starting to take action.

As always, The Infinite Monkey Cage is a half hour free program available from BBC Radio 4’s website, but better yet, get the 45-minute podcast version (again, for free) from iTunes.

* The Great Strawberry Debate is “When is a strawberry truly dead?” This conundrum continues this series with suggestions, “when it loses its potential to germinate if planted,” and “when its Krebs cycle ends.”


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