Last night, 715 people trudged out in the blizzard to celebrate science and wonder at the Skirball Center at NYU. The Infinite Monkey Cage Live in New York City is the first of four U.S. stops that this BBC Radio 4 popular science/comedy show took in its first ever American tour. If you’re not familiar with Monkey Cage, you are missing out. Currently recording its 12th season, Monkey Cage is a radio show and a podcast completely free for you to stream or download. Make sure to get the podcast version so that you have the extended run-time. Go have a listen and come back.
Professor Brian Cox is a particle physicist and science popularizer. He works at CERN and teaches at University of Manchester. He co-hosts The Infinite Monkey Cage and a series of TV documentaries. @profBrianCox
For the New York crowd only, we were treated first to a video of Eric Idle’s updated Galaxy Song interspliced with clips of Professor Brian Cox on the set of The Wonders of Life, then to an introduction by hosts Prof. Brian Cox and comedian Robin Ince live in person. As a longtime fan of the show, it was an absolute thrill to see live the banter and reminiscing of radio’s best double-act as they recounted their favorite moments of Monkey Cage over the last five years: the complaint letters they used to be allowed to respond to, a Noble Prize winner who couldn’t figure out a taxi door, and the classic moment where Patrick Stewart’s Star Trek communicator trumps a real moon rock. But then, an uncomfortableness set in. “We’re really sorry about this,” Brian said with sincerity but also with a sense of giddiness and trepidation. “Neil DeGrasse Tyson…” *audience gasp* “…decided to go to Montana right before the snowstorm and now he’s in an airport in Boston trying to get here.”
Robin Ince is a standup comedian. He co-hosts The Infinite Monkey Cage, Book Shambles, and Vitriola Music podcasts. He founded the science app Cosmic Genome. He authored Robin Ince’s Bad Book Club and edited the Dead Funny books. @robinince
While many people were looking forward to seeing Brian Cox and Neil DeGrasse Tyson in the same room together–the transatlantic counterparts to comedy-science radio success–this disappointment was counter-balanced by a replacement guest, someone who had asked to get seats in the audience and was instead given a seat on the stage. It’s Bill Nye the Science Guy.
An hour went by, which included Robin Ince doing some form of standup on the subject of science; Brian Cox giving a lecture about whether there is more life in the universe (biologists say it’s rare but physicists say the opposite), inflation, and pocket universes; and finally, a video of Richard Feynman singing about orange juice and playing bongos two days before his death.
Someone flipped the switch on the BBC recording device, the panel was introduced, and the real show began! Astrophysicist Janna Levin‘s concrete, everyday reality is working with something invisible: black holes. Actor Tim Daly played Jim Lovell in From the Earth to the Moon (“Friends called me up after seeing the show and asked how incredible it was for me to see the Earth from space.”) Roast comic Lisa Lapanelli didn’t seem to know entirely what she was doing there, but played to the New York crowd by making pop culture references to the Kardashians and The View, both of which Brian had to ask her to explain these things to the English listeners at home (Robin said, “Oh, I thought Sherri Shepherd was going to be a reality TV show about dogs and sheep.”). And of course, Bill Nye, who emphasized many times that the Planetary Society, of which he is the CEO, needs support because for just a couple cups of coffee (Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts, depending on which flavor you get) per tax paper, they could send a human being to Mars.
A lovely surprise at 9:47, Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s plane landed in LaGuardia and he Skyped in to talk to us. Robin and Brian were halfway through answering some questions posed to them via Twitter, so they hit Neil with a tricky science one. As he’s profoundly explaining cosmology, there is a ding noise and Neil’s background lights up and we can see the pillowy headrest behind him. Brian interrupts, “Sorry, Neil, but…are you on a plane right now?” Neil panned the camera over and we saw people pulling down luggage from the overhead bins *huge audience laugh*, and then out the window where the dark LaGuardia runway was slippery with snow (a plane had slipped off the runway earlier, slowing Neil’s flight down even more).
The show ran over by half an hour, so I don’t know how much of this will wind up in the final broadcast, or indeed in the slightly longer podcast version, but here are some highlights:
- The show started with Robin asking Bill how a senator snuck a snowball into the Senate. Bill bypassed that and went straight to his soap box. “People need to talk about global warming. If we were talking about this nearly as much as we talked about what happened in Ferguson, we could do something about it….When the ocean heats up, we get more snow on the coast.”
- Robin asked Bill if he ever gets tired of arguing with these climate change deniers. “Don’t you want to just say, ‘Look, just do the reading!’ and be done with it?” to which Bill Nye replied, “No.” Robin said, “Good.”
- Backstage, Janna had introduced herself as a cosmologist, and Lisa asked if she’d do her makeup.
- Janna said that time travel to the past is possible if there’s no such thing as free will.
- Janna tried to explain what it would be like to have a creature living in more than three or four dimensions. They could operate on you without cutting you open. “Imagine you have a two dimensional creature, flat on a table. I can touch its innards by coming at it from the third dimension. So, someone living in the fourth dimension could do the same to us.”
- Lisa was concerned her relatives between the ages of 14 and 21 have never taken an interest in space. Robin suggested there will be a generational gap because kids just born in the last few years will take an interest in space because of all the new discoveries happening right now on Mars.
- Tim Daly wondered about science being used for good or evil. Cell phones are good because they make you closer to people far away, but they’re bad because they distance you from the people around you. Bill assured him the technology is so new, but eventually, we’d get the hang when it’s appropriate to be texting and when it isn’t. “There’s no etiquette yet,” Janna said.
- Bill Nye desperately wanted to hear the results of the newest Higgs tests going on at CERN, but Brian said they’d talk later, there wasn’t time. The show had run over by half an hour. Time passed differently here. “By the way, you’re welcome to leave at any time,” Robin assured us after nine-thirty.
Brian Cox says this episode will broadcast in June, “which means all this talk about snow will confuse the audience.”
“That will confuse them, ” said Robin Ince, “not the particle physics.”