Should we be trying to contact alien life or should we be hiding from the universe? According to a forensic botanist, what makes a strawberry dead or alive? Why is the Higgs the Laverne and Shirley of physics? Find out in season 12 of BBC Radio 4’s The Infinite Monkey Cage.
This season, hosts Professor Brian Cox and comedian Robin Ince jump the pond to tour their popular science & comedy program throughout the States. They got off to a bit of a shaky start, what with panelist Neil de Grasse Tyson stuck in Montana and unable to make it to the New York kickoff show, but Bill Nye the Science Guy makes a suitable replacement, even if the episode isn’t as good as the rest of the season. (See my full review of the live show in New York for details.)
Los Angeles is one of the highlights of the season, bringing on Eric Idle to sing the Cage‘s theme song. Robin Ince says, “Oh look, there’s Jeff Linn, considered to be the fourth greatest music producer in the world, playing the banjaleilei for an Eric Idle written song. Just another normal day in my life.” (Indeed, on that trip, he and Jeff Linn had dinner at Eric Idle’s house with Steve Martin. How very L.A.) One of the eye-opening things here is just how fast science changes: Idle’s The Galaxy Song was factually accurate…when it was written in 1982. Science has discovered so many things so quickly, the song’s now considered inaccurate. Similarly, in the next episode (Chicago), they talk about how dinosaur fossils, just within our lifetime, were shifted in the Natural History Museums from being upright like people to leaning forward like predators. Not to mention the back peddling of the once renowned Brontosaurus.
In true L.A. form, this episode is all about science in movies. They discuss how Marvel thought “worm hole” sounds too 90s, so Sean Carroll contributed “Einstein Rosen Bridge” to the Thor script; Gravity is full of misinformation, such as all those satellites would not be in the same orbit and their underpants would be much more absorbent (Eric Idle: “Alien and Gravity addressed that all women in space wear men’s t-shirts.”); and how Danny Boyle listened to Brian Cox’s scientific advice for Sunshine and then rejected some of it, such as that spaceships make no sound in space–if it’s silent in a movie, it just looks like you’ve run out of budget.
The other highlight is San Francisco, where they are joined by Dr. Carolyn Porco, who worked on the famous Pale Blue Dot photo and the Day the Earth Smiled photo. Along with astronomer Dr. Seth Shostack (who says if you don’t hear anything from SETI by 2050, you are the smartest race in a universe or you’re doing your experiment wrong), comedians Greg Proops and Paul Provenza, they discuss what they should send into space following the much too brief (and containing a Nazi) Golden Record. It’s suggested that we should send (1) the Internet and (2) Miss Universe because, as Proops points out, she’s already been elected and probably wants world peace.
The six-episode season rounds off with two episodes back home, where Cox and Ince can make jokes more familiar to people who are…well, more familiar with Cox and Ince, such as doing impressions of each other. Here, we learn that the speed of light protects us from time travel (causality) and that some people are better at shedding DNA (through dead skill cells) than other people. Basically, it will make you never want to commit a crime because of all the stuff forensic scientists can learn from dirt, pollen, brambles, and even the water in the lungs of a drowned person. Dr. Mark Spencer suggests the difference between a dead strawberry and a living strawberry is whether its mitochondria are functioning. And finally, Brian leaves us with the Rutherford joke, that a certain politician is “a Euclidean Point.” He has position but no magnitude.
After 68 episodes, The Infinite Monkey Cage is going strong with wonder and hilarity. Make sure you get the 40+-minute podcast versions from iTunes, rather than the 30-minute edited versions from BBC’s website. Extra content–hurray!