What is the official protocol for being contacted by aliens? Why do birds’ brains shrink after sex? What’s happening to all the bananas? These questions are tackled in the 14th season of the popular science radio panel show The Infinite Monkey Cage, hosted by comedian Robin Ince and Professor Brian Cox.
This season whooshes us away to on-location stages at the Glastonbury Music Festival and the Blue Dot Festival, where we meet celebrities like Noel Fielding, Ben Miller, and Charlotte Church, and great minds like Richard Wiseman, Lucy Cooke, and Sophie Scott.
Glastonbury Music Festival
In “The Sound of Music,” we are treated to a song by KT Tunstall, as the recording in front of a live audience is part of the Glastonbury Music Festival. Here, the monkey cagers discuss not Julie Andrews but the nature of music, primarily in relation to other animals. Are humans the only species to make music for fun or do gorillas who hum while eating exhibit the same behavior? Did you know that male birds’ brains (and testicles) shrink after sex because they need bigger brains to create music to attract mates? Is there a connection between dancing and vocal mimicry skills, as exhibited by Snowball the dancing cockatoo, parrots, Asian elephants, and sea lions? We also learn that the tri-tonal “Devil’s Note” was banned from churches, possibly because it was just too difficult for the choirs to sing. A special note on this episode: I always recommend downloading the 45-minute podcast rather than streaming the 30 minute radio broadcast, and this one has some especially good banter in the podcast version.
Lucy Cooke: A house sparrow’s testicles go from being the size of a pinprick to the size of a baked bean, which is equivalent to your testicles shrinking to the size of an apple pit, Brian, when you don’t need them.
Robin Ince: As if he still uses his own testicles. He’s got a butler to do that.
Brian Cox: And after I have sex, I turn into a biologist.
Robin Ince: So to find out the testicle, uh, thing, obviously, Brian, you’re a musician and so are you, Nitin. Let’s find out the difference the size your testicles get playing guitar and the size in playing old D:Ream hits.
Which element would you choose if you were building a universe from scratch?
In “The Recipe to Build a Universe,” the monkey cagers take on Brian Cox’s favorite subject (not). Chemistry! Comedian Rufus Hound laments strict health and safety rules, as explosions are what get kids hooked on science. In this episode, children are given a smattering of bad advice about testing the flavor of elements.
Do strawberries dream?
Not for the first time, Monkey Cage tries to wrap its head around the science of sleep. Professor Richard Wiseman is welcomed back once again to discuss sleep paralysis hallucinations and his dream app. Mainly, this episode is good for giving you advice about your sleep habits:
- If you need an alarm clock to wake up and caffeine to stay awake, you’re not getting enough sleep.
- What you need is a bathroom light that is bright and blue in the morning and dim and red at night, because the bright, blue lights delay sleep onset, so it’s not the best place to brush your teeth right before beddy-bye.
- Start winding down half an hour before bed. Turn off the TV. Have a glass of red wine. Pay your bills. Make a list of the things that are bothering you. Go for a jog. Participate in some adult activity.
- If you have trouble sleeping, try really hard to stay physically awake, such as trying to keep your eyes open. This will make your body tired.
- If you wake up in the middle of the night and can’t fall back to sleep, go do something in low light, like coloring, and then go back to bed.
Cor, Women are different, eh?
Well, when it comes to the brain, actually, they’re not, though women are better at DNA repair than men are. Lots of fun factoids in this episode “Battle of the Sexes,” from two species of whales being the only other animals to go through menopause, to 90% of our cells are bacteria cells, to testosterone weakening the immune system. We learn that the reason Falstaff shouts, “May the sky rain potatoes” is because potatoes were thought to be an aphrodisiac in Shakespeare’s time. We learn that the current popular species of banana will die out in five years because it’s a-sexual and so it is bunch of clones. Brian’s favorite fact of the night is that only 50% of male sheep are straight. The rest are gay, bisexual, and a-sexual.
Teratology is the study of monsters, so we learn in “200 Years of Frankenstein,” an anniversary special for Mary Shelley’s classic novel. Noel Fielding sites Donald Trump, a ginger Godzilla, as one of his favorite monsters. Nick Lane is trying to create life from scratch at UCL. Mr. Shelley tried to revive a dead cat in college. Frankenstein’s monster’s scars should have healed after a while. Mary Shelley accidentally wrote that Dr. Frankenstein had some vermicelli in a jar in his laboratory, rather than what she meant, vorticelli. So, apparently Frankenstein was especially preoccupied with experimenting on pasta.
Live from Jodrell Bank!
To wrap up the season, we’re taken back to a festival, this time to the Blue Dot Festival at Jodrell Bank, home of the Lovell Telescope. Another song plays us out, this one “Things Can Only Get Better,” sung by Charlotte Church. This episode is definitely not for beginners as it can get quite into the nitty-gritty of our understanding (or lack thereof) of gravity, entanglement, black holes, the firewall hypothesis and the equivalence principle, the big bang and the big bounce, and cosmic dawn. If you think you can handle that, then this episode will give you some excellent cosmic vertigo! They discuss whether you can travel back in time, particles being entangled even if one of them goes into a black hole, and pulsars and the humorous title LGM that they gave one signal (which stood for Little Green Men). Most disturbingly, the monkey cagers researched protocols on what official organizations are planning to do if they do get a signal from an alien life form, and it seems that no one actually has a protocol…except for the Vatican. Tim O’Brien says that if he heard from aliens, he would like to announce it on Twitter.
Guests this season: Matt Kirshen, Rufus Hound, Katy Brand, Sara Pascoe, Noel Fielding, Ben Miller, KT Tunstall, Nitin Sawhney, Charlotte Church, Lucy Cooke, Trevor Cox, Lucie Green, Andrea Sella, Richard Wiseman, Russell Foster, Steve Jones, Sophie Scott, Nick Lane, Paul Abel, Tim O’Brien, and Sir Christopher Frayling