Review: Uncaged Monkeys

Last night I sat among a sell-out crowd of around 2,000 people who had each paid £25 (approx US$40) to see a group of people talk about science. Welcome to the world of Uncaged Monkeys.

This was formally a live touring version of the BBC Radio 4 (and podcast) show Infinite Monkey Cage in which comedian Robin Ince and astrophysics professor/TV superstar Brian Cox present an “irreverent look at the world according to science.” But it also paid a great debt to another Ince project, 9 Lessons & Carols for Godless People (aka Nerdstock), a celebration of science and rational though held just before Christmas 2009.

Uncaged Monkeys is currently on a UK tour, so I should warn those attending the remaining dates that this report contains what could technically count as spoilers, though I’m admittedly uncertain as to the exact spoiler etiquette for events that took place 13.2 billion years ago.

The show opened with Ince in the compere role, quipping that the Voyager Golden Record (which played before his entrance) may be an alternative explanation for the apparent absence of extraterrestrial life: “Perhaps the aliens took a listen and it’s simply the worst received compilation record ever made.” Amidst his comedy, Ince shared trivia (his “walk-on” music was a track by the Eels, the main performer of which is the son of the man behind the many-worlds theory of quantum mechanics) and a sharing of wonder (every time you look out through a window you see more life than is known to exist in the entire universe outside Earth.)

The first “performer” was comedy mathematician (and self-dubbed Number Ninja) Matt Parker, who showed off some neat tricks and explained why they work, though unfortunately one fell flat; as far as I could tell, the explanation was simply that the audience participator had misunderstood the instructions. Parker also explained how the way redundancy checks are used with the transmission of text messages in a way that closely resembles sudoku.

Ben Goldacre then talked about the way scientific information can be misrepresented both in media reports and clinical trials. His style ranged from mocking, pointing out the ridiculous logic of a nutritionist claiming that spinach must be healthy because it contains chlorophyll and can thus produce bountiful energy (Photosynthesis requires light, and if there’s sunlight in your bowels, you’ve got bigger problems to worry about) to revealing (one in three drugs are only shown to have worked more effectively than a placebo rather than against an existing drug.)

Goldacre also demonstrated the funnel plot, a way of checking whether studies have been kept under wraps. In the example to the right, the x-axis represents the measured outcome of a study and the y-axis represents the number of participants in a test. In theory the fewer participants, the wider the range of outcomes, because of the greater likelihood of random error. If the plotted points don’t fall into an inverted triangle as shown here, there’s a strong implication that some studies have not been made available.

Finishing up the first half of the show was, for many people, the star attraction of Brian Cox, who won over any remaining sceptics by acknowledging the existence of the various Wonders of the Universe drinking games. He then greatly annoyed me by tackling a subject I wrote about earlier this week (NASA proving Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity) in an infinitely more eloquent and informed manner, before giving the clearest explanation I’ve heard of why forwards time travel really is possible.

After an interval, the guests from the first half took audience questions including whether a spider can spin a web in zero gravity (the panel didn’t know, but Google informed them that yes it can, but it takes a couple of days), whether there’s any scientific gain in sending a man to Mars (not as such, though it would have an inspirational effect, plus a geologist would have a much better idea than a robot of what rocks to nose at), and a rhetorical question from Parker about why magic audience members asked to think of a number always pick a rational one.

The second half of the performances were distinctly more show than tell, kicking off with self-confessed geek singer-songwriter Helen Arney who offered songs about the sex lives of animals, the romantic failures of a lab assistant, and the replacement of Carol Voderman on British maths and words quiz Countdown.

Bruce Hood explained how everything we see is simply our perception of reality, showing a video that needs to be watched twice, once with eyes open and once with eyes close.

What’s going on? The audio is saying “da da” but the man is mouthing “ga ga”. The apparent sound of “ba ba” is simply your brain getting confused and coming up with something in between.

And finally Simon Singh produced one of the oddest trilogies of tricks: playing Stairway to Heaven backwards (proving that you can only “hear” satanic lyrics once you’ve been provided with the script); plugging a gherkin into the mains so that it glows orange (because of the high sodium content); and taking issue with the lyrics of Katie Melua (who took the criticism in good spirit and even rerecorded the song with Singh’s suggested corrections.)

So can three hours of science lectures provide entertainment? Most definitely. I would like to say Ince has shown great skill in arranging a thematic program with a meticulously paced blend of serious lecture and comedy with eyecatching stunts when the audience risked flagging. Describing the show, though, he gives the impression it’s simply a collection of his friends talking about whatever subject happens to interest them at the time. Whichever it is, it works.

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