7 Things I Learned from This Week’s Infinite Monkey Cage

This week saw the start of the fourth series of British radio series The Infinite Monkey Cage, which aims to present “a witty irreverent look at the world according to science.”

(The show has proven so successful it even produced a national live event tour, which I reviewed recently.)

British readers who missed the show should still be able to access it via the Radio 4 website and associated podcasts, while international readers may like to chance their arm in the murky world of IP verification and geographic proxy servers.

For those who aren’t able to hear the show, here’s what I learnt from this week’s episode, which centered on the question “What don’t we know?” (in between attempts to establish “That’s entropy!” as a catchprase.)

  1. The study on physics is based on our knowledge of around two percent (by mass) of the material in the universe. Marcus Chown compared this to Darwin developing his biological theories based solely on study of snails.
  2. The number of genes in a human body (around 24,000) is roughly the same as the number of parts that make up a London bus. Geneticist Steve Jones likened the current state of DNA knowledge to having said bus parts, sorted and stored in buckets, but trying to figure out how to build the bus without any instructions.
  3. If a human only ate raw food, he or she would die within three months.
  4. Science is a pessimistic profession because you start out by trying to prove what you think is right is actually wrong, and the most common comment you’ll make is “we don’t know.”
  5. Dark energy differs in reality from the predictions made by quantum theory by a factor of 10 to the power of 120. That’s the biggest discrepancy in the history of science.
  6. In the pre-decimalization era, one estimate said the chemicals that make up a human being could be bought for 12 pounds, eight shillings and four pence. (Though a date wasn’t given, if you take it as being just before 1971 when British currency went decimal, it’s the modern-day equivalent of £150 or around US$250.)
  7. An unnamed (and possibly apocryphal) scientist once spent years repeatedly chopping tails off mice, breeding them, then chopping the tails off the descendants and so on in the hope they would eventually prove his theory that the mice would evolve to be born without a tail. He abandoned the experiment when it was noted Jewish people had unintentionally been carrying out a similar experiment for centuries.
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6 Responses to 7 Things I Learned from This Week’s Infinite Monkey Cage

  1. I listened to this episode too. It's a great show! I did think they took the analogy of genes to bus parts a bit too far. A DNA molecule is not like a blueprint, it's much more like a recipe (I think I got that from The Blind Watchmaker.) Genes aren't like "parts" of a living being at all, they're more like the instructions in the recipe.

  2. >>> The number of genes in a human body (around 24,000) is roughly the same
    as the number of parts that make up a London bus. Geneticist Steve
    Jones likened the current state of DNA knowledge to having said bus
    parts, sorted and stored in buckets, but trying to figure out how to
    build the bus without any instructions.

    This is as silly as the arguments of the antiDarwinists regarding the idea that life is too complicated and needs a hand to guide it to where it is, by the million monkeys argument : "Yeah, the monkey will type the works of Shakespeare, but it'll take 'em 67 billion years to do it".

    Well, except that the typewriter in question will correct errors every once in a while when they type the wrong keys… they type "x fgioe bul gerd nx" instead of "to be or not to be", the typewriter will back up over the "x fgioe bul gerd nx" and force them to start again. THEN the problem suddenly reduces down to a couple hundred years, tops.

    In other words, you're painting the problem with only a partially correct brush.

    In the genome case, we have the parts in question, but we ALSO have working (and non-working! Think Parkinsons or AIDS) models right in front of us.

    Figuring out from that how the parts fit and how they interact isn't trivial, but it's hardly as ridiculous as stated.