Monday 16 May 2011

Uncaged Monkeys at the Anvil, Basingstoke

"So what's this Uncaged Monkeys thing you're going to see then? Is it a band?"

"No, it's not a band."

"A play?"

"No, it's ... science. And comedy."

"Oh. That sounds —"

"By the people in Radio Four's The Infinite Monkey Cage. You heard of that?"

"Er, no."

"Well, they just got a Sony Award."
It may have been different, geeky, at times hilarious and at other times intensely moving. It may not be the usual fare at the Basingstoke Anvil, but it filled pretty well all of the hall's 1400 seats.

Robin Ince started the show off, casting some aspersions on Professor Brian Cox — whom he claimed never listened to the introductions so he could say what he liked. Then it was time for TV's Professor Wonder Boy to wow us with potted particle physics. He hit us with the Higgs boson, and claimed that particle accelerators were always built near airports in order to give them a sense of perspective. In a generally reassuring manner he touched on the likelihood of the Large Hadron Collider destroying the Earth, using a technical term that I forget — though I remember it was four letters beginning and ending in "t". (There was also a "w" and an asterisk in it somewhere). He showed us a graphic of government funding, challenging us to locate the spend on scientific research. He pointed out the bill for the bank bail-out, and that it was greater than the amount spent on science ... since Jesus. And he did the Big Bang.

Ben Goldacre chased his wild hair and oscillating eyebrows around the stage, with tales of placebos, big pharma and fish oil pills, and he showed us a picture of his cat Henrietta, plus a certificate of her medical qualifications — the same qualifications claimed by nutritionist Gillian McKeith. Great mirth ensued, but the stuff about big pharma was actually quite worrying.

Steve Jones talked about evolution, illustrating natural selection with something from his own early career as an engineer. His example was a process of converting a liquid to a powder by forcing it at high pressure through metal nozzles. Apparently these nozzles used to corrode and become ineffective very quickly. Rather than try to work out the best shape for these nozzles, the designers used a form of random mutation, making ten copies, each slightly — but randomly — different from the original. These copies then were tested, and best one was then randomly mutated ten times and then those copies were tested. After several cycles of such random mutation and selection, they ended up with a nozzle that lasted 100 times longer than the original, but no-one knew why.

Simon Singh electrocuted a gherkin on stage, which was highly illuminating (literally, though what it would taste like after that, he didn't say). Of such insights is the scientific knowledge regarding the size and the age of the universe derived. And he too did the Big Bang. He ended with the story of his somewhat pedantic insistence on the accuracy of song lyrics, which is appropriate because we were also entertained by Helen Arney, who sang to us while playing the ukele.

There was a session during which Robin Ince passed on tweeted questions to Ben Goldacre, Brian Cox and Simon Singh. (There is also a podcast — Free Primates — in which the Uncaged Monkeys answer questions they didn't have time to deal with on stage.)

Naturally the show could not pass without several mentions of Carl Sagan, of whom both Robin Ince and Brian Cox are declared fans. Sagan's Pale Blue Dot brought the proceedings to a moving close.

Altogether it was a splendidly enjoyable evening, and I saw the whole thing close up as I was on the front row. What I should have realised is that the Anvil is the nearest venue for many of those people who attend Winchester Skeptics in the Pub, as well as the fledgling Portsmouth Skeptics in the Pub. Several were indeed attending, and I was pleased to be able to join some of them for a curry after the show.