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Robin Ince, The Infinite Monkey Cage – sometimes a joke is a way into an idea

In a rare outbreak of writing about his own radio show, The Infinite Monkey Cage’s Robin Ince ponders whether or not science should be taken more seriously

After just over a year of writing for The Big Issue, in a moment of narcissistic hubris, I am going to write about some radio I am involved in.

Radio 4 listeners are both mocked and feared. There is a police sketch artist image of them middle-aged and in Marigolds as they look out at their privet hedge and 1950s lawn-mower. They are meant to live in a Cider with Rosie England. Not all of them like change and rumours of it can lead to sciatica for the Broadcasting House postman. It is their zealotry that demonstrates its importance to them. It is part of their pattern of life. Their fury comes from love. This is why appearing on Radio 4’s Feedback can be a tremulous affair. Have you been brought in to be revered or assassinated? The listener is on the line, voicing their own fury or joy.

Traditionally, science must be handled like uranium, with care, awe and reverence.

This week I was a guest on a Feedback science special, as some of my life is spent co-presenting The Infinite Monkey Cage with Professor Brian Cox. His life is all speedboats and radio telescopes in rural Chile, so he was not available to sit around an airless desk in a recording studio wiping croissant crumbs off his denim breeches as he waited for Roger Bolton to invite him to speak.

Among questions on balance and listener praise for Jim Al-Khalili’s enlightening and delighting The Life Scientific, there were grumbles that science is not being taken seriously. Is there room for humour in cosmology?

When it began nine years ago, this was one of the first press criticisms of The Infinite Monkey Cage.

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Traditionally, science must be handled like uranium, with care, awe and reverence. It must be a joyless thing because joyless things are worthy things.

There is light-heartedness in the show but jokes can be confused with frivolity. Sometimes, a joke is a way into an idea. Many people are more open to listen after they have laughed. What we are aiming for is a show that contains at least three ideas or theories which the majority of listeners are not aware of, whether it is about Hawking radiation, consciousness in artificial
intelligence or the jump of a flea. We are aiming for entertainment and revelation. Hopefully, the universe around you may look a little different after we have quizzed our experts.

We are not trying to give people a fully rounded module in a subject, a spoken-word passnotes book, our hope is that we will excite the audience into wanting to know more.

Humour is important in our show but it aims to be comedy with purpose.

Each episode is an incitement to the bookshop, telescope or just to lie in the grass staring at the stars

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