Friday, 10 June 2011

Uncaged monkeys

Last month I went to The Hexagon, in Reading, to see a show called "Uncaged Monkeys", which was based on the BBC radio prgramme "The Infinite Monkey Cage" starring Brian Cox and Robin Ince.

I wondered about blogging about the event at the time, but didn't want to 'give away the ending' for those who had not been to see them yet.  Now it is too late because the tour has finished.  Like all my blog entries - it is partly notes and aides-memoir for myself and partly to entertain you.

Cox and Ince were joined by some other stars who helped to make it a very lively event.  The whole show was all at more-or-less the right technical level for me because I have read a little bit about almost everything they discussed, so I learned a few things and enjoyed listening to the things I already knew.  You know what they say - a physicist likes to hear nothing better than what he already knows.  (Substitute any other profession for physicist according to your preference!)

Robin Ince gave a great introduction with humour and gusto.  Already I have forgotten the order of events, but I think Ben Goldacre spoke next.  My neighbour (who got us the tickets) works in pharmaceuticals, and she was not altogether impressed by the way he talked about the 'big pharma' companies.  I must admit that he did dwell on negative aspects, but then again I think they deserve their tricks to be revealed.  I suppose good clinical practice doesn't make good stories.  I was surprised by Goldacre's somewhat restless appearance on stage, and deliberately outrageous comments.

Matt Parker did some mathematical tricks for us.  e.g. he got someone to read out the digits of a bar code on a product so that he could tell them what the last digit would be.  That was quite a feat of memory, as although the last digit is a check-sum to confirm that the other digits have been accurately read, the algorithm is not a trivial one.  He explained that when you see an item failing to be scanned properly at the supermarket checkout, it is often because the scanner has detected an error in the numbers on the bar code, not that it has failed to read it.  

Brian Cox did a 'wonders of the universe' talk, and showed us lots of nice pictures (e.g. the Hubble Deep field) and he talked about the LHC and how a proton in the beam of the LHC had the same amount of kinetic energy as an aircraft carrier travelling at 30 mph.  He touched on government spending as a proportion of GDP and noted that UK is below the average for OECD countries.  Apparently the government is addressing this and improving the situation, but not by increasing spending on science.  Instead, they have ring-fenced and frozen the science budget, and they are doing everything in their power to reduce GDP.  Hence the proportion spent on science will increase.

He talked about relativity and used the global positioning system satellites as an example where general relativity was used to correct the accuracy of the system.  Without it there would be an error in the position of the satellites as big as 36,000 feet per day.  Strange units you might think - but they were used because as you may know, light travels almost exactly 1 foot per nanosecond. (I did happen to know that already and sometimes bore people with it.)

As an aside, you may also like to know that 1 hour is almost exactly a micro-century - but I didn't learn that at the event.  Next time you are asked how long a meeting is expected to last, try these units and see what reaction you get.

Someone (can't remember who) talked about the Swiss astronomer Fritz Zwicky, and how he had a special skill for inventing insults.  He coined the term 'spherical bastard' and when someone asked what it meant, he explained.  "A sphere looks the same, whichever direction you look from.  Hence a spherical bastard is someone who is a bastard whichever way you look at him!"

After the interval there as a short questions and answers, then a couple of songs by Helen Arney.  I had heard the first one and its  available on Youtube.  "Let's make love like animals".  Quite clever.

Then Simon Singh started off by playing "Stairway to Heaven" backwards (the old ones are the best and easily found on Youtube) and went on to talk about various other interesting ways that the mind fools us. Interesting. I'm sure Singh talked a bit about alternative medicine too, but memory fails me and I have already written enough.

All in all, a good bit of entertainment and many good laughs for all of us, scientists or not.

(Did I ever mention that I met Brian Cox once while helping to make a documentary for Horizon?  But that was before I realised that he was famous!)

1 comment:

Dobbin said...

Sounds like a good night. I can't really get in to the Infinite Monkey Cage, it seems a bit contrived to me, i.e. let's try and prove that science can be funny, instead of a funny show that happens to be about science. But I'm probably being a miserable git.