The presenters of Radio 4s comic science show The Infinite Monkey Cage help our readers grapple with cosmic microwave background radiation, the linear superposition of winning the lottery and why Jedi knights are rubbish
When I arrive at a large country house in Cheshire to meet Brian Cox and Robin Ince, I am directed to the library, a large chilly room notable for containing not a single book. The rows of heaving bookshelves behind Coxs overstuffed chair turn out, on closer inspection, to be wallpaper.
Professor Cox, advanced fellow of particle physics at the University of Manchester and former D:Ream keyboardist, spent the previous evening presenting Stargazing Live with Dara O Briain, and will shortly depart for a script meeting.
Comedian and writer Ince will later rendezvous with Cox at the giant Lovell telescope at Jodrell Bank, Macclesfield, in order to pose for photographs to promote the latest series the 13th of their popular comedy-science radio programme The Infinite Monkey Cage.
In the meantime, Cox and Ince have agreed to answer as many questions from Guardian readers as possible, and they both approach the task with such focus and engagement that, for a while, Im worried were going to spend all morning tackling question 1, which is:
What existed before the big bang? (Ross Quinn)
Brian Cox: We dont know, but we have a very strong theory at the moment called inflation, which is that space time existed before the big bang, but it was doing something else: expanding extremely rapidly. We have strong evidence from things such as
the cosmic microwave background radiation, the oldest light in the universe, to suggest that there was something going on before this very rapid expansion and thats, broadly speaking, textbook now. Its the best model we have at the moment.
Its your responsibility to select one person to send forward a representative of the human race to an intelligent alien civilisation. Who would you choose and why? (Scott)
BC: I would have chosen Carl Sagan, but I cant now.
Robin Ince: Just from our experience of working with him, someone that I think has a wonderful way of explaining ideas, and also has the correct temperament to meet possible alien cultures, is [Canadian astronaut] Chris Hadfield. If youre not excited about meeting an astronaut, something inside you has died and you must reinvigorate it. The ability to look back on your own planet and see the whole planet is incredible and the way he has of expressing both the science and the poetry of experiencing that, would make him a pretty good person for meeting aliens.
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In the film The Martian, Matt Damon grows potatoes on Mars. Is this possible as it is portrayed in the film and, more importantly, would they make good chips? (Jefferson Bonar)
BC: I can give a serious answer, which is that on the space station, they have a box that they put outside it, where they take different organisms, bacteria and things, and expose them to space to see what happens. And they survive, generally. So it is the case that living things, particularly single-celled things, can survive even space travel. Mars is hostile, because of the radiation levels at the surface, but actually its got a bit of an atmosphere, so its not as hostile as many other places so, probably yes.
Which episode of The Infinite Monkey Cage surprised you the most? Or was the most memorable? (Samantha Wallace)
RI: My favourites were the general-relativity specials, which were quite recent. When you sit opposite someone like [cosmologist] Carlos Frenk when he starts to communicate his excitement, and the beauty of the understanding he has got of the theory of general relativity, its tremendously contagious.
BC: The other one that springs to mind was when we had Monica Grady and Carolyn Porco, both planetary exploration scientists, on the show. Carolyn ran the imaging team on the Cassini mssion. She believes Enceladus [a moon of Saturn] is one of the most interesting places in the solar system. This is a place where there might be life. Monica is interested in Mars exploration and also Jupiter. So theres a big debate about where we go next. Do we go back to Saturn? Do we go to Jupiter, to Mars? And they flat-out disagreed with each other. Absolutely, 100% took opposite sides.
RI: Its the first time in any show that Ive had to go: Oh, whoa, whoa, whoa! The fury
Suppose you find out that in, say, 10 minutes, all our scientific knowledge will be lost. All of our books gone, our data lost, the internet destroyed and our memories wiped. You have just enough time to write down and preserve one piece of information. What would that one piece of information be? (Eric)
BC: Richard Feynman, in the Feynman lectures, writes: Everything is made of atoms, because you can follow things from there. You need to choose something that gives you a hint of the method itself. Id say the one thing I would write down is: Youre never right. Build theories, have ideas about nature, go and test them. If the results disagree with nature, then you are wrong.
RI: Im caught between quickly jotting down an effective sewage system once youve got that, it makes thinking a lot easier or the theory of evolution by natural selection if you could quickly jot down the tree of life, that also has
BC: But see, as [zoology professor] Matt Cobb would say: Its not a tree.
RI: The tree would be the starting point. Weve only got 10 minutes!
What do you think of the idea of single-sex labs? How should the gender imbalance in the sciences be redressed? (Leah)
BC: Well single-sex labs is probably not the best way to address gender imbalance, is it? It depends which science youre talking about. Because its important to say there isnt a gender imbalance in biosciences. There might be a historical imbalance, if you look at the number of professors at the end of their careers, but if you look at bioscientists coming up now, through PhDs, post-docs and things, then there isnt one. There is in physics. Youve got to make the distinction. Its a complicated question.
RI: Theres still a battle, in that some people still seem to believe theres some kind of gender divide in the idea of curiosity. Fortunately, that seems to be changing.
If you had £1bn to spend on science programmes around the world, which ones would you fund? (Tracy Liu)
BC: One billion?
RI: Thats not gonna get you very far, is it? Because you want to go into space, basically.
BC: No, I dont.
RI: No, youd be no good at it at all. But I would imagine your idea is investment to journey farther, outwards.
BC: Not necessarily. £1bn is not anywhere near enough, is the point. Some research has been done: it looks like 2.5% of GDP is about the right level of expenditure for a developed economy to spend on R&D. We spend about 1.8%. Were woefully behind.
TD: But if it was limited and you had to prioritise? Lets forget the idea that it has to be a billion.
BC: It has to be limited by the optimum level in order to make progress, to acquire knowledge to grow the economy to make everyones lives better. And were below that level. Were making peoples lives worse by not investing enough in new knowledge.
RI: If I could just have money, just for a bit of fun, mine would be for a really brilliant submarine, because 80% of the oceans is still not properly charted, in terms of the depth of the ocean. One, I just like the idea of having a submarine, and two, every time we find new forms of life in areas that we havent explored, it gives us a greater understanding of life beyond the planet as well.
Where would you most like humanity to explore in our solar system (via probe or person) within your lifetime? Id love to see the sun in a bit more detail (solar physicist by trade), but we all know how that might turn out (Chris)
BC: We know how it would turn out.
RI: Were not gonna see the first man landing on the sun, are we?
BC: I think the central question of the exploration of the solar system is life. Is there life beyond Earth? Mars and some of the moons around Jupiter and Saturn are fascinating because they look like likely candidates, but Mars is by far the easiest to get to. So it must be Mars.
If the Force transfers power to a Jedi in an analogous way to that in which a magnetic field wirelessly transfers power in resonant inductive coupling, whats the greatest feat a Jedi could perform before he caught fire? (Dean Rutland)
RI: I think hed be able to make a small spindle rotate, and that would be the best he could do.
BC: They havent got a very good record, the Jedi, have they?
RI: No. To be honest, its been dragging on now for seven episodes and still we havent found peace in that particular universe.
BC: Its in a right mess.
RI: Im worried that ultimately the Jedi system is based on dogma.
Have you ever played the National Lottery? (Rupert Stubbs)
RI: I once received a card with a ticket in; you know, as a gift, but Ive never
BC: Well, if you dont open it, theres always a chance that youre a millionaire. Just dont look at it. You could go to the bank, couldnt you, and say I need a big loan, cos Im in a linear superposition of being vey rich.
Why do people still believe that female and male brains are different? (Neurogeek)
BC: You can see a problem in the question. The point is that science is not going to give you absolute answers. So when you begin a question saying: Why do some people believe Science is what it is, cos its the study of nature, and nature is what it is. So theres no room, actually, for belief, and science is not about proving beliefs true or false. Its just about finding stuff out about the natural world. I dont know of a good question that begins: Do you believe I dont believe anything. I dont like the word.
RI: Also, the trouble with certain points in neuroscience is that before its actually got to the point of being understood, it may well be leapt on politically: Oh good, weve found out theres a difference between this persons brain and that persons brain, therefore thats how we should educate this person and thats how we should educate that person.
BC: Its that old politicians refrain: you scientists keep changing your minds!
If time travel does exist why havent we met a real Doctor Who yet? (Brian Turner)
RI: Thats the trouble isnt it? Cos of you bloody physicists. We can only move forward in time, cant we?
BC: As far as we know, you cant travel into the past. Thats why we havent met Doctor Who.
If you could be any character on any sci-fi show, which one would you be, and why? (Harpreet)
BC: I wouldnt be John Hurt in Alien.
RI: I would go with Space 1999. Youve got the costume already.
BC: I have got the costume. I had one made. For my wedding anniversary. Doesnt everyone do that?
Is there any reason why the human brain should understand the whole universe? (Panoptic)
RI: I think the mere fact that the human brain can hold as many ideas as it can is already startling enough.
Do you think that popular science is going through a bit of a golden age? (Tim Pilgrim)
RI: Yes, we are in a very good time. Things such as the Large Hadron Collider genuinely excite people But its up to us, and the mass media and scientists, to go: Right, I believe people will be interested if we present them with the ideas. If people see a beautifully presented show about entropy, theyll be pretty fucking excited about the heat-death of the universe. Thats the way I see it, anyway.
Dear Robin: where do you buy your jumpers? (Alasdair S Goudie)
RI: In The Fly theres a bit where Jeff Goldblum talks about Einstein, saying he always wore exactly the same clothes every single day, so he didnt have to make any decisions. I have seven cardigans and theyre all from Next, and theyre all exactly the same. The annoying thing is, Einstein used that extra time to come up with grand ideas, and I havent. Just cutting down your cardigan choices doesnt mean youll win a Nobel prize.
The Infinite Monkey Cage, now in its 13th series, airs on Mondays, 4.30pm, BBC Radio 4
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