Dara O Briain on astrology jokes, his BBC2 show and being the Clarkson of science

"Look at me. There's no way I'm bringing a sexiness to science"


Do you hit people with fascinating science facts at parties?
No! I have no head for remembering them. I briefly dabbled in mathematical sciences, but they’re about what a cool little argument that is, what an excellent idea. Not drastically different to comedy. They both turn on great comparisons.
Is Science Club nerds-only, or are ignoramuses welcome too?
My stance of being interested but not an expert is supposed to tally with people watching. I hope we don’t have to pander to people who have no interest in it. There’s no way of creating a science show with new information for everyone without losing people who don’t know anything. And you know you have to cover the ground again. You don’t have to do that in a documentary about Henry VIII. You don’t start by saying: by the way, Henry VIII was the fat one with all the wives. But you have to do that with the big ideas in science.
Are people like you and Brian Cox making science cool?
No, “making it cool” is the one thing I hate. I don’t think “rock ‘n’ roll” is quite the right way to describe it either. Look at me. There’s no way in which I’m bringing a sexiness to science. It’s more that we can go on stage and talk about science with a passion without thinking, we’re going to lose people. Science has found an enthusiastic audience, which is hugely encouraging. I think stuff like the internet and Twitter has allowed us to find people. It’s about how easy it is for people to share that passion. But the whole population isn’t going around in E=MC2 T-shirts.
This week’s episode deals with extinction and resurrection. What’s about to become extinct?
We’re going to run out of helium in about ten years. If you were to properly price a helium balloon, it should be £75. That joke [of inhaling helium and talking in a high voice] will die. You can’t make helium and it’s hard to find: it’s frozen into rocks. There’s no way of farming it. It’ll be gone in a decade if we don’t make the balloon industry go bust. You’d be surprised what we’re running out of. Enjoy your mobile phone, that’s all I’ll say. Your kids will be using tin cans and string. We’re running out of the stuff they make the circuits from. There’ll be a major call to get your old phones out of the cupboard.
And which scientist would you bring back to life, if you could?
Maybe Galileo – actually not him, he was a bollocks, frankly you wouldn’t want to give him the credit. I’d bring back [19th Century mathematician] James Maxwell. He invented Maxwell’s equations. There was no way of confirming it at the time, it was a very surprising thing. I’d sit him down and show him what we know now, and watch his little face light up. But then, Maxwell would also say, wait, so you still haven’t worked that out? So I’d get some other guys from the 19th century, take them on a tour of the large Hadron Collider and hear them go, “Really?!” Yep. This is all down to you.
Is science creeping into your stand-up?
It did about seven years ago. That’s when I did my first Gillian McKeith routine, about what a lot of nonsense it was. It got a huge response. There’s a proper whoosh of recognition and it’s a very satisfying structure, the reductio ad absurdum. It’s a style of proof you’d use in mathematics, but it works well in comedy: oh really? Well if that’s true, this must be true. On the tour before this one I had a ten-minute routine about neutrinos, and a joke about episiotomies. Although that one’s more… heartfelt. I also did a joke tearing into astrology, posited on the fact that I know where my audience stand on astrology v astronomy. Then I went on Live at the Apollo in front of a really general audience, including the cast of Made in Chelsea. I started this routine and it went really quiet. I thought, right, that’s why I’m not playing the O2.
Not playing the O2 isn’t a problem, is it?
No I’m alright, thanks. You can do quite well without shouting your jokes off the far wall of a massive hangar. And you can’t chat with the audience there.
Is Science Club the sort of show only the BBC can produce?
Is it Reithian? Hopefully. It tends towards informing rather than entertaining. We’re not pushing the science out of the way to get to the jokes. People sometimes make that presumption because my name’s in the title. When they asked me, I snapped their arm off. There’s proper heft to it. You’re talking to people who aren’t there to promote their new album. It looks like a chat show, but it’s actually interesting! It’s solid.
On first glance, it looks a lot like Top Gear.
Put people into a room like that with the crowd around them and it will look like Top Gear, yes. BBC Worldwide are involved and my god, they love a bit of Top Gear about anything. But there’s nothing more universal than cars, internationally. You can’t just put anything into a warehouse and magically make it get 6 million viewers. Am I the Jeremy Clarkson of the show? I’m not embracing that comparison. I think the show makes me an amalgam of the best parts of all three of them. That’s a weird chimera you can build yourself in your own head.
Science Club is six hours of primetime TV. Should religion or astrology get the same coverage, for balance?
They probably do, don’t they? A lot of people whine about religion being attacked. You’re doing fine! You’re still the predominant orthodoxy. It’s like white people alleging racism against themselves. You’re doing OK. I don’t think you’re the real victims here. And of course the BBC doesn’t have an obligation to consider astrology. It’s medieval soothsaying. They’ve had a good innings. There’s more gravitational effect from the midwife on your child when it’s born than there is from Jupiter. It’s absolute nonsense.
You’re not fervently anti-religion, though?
No. Richard Dawkins is very passionate about this: I agree with him but I don’t fight people about it. I’m in the Dave Allen school. I don’t go for it myself, but may your God go with you.
You’re an Arsenal fan. Has their current form shaken your faith in Arsene Wenger’s rational, scientific approach, or in science itself?
It’s shaken my faith more in Arsenal than science. Science will remain even after [dodgy Arsenal left-back] Andre Santos has gone. The great mathematical anomaly is that we have the best defensive record in the league. But we can’t score. If you subtract 27 goals from the team by selling Robin van Persie, it doesn’t add up…


Dara O Briain’s Science Club continues tonight at 9:00pm on BBC2