Aside from his Mock the Week and Apprentice: You’re Fired duties, Dara O Briain is carving out a scientific niche for himself to rival that of Professor Brian Cox. His shared love of physics with his suave Stargazing Live co-presenter is given another outlet tonight in the second series of Dara O Briain’s Science Club where the comedian joins a team of experts to dissect a weekly theme currently exciting the world of science. Tonight’s is the human mind, exploring whether computers can read our inner thoughts, and even more bizarrely, whether there are creatures in the sky controlling our weather.
To get in the spirit, we caught up with Dara for an intellectual workout, and to hear all about taking on the reality shows, trying to avoid bullying scientists and why he chose a showbiz career…
For a Science Club newcomer, how would you describe the series?
It’s a science magazine programme which covers all the sciences. Even the first episode goes from robotics into psychology into MRIs and whether computers can ready your mind from the electrical activity in your head. It’s essentially me standing next to smart people. I’m asking everyone, “What’s happening right now at the edges of your field?” Not saying that the people on Mock the Week or The Apprentice aren’t experts, but there is a genuine pleasure in talking to people who’ve given their life over to studying in a particular field and really know what they’re talking about.
Have you ever been accused of dumbing down the science?
No, we don’t specifically because we know what dumbing down is. That happens occasionally on Stargazing – it’s a running joke between myself and Brian Cox about how we should do one link properly dumbed down with him going “Amaaaazing” and me going “What’s the professor talking about now?” There are many people who work in my job, in television presenting, whose role they feel is to be the everyman. If something very technical comes up they scratch their head and go “What’s that all about?” because that’s what they presume people at home are doing. I once did a quiz show next to a very well known person who every time I asked a question would go, “Oh my gawd, how does he know all this?” Acting stupid because that’s what you think the audience would like you to do, I think that’s quite insulting to the audience.
How does this compare to your other science and maths shows, like School of Hard Sums or Stargazing Live?
Stargazing is about one topic and a topic that is very easy to make exciting because you can show pictures of exploding planets and black holes which have the wow factor. There are a lot of topics in Science Club like the brain but without the soft Manchester tones and easy on the eye hairstyle of Brian Cox.
You’ve spoken out in the past against science being presented as “cool” – how would you suggest it was treated instead?
Just as science. You just get people who are interested in it and they’ll speak about it with a certain amount of passion. Chasing after some illusion of edge or cool will mean you make bad decisions. You’ll cover the wrong things. If you chase after the cool kids in the class who don’t really have a lasting interest in it, you can alienate the people who really love it because they spot they’re being underfed.
So you’re not interested in it being popularised?
I’m way past the point of feeling that everything I do has to reach an audience of 8 million. An audience of 2 million would be fabulous for this show. The maths show gets 400,000 viewers per episode which on BBC would be a hideous number but on Dave is the biggest commission they’ve ever had. So if you take away the pressure to deliver the same amount of people as Rick Stein or The Apprentice – you’re not going after that. It’s not going to be that and also, it doesn’t have to be that because there are however many people who really enjoy it and for whom it’s a big deal. It doesn’t have to get Saturday night numbers, it just has to find its audience.
You’re obviously very passionate about science – would you ever consider going into teaching?
As opposed to doing stand up? No, I think I’ll stick with stand-up! But I’d love this to do really well because it’s such a joy to do. There’s a part of your brain that’s switched on when you’re doing Mock the Week or The Apprentice where you’re listening out for the gap to get in and say something smart arsed. You’ve got to stop using that part of your brain entirely for this and just listen and let the conversation continue before finding the next curious question to ask.
Is it a struggle to overrule that side of your brain?
You get better at doing that and also you’re aware that it would just be bullying if a sincere scientist said something and you replied with, “What are you on about?” It can crush it a bit.
Do you think the viewing public are craving a show with more substance after years of endless reality and talent shows?
I don’t think this will ever replace it as there’s an entire industry that needs “art” – photographs of people looking good in bikinis coming out of water on their holidays. Shows that purely exist to create the latest good looking young people will always be there. We’re not competing with that – no one is photographing me in my bikini coming out of the water on the beach.
You have a degree in maths and quantum physics – if you weren’t working in entertainment would you have pursued a career in science?
It wouldn’t have been a bad option but I think there was a point where I needed to go off and be silly and showbizzy. In the grind of studying it full time properly you forget how much joy there is in science and I probably ran from that for a while. It’s nice to have got back to something that I took pleasure from but I don’t think I’d have the emotional make up for the thanklessness and the seriousness of doing it. It doesn’t guarantee you a showbiz career and the easy rewards of a showbiz career. I like the gratification of performing and you don’t get that in science – it may come to you later but you’ll have to have built something quietly and I’m not sure I was the man to build things quietly.
Earlier this year you did a maths GCSE exam for Radio Times and got an A* in ten minutes – what would you do to make exams more challenging?
The exam I saw didn’t seem to have a scope for people who are really going to express themselves and that’s the one thing you need. The point of exams is to distinguish between people of different abilities and that’s what is lost.
And finally, if you could invite three scientists to a dinner party, who would they be?
You’ve got to say Newton but he wasn’t the most pleasant individual in the world so you’d want a Galileo or a Plato – you want someone from different eras so they can go, “Whaaat? Was I wrong?” “Yes, yes, you were entirely wrong about that, we don’t do that anymore.” James Clerk Maxwell apparently was a very nice man so Maxwell, Richard Feynman and Galileo with Galileo arriving first and then Maxwell so at each point someone comes in with a new theory saying “Now we know this”. The entire dinner party is a version of how school worked – “we told you a simple version of it but actually that’s not it at all.” Clearly that’s how I want to entertain guests at my house.
Dara O Briain’s Science Club begins tonight at 8pm on BBC2