The Infinite Monkey Cage’s Robin Ince: why it’s good Professor Brian Cox doesn’t know everything

Comedian Robin Ince writes about how the hit Radio 4 series has transformed his views on science and the arts


I am fortunate to be employed as an interested idiot, something I have spent most of my life being, whether on air or not.


The problem with humans is our belief that it is a weakness to reveal your ignorance, but if you aren’t prepared to wear your ignorance on your sleeve, then you miss out on the chances to learn more. Even Professor Brian Cox’s brain does not contain all information.

It is one of my great delights to see him say, “Hmmm, I don’t know” and then setting about trying to work out an answer. We once spent a great deal of time working out why the base of a slinky spring being dropped to the floor does not seem to “obey gravity” until the stretched spring above has gathered together.

The products of scientifically imaginative minds are all around our homes. We’ve become blasé about rapid change. Imagining a world where you had to walk to a television to switch to one of the other two channels while your youngest child hung out of the window with a portable TV aerial, trying to rid Brideshead Revisited of the perpetual snow of signal interference, is a memory for museums. It will be placed between the jawbone of an ox and a wooden threshing machine.

The phone is no longer a bakelite weight attached to the wall in the draughtiest corner of the house; you can roam as you babble. We curse the taps if the water takes more than five seconds to be scalding and berate our unfettered phone if it loses a signal 500 feet under the ground in a lead lined tunnel. And how many of you still use a mangle?

As a child, I was interested in science, but thought that to understand electricity, it was best to experiment by sticking a metal pin into a plug socket. It hurt, and so I turned to the arts instead.

Through nothing more than a series of indentations, a pattern of zeroes and noughts becomes the Shostakovich or Little Mix you’re listening to. Ponder how full of valves your house would have to be if they hadn’t been replaced by transistors. For the vacuum tube to be replaced by the significantly smaller and far sturdier transistor requires quantum mechanics.

At this point, if I were qualified, I would describe how the flow of electrons is helped or hindered by use of a transistor, and its importance in decoding all the information that you thrive on and fight with every minute of your interactive, multimedia day.

Sadly, when it comes to the flow of electrons, I’m not as far away from my “sticking a pin into a plug socket” phase as I might have hoped. Even if we do not fully understand the objects that surround us on a daily basis, it seems to me to be important to know that they do not just exist by chance or good fortune, but through thought, experiment and scrupulous endeavour. I’m able to make toast only by standing on the shoulders of giants.

You don’t have to look through a telescope to contemplate the wonder of the universe, it’s lurking by your kettle, too. 


The Infinite Monkey Cage airs Mondays at 4.30pm on BBC Radio 4 – listen again on BBC iPlayer