Scientists Just Wanna Have Fun (Like Uncaged Monkeys)

I’m going to break with tradition this week and talk about scientists rather than science. I know, change is hard, but it’ll be fun!

Earlier this month a band of intrepid rock-star scientists and comedians set out on a tour of the UK to talk about science to live audiences. Calling themselves the Uncaged Monkeys, Robin Ince, Brian Cox, Ben Goldacre, Simon Singh, and Helen Arney have been all over the place. They’ve packed theatres from London to Glasgow, Newcastle to Oxford. Not only have they educated, they have entertained, and it’s the entertainment part that’s so crucial to science communication these days. Lose someone’s attention and you’re likely to lose it forever into the dark abyss of the ubiquitous smartphone.

But I digress…

The tour was the brainchild of Ince and Cox, who together host an award-winning BBC radio show called “The Infinite Monkey Cage”, a comedic look at the world of science. In their own words:

“Uncaged Monkeys is the first ever national science tour celebrating the universe and many of the wonders that lie within it. The finest names in science broadcasting will gather together to talk of dark matter, black holes, Bonobo apes, the big bang and anything else they can cram into two hours.”

Sounds fantastic, doesn’t it?

Of course all the Monkeys have an element of celebrity, which has definitely helped fuel interest in this tour. Ince is a well-known stand-up comedian, with a long history in both radio and television in England. And Professor Brian Cox is a science communicator extraordinaire. I’m sure he’ll be popping up over here on NOVA if he hasn’t already. He’s a particle physicist involved in the ATLAS project at the large hadron collider in Geneva, Switzerland. He is constantly on British television talking about the wonders of the universe, making daunting topics like string theory accessible to everyone. However, arguably his biggest achievement over the years was playing keyboard in the early 90s pop act D:Ream. Google it if you need to…

Uncaged monkeysBut the celebrity doesn’t stop there! Ben Goldacre is a very well known science writer, and his column “Bad Science” appears in The Guardian newspaper. As a psychiatrist, he has been very outspoken on various medical issues over the past few years, including the vaccine/autism debate. Then there’s Simon Singh, author of “Fermat’s Last Theorum” (amongst other books), the T.V. adaptation of which, “The Proof”, was nominated for an Emmy.

Last, but by no means least, is Helen Arney, who provided the music for the tour. She’s a musical comedian who studied physics at college. I’ve only listened to one of her songs in its entirety, but I was crying with laughter. It’s called “Animals” and has lines like “Let’s make love like hedgehogs…carefully” and “I put the oo in zoology baby”. Hilarious! Think “Flight of the Concords” meets Bio101. Genius.

So what happens when you put all of these smart, funny, and arguably good-looking people in a room and get them to talk about science? Lots of fun times, apparently. There are a number of podcasts available for free download on iTunes, and so I listened to one the other day. The one I chose involved the amiable hosts answering questions they didn’t have time to get to during a show in Oxford (the podcast is called “Free Primates”, get it?). In it, Cox fielded a question about why all the planets of the solar system orbit the sun in almost the same plane. At the time I remember thinking “oh yeah! That makes perfect sense” but I have the brain capacity of a goldfish and retain very little, so I’m afraid you’ll have to take a listen yourself to find out the answer!

The witty banter that bounces back and forth between these guys is amazing. When one struggles to find a good analogy, another will chip in. And they all have very different backgrounds and areas of expertise, so I have no doubt every member of the audience was thoroughly engaged. Perhaps the best part about these guys is that they aren’t afraid to talk about the really difficult elements of science. They don’t dumb things down; they raise their communication game instead. If something is difficult to understand then they find an innovative way to explain it.

But I suppose the bottom line is…science is cool. Scientists can be funny. And science communicators should probably hunt in packs.


Katie Pratt is a graduate student in Molecular Biology at Brown University. She has a passion for science communication, and in an attempt to bring hardcore biology and medicine to everyone, she blogs jargon-free at Follow her escapades in the lab and online on Twitter.



Miss a previous edition of Mind the Gap? We’ve got you covered:

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  1. Rinderpest Eradicated: Another One Bites the Dust

    wrote on June 8, 2011 at 3:53 pm

    […] Scientists Just Wanna Have Fun (Like Uncaged Monkeys) […]

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