Sex, zombies and the paranormal are among the subjects under discussion at this year’s Brighton Science Festival, with guests including Robin Ince, Ben Goldacre and Belle de Jour (aka Dr Brooke Magnanti) in town for the month. Festival director Richard Robinson talks to us about science, magic, religion and ukuleles.
There seems to be a lot of popular science on the TV currently. Why now?
Well we can get very complacent about science. We buy a thing like an iPhone, and it’s fantastic what goes on inside there, but we just take it for granted. It doesn’t last for long and we throw it away and buy a new one. We don’t worry about who built it, miles away in China or Korea, whereas in the developing world they’re very keen on this new and exciting stuff. Newness and excitement has rather left us so it’s our task to keep refilling the pot. I think the reason why Dara Ó Briain has confessed to being a scientist, and Ben Miller and other comedians with science degrees behind them, is because we’re aware of that problem of taking things for granted, we spotted it years ago.
Have you seen sites like Facebook’s ‘I Fucking Love Science’?
Well I’m getting beaten over the head about it, people say to me you’ve got to get into Facebook and Twitter – well I did tweet once last year and I didn’t feel any better for it. I don’t have any followers so it’s possible I don’t exist actually, you might be talking to an illusion. But no, ‘I Fucking Love Science’ is a good one and there are a number of very good websites, pub tricks and pub magic things, Steve Spangler in America, Grand Illusions. There’s plenty there and you can just do the tricks to impress your friends and neighbours or you can say “And the reason why is…” and watch them run out of the room. It reinforces the science behind it.
How receptive are people to new scientific concepts?
You start by having people looking at you in a weird way. It can take years. For instance, Darwin had quite an original idea and he spent 40 years not publishing because he was scared. He knew what he was saying, he knew that it was a game changing idea, so he knew that if he was going to publish he had to be very sure, have thorough proof and proper experiments, so nobody could say you must be mad. Most of the planet still do think he’s mad. I mean Richard Dawkins is Darwin’s bloodhound, hunting down anybody who’s not absolutely 100% atheist, who doesn’t think that we’re just a random collection of molecules on a damp pebble floating through the infinity of nothing.
How does the festival engage with young people?
It’s a big challenge and we’re tackling that one with White Heat weekend (Sallis Benney Theatre, Sat 23rd & Sun 24th). The first day is mainly talks and the second is absolutely no talks at all, it’s mayhem and madness, hot glue spraying all over the place, soldering irons poking in people’s eyes, boiling water to keep them alert. We’ve got talks on things like monsters and skateboarding, but every one of those is like a worm on a hook, and the hook is the science that goes behind it. It’s curated by the Festival Of The Spoken Nerd who are delightful. One of them plays the ukulele so I think we might have a reduction if you’ve got a ukulele. I know one or two people have got some science songs so maybe we’ll have a singalong-a-science.
There’s a lot of ukes about these days.
Yes, I keep on seeing them on people’s shelves. They’re like a virus. You get a little one and then as soon as it’s the right moment they become infectious. Everybody will be afflicted by ukulele.