Let scientists entertain you: an unconventional festive treat

Academics tread the boards to inspire public in London Christmas show. Matthew Reisz reports

December 3, 2009

It sounds "insane" even to its creator, but Robin Ince's scientific variety show has proved to be a sell-out Christmas hit.

Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People brings big-name comedians, journalists, musicians and academics together on stage, where each gives a seven-minute performance about an aspect of science that inspires them.

The result is "a taster tape of ideas", said Mr Ince. "As television is decreasing its amount of science content, we in the live entertainment world have to take up the gauntlet."

The show's five-night run at London's Bloomsbury Theatre sold out immediately, leading to a second booking at the Hammersmith Apollo on 20 December - for which Times Higher Education has three pairs of tickets to give away.

On stage will be science writers Richard Dawkins and Ben Goldacre, graphic novelist Alan Moore, Canadian "nerd-rapper" Baba Brinkman, plus a humanist choir and a full orchestra. They will be joined by performers with a scientific background - Dara O Briain, the Irish comic and host of TV show Mock the Week, is a former student of theoretical physics - and scientists who can draw on previous experience as performers.

Brian Cox, professor of particle physics at the University of Manchester, used to be a keyboard player in the band D:Ream, while Richard Wiseman, professor of the public understanding of psychology at the University of Hertfordshire, started his working life as a magician.

"Most people only come across psychologists when they've got a problem," Professor Wiseman said. "So I hope to introduce people to our research and what most psychologists do. My work focuses on topics such as optical illusions, which have wide public appeal."

Even some non-performers reveal unexpected talents. When he was asked to take part in the show's first run last year, science writer Marcus Chown brought the house down with a countdown of his top five "bonkers things we now know about the Universe".

"Everyone will attempt to be as factually accurate as possible," Mr Ince said. "But they will also be funny, even if they're talking about cobweb formation or orang-utan behaviour. Evolutionary biology lends itself to humour, because of the weird things we and other species do - although physics can be difficult to make amusing."

Nine Lessons and Carols is produced with the Rationalist Association, with some of the proceeds going to the Mustard Seed Secular School in Uganda.

Despite the title, Mr Ince sees it as a celebration of science rather than an attack on religion - although he couldn't resist including the word "godless" after a fundamentalist Christian publicly accused him of wanting to ban Christmas.

Since working with Mr Ince last year, science writer Simon Singh said he had spoken about cosmology and cryptography in comedy clubs and pub basements.

"Taking science to the big stage means that it becomes part of the cultural mainstream," Dr Singh said. "It will be incredible to be able to talk about the Big Bang theory to 3,000 people at the Hammersmith Apollo.

"I hope the teenagers in the audience will go back to their physics classes with renewed enthusiasm."


Further information

The show’s run at the Bloomsbury Theatre has sold out, but tickets are still available for dates at the Hammersmith Apollo. For more details: http://tinyurl.com/yj47e87

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