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There’s a PhD in the house

by Daniel Rosenthal
The Times
April 12, 2002

Science: it’s the new stand-up, if two playful eggheads have their way.

(Written prior to Theatre of Science’s debut at the Soho Theatre.)

It’s a wonderful space, with this huge audience wrapped around you in a semi-circle.” This might be an actor recalling a triumphant appearance at the Olivier; in fact it’s physicist Simon Singh describing the pleasure of performing at the Royal Institution’s lecture theatre. Just as actors relish treading the same boards as Gielgud and Richardson, Singh finds it “extraordinary” to have taken to the stage commanded by Humphry Davy and Michael Faraday in the 19th century, when a Royal Institution lecture was one of London’s hottest tickets. Now Singh and psychologist Richard Wiseman are attempting to rekindle some of that public enthusiasm with their London show, Theatre of Science.

Singh, 37, a former Tomorrow’s World presenter and cryptography expert who may well be the only Cambridge PhD to have won a Bafta (for his documentary, Fermat’s Last Theorem), says inspiration for Theatre of Science arrived in two stages. Part one came via Wiseman, 35, known to television viewers as resident psychologist on BBC Two’s Lying Game.

“I heard Richard give a talk about the psychology of deception to a very eminent audience,” Singh says. “He’s a magician as well as a psychologist and used conjuring tricks to look at the subject from a new angle. The audience loved it, but I came away thinking ‘Isn’t it a great shame that the vast majority of people who go to science lectures already know the subject, so you’re preaching to the converted?’ ”

Then he met a man who constantly brings science into the most mainstream of settings. “In Australia, the coolest morning DJ is a mathematician called Adam Spencer. He’ll say something like ‘In Alice Springs today it’s 16 degrees. That’s two to the power of four, or four to the power of two, the only number that can be written as an exponential in two different ways — a fact first discovered in the 18th century.’

“He also plays edgy music and all the young people in Sydney love him. I did a lecture with him where we made bets, each trying to outwit the other in questions dealing with probability and risk. I thought a solo version of that set-up would work over here, and that’s the basis of What are the Chances of that Happening?, my half of Theatre of Science. Richard then does his magic in Mental Trickery, which is more naturally theatrical than my stuff.”

Conscious that most adults tasted their last and, for many, indigestible portion of “live” science in a school laboratory, the pair felt their choice of venue would be crucial if they were to attract a non-specialist audience. “It had to be somewhere where people wouldn’t feel intimidated, or think they were going to be locked in a lecture room,” says Singh. They approached Soho Theatre, which successfully targets a young crowd with new writing and stand-up comedy, reasonably priced seats and a lively bar.

Since Singh plans to be in that bar buying after-show drinks for anyone who has defeated him in the betting game, he declines to reveal his chosen subjects (“I don’t want people reading up in advance”). Instead, he spells out the goal that has earned Theatre of Science a grant from the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts. “I’m trying to show how scientific probability affects major decisions. Science is the attempt to achieve truth and certainty about something, but scientists know they’ll never get there, only to 99.99 per cent probability at best.

“You’ve got trivial gambling at one end of the probability scale, and hard-nosed science at the other. But in the middle are things like a murder case, in which the jury is expected to understand evidence and base a conviction on probability, as though they were scientists. Lots of medicine is also about probability. The whole MMR debate asks: ‘What is the likelihood of a link between MMR and autism?’ ”

So Theatre of Science could entertain us and make us more effective jurors or parents? “I hope so,” Singh says. “If I can get people to think more critically about probability, then they’ll be in a better position to make judgments.”

If their Soho performances are well received, Singh and Wiseman hope to launch an ongoing series this autumn, provisionally entitled Monday Night Science. Two scientists would appear, and audiences could expect “a dose of science and fun” as confidently as they now rely on, say, the Comedy Store for improv and stand-up. Singh already has one name pencilled on to his ideal artists roster.

“Sir Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, is just the sort of person I’d like to bring on board. I’ve heard him speak about profound concepts like the origins of the Universe — and he’ll always drop in some lovely one-liners. He’s a funny guy.”

Style magazines once hailed stand-up as “the new rock’n’roll”; what price science as “the new stand-up”?