Serendipity Led to a Rambling Monkey Cage on Luck and Judgment

For the first time in its recording history, we have finished recording the final episode of The Infinite Monkey Cage before the first of the series has even been broadcast. Let’s hope all the paradigms of science don’t change in the fortnight before we begin. It would be embarrassing for Brian if the standard model he talks about is standard no more.

The final recording was a rambling discussion of serendipity in science; how mishaps, chance, and accident have led to scientific innovation and advance.

Some talked of the presumed pigeon excrement interference that turned out to be the cosmic microwave background radiation of our universe, others talked of the seemingly pathetic glue that led to the post it note (actually, that some was the same man, Simon Singh).

There was also a lot of discussion of frogs in magnets. There is a joy in watching the nonchalance of scientists when discussing such things, eventually I had to interrupt to request if they could explain to the audience a little more of this scenario, as they may not be as au fait in matters of amphibians and magnetic fields (it was all part of the playtime of Andre Geim, currently the only human who is the inner of both the Nobel and Ignobel prizes, and he attended both ceremonies).

Further conversations also led to how serendipity led to the discovery of not one, but four artificial sweeteners. You would never be baking with Splenda and rejoicing in your svelte figure were it not for a youthful chemist mishearing “test” and believing his homework was to taste the chemicals on his work surface (fortunately, none violently exploded on contact with tongues and saliva). Later on, we discovered that there have been consumer industry advantages to some chemists poor hygiene regime, but I can’t remember which artificial sweetener came from the sweet, dusty fingers of one wash basin rejecting scientist.

Lee Mack manage to impede the anecdotes of Andrea Sella with a carnival of interruptions, and then broke Simon Singh for a while (and the audience too) with a joke that they just couldn’t decide if it might be racist or not – that laughter, followed by the frontal lobe interruption of “hang on, stop your laughter until we have analysed this effectively”. The seesawing uncertainty continued as Simon corpsed.

Despite the conjecture that serendipity was essential to grand discoveries, after the magnificence of Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation, we found that chance and error had often led to stationery and fashion innovation. Remember that next time you are velcro-ing up your mauve jumpsuit.

The main summary, beyond my mentioning of the subtleties of Brian’s latest wig (Morecambe and Wise still influence scientific radio), was the importance of playtime. Scientific investigation should not be tied to a single track.
Inquisitiveness can and should err beyond an investigation’s specific intentions.
Sometimes the funder may not get what they want, they may get something much better – “so you didn’t get quinine, but see how the queen now has a mauve ribbon and now, from accidental colour discovery we’ve inspired a pharmaceutical industry?”
And also how experiments in the science curriculum should not be underrated.

This blog post is almost as rambling as our recording, you can hear the editing wizardry of our producer later next month. Unusually, it is now straight into next series production as we get ready for New York, Chicago, LA, and San Francisco. Time to queue outside the US embassy at dawn, last time I did that I was standing behind Martin Amis.

If you are not in London, information on my forthcoming gigs in Didcot, Bedford, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Salford, Swindon and on, is HERE

And info of USA gigs HERE

And Australian tour HERE

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