And All That Was Left of Civilisation Was a Floppy Disk Orchestra…

A new series of The Infinite Monkey Cage starts next Monday. The Radio Times asked me to write a column on it, and I didn’t read the instructions, so wrote the wrong thing. The column they wanted is in this week’s Radio Times, the column they didn’t is below.

Yesterday’s future dreams become today’s archaic remnant with frightening speed once you are middle aged in the 21st century. Show a floppy disk to a child now and you might as well be showing them a mangle or a pair of Deeley Boppers. But old Floppy Disk drives still have potential when freed from the bulk of your old computer. It may not be artificial intelligence, but if your life is lacking a man playing the Ghostbusters theme on a kazoo, you may need to build a floppy disk orchestra as demonstrated by Professor Danielle George on the first episode of the new series of The Infinite Monkey Cage.
In the fifteen series we have made of Monkey Cage we have argued furiously about free will, watched Sir Patrick Stewart trump a genuine piece of meteorite by pulling out his communicator badge, seen Brian Blessed terrify a front row Shakespearian bellowing about Jupiter, and for no reason we can work out, created an obsession about when, or if, a strawberry dies.
I also fondly remember when a chemist with the calloused and blistered hands, as all good chemist should have, suggested I dip my finger in liquid nitrogen. Obviously, I said yes. The trick is to pop it in quickly, the warmth of the finger briefly creates a gas layer around the digit, don’t hang around, take it out again. My worry was, what if my evil self decides to play a trick on me, and refuses to take the finger out in time? Fortunately, it didn’t and I still have the correct number of fingers.

Being a radio show, the live demonstrations are limited, as describing chemical reactions on the radio can be lacklustre. “The flame has gone green, well a greeny blue, the flame is getting a higher, oh dear, it seems to have reached the chemist. The chemist is now running around shouting, ‘my lab coat is on fire! my lab coat is on fire!” His eyes are now a more vivid red and a little bit further out of his head”.

Our latest episode is Domestic Science, though it is not examining the theoretical physics of moussaka and flapjacks. This was an investigation into how the objects in your house and their behaviour demonstrate laws and theories of our universe. We hear about entropy and think of it as something cosmologists talk about next to a wipe-board laden with equations, yet tantalising hints of the heat death of our universe are all around us. We were joined by Dr Helen Czerski, a bubble physicist, Danielle George, a professor of Radio Frequency Engineering, and Russell Kane, who has no scientific qualifications as yet, but does have some innovative ideas in creating free running robotic hands that will run wild around your house. His invention will be called Handrew, I am sure he will have patented it by the time the programme goes out.

Our shows are never intended to be a complete module on a scientific subject, we hope that the discussion will inspire the listeners to find out more on their own, to spend more time looking at the stars or with a net by a river finding strange creatures that swarm and multiply in a few drops of water. At the end of each show, i find myself with a new book list and a new set of good intentions to understand a little more about the universe before the year is out.
I am fortunate to be employed as an interested idiot, something I have spent most of my life being, whether on air or not. The problem with humans is our belief that it is a weakness to reveal your ignorance, but if you aren’t prepared to wear your ignorance on your sleeve, then you miss out on the chances to learn more. Even Professor Brian Cox’s brain does not contain all information. It is one of my great delights to see him say, “hmmm, I don’t know” and then setting about trying to work out an answer. We spent a great deal of time working out why the base of a slinky spring being dropped to the floor does not seem to “obey gravity” until the stretched spring above has gathered together. It is fun to not know if when you discover another new ignorance, you then say, “let’s see if we can work it out, then”.

And critical thinking can involve lemonade and raisins, too. Helen Czerski made an edible lava lamp for us by dropping the dried fruit into the fizzy drink. I have never found raisins as mesmeric. Tonic Water is even more fun to use for your new lounge centre piece if you have a UV lamp too. Behind this simple hypnotic feature lies the science of why the Titanic sank, but you’ll know this if you reader your Radio Times weekending 18th November, when Helen explained it fully.

Rarely, though our producer may upgrade that to “never”, do we sail from point A to point B in an episode without being distracted by some shiny piece of science flotsam. On this occasion, Brian refused to believe me that smelling of garlic can be a sign of imminent death. After some internet dabbling and the useful intervention of an audience member, Brian was introduced to the deadly element, thallium. If you want to guard yourself from its menacing peril, you’ll have to listen to the show. I’m going off to see if my Floppy Disk Orchestra knows any Michael Jackson, I hear it does a mean Beat It!.

Latest Book Shambles guest is Professor Alice Roberts, and before that it was Alice Lowe. Plenty more to be found, including Chris Hadfield and Alan Moore. They are here.

I do a very stupid podcast about music with Michael Legge, the latest one is here. 

And if you are in Australia or New Zealand, I am coming out with Josie Long, Helen Czerski, Matt Parker and Lucie Green, plus special guests. 


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