The Infinite Monkey Cage

Once upon a time, when the world was younger, a new plant sprouted that began releasing a strange new gas. It was poisonous and it started killing everything around it.
That new, deadly gas was oxygen.

This was, give or take, one of the stories my dad would tell me when I was a child, to explain scientific concepts and the biological history of the world. A brilliant Science student during his school years, he was always patient enough to answer and debate with me all the “How do we know there aren’t microbes on Mars? Shouldn’t they be considered aliens?” type of questions racing through my head.

I, on the other hand, was the archetypal Arts and Humanities kid – though it was never about not finding Science interesting. With the exception of Astronomy, which I’ve always been passionate about, I seemed to take twice as long to truly understand chemical processes and physical laws (understand, as opposed to simply memorising and repeating them like a parrot) than I would to grasp historical events or philosophical ideas.

Because the Portuguese education system ensures that, by the age of 14, only 1/4 of students keep having Science subjects (aside from Maths), we’re bound to be fairly uneducated in these fields. Luckily, popular science books and documentaries abound, and QI opened the door for shows like The Infinite Monkey Cage to exist.

Hosted by comedian Robin Ince and never-ageing physicist Prof. Brian Cox, the radio series has been running since 2009 but, for some twisted reason, I only found out about it this year and have been binge-listening ever since.

The concept is simple: pick a theme, invite experts in that field and an additional comedian (with Katy Brand being one of the habituées), and get them all chatting for half an hour. The conversation can be focused on topics ranging from microorganisms to parallel universes, to mysticism and how war has shaped Science, and you may even catch an episode or two with the great Alan Moore.

More than making Science entertaining, the wonderful thing about this series is that it reminds us of what makes the scientific field and all its branches so incredibly fascinating in the first place: they ask all the big questions. How are stars formed? What are things made of? How does life work? When is a strawberry dead? They don’t shy away from inviting Religion, Philosophy and the Arts to the debate either – all of which are asking big questions themselves.

It has been said that scientists are like children because they never stop asking “why?” and “how?” about the most seemingly silly or absurd things. But, although they may have that questioning spirit more embedded in them than us, regular folk, I honestly think that curiosity can be stimulated and be kept alive – especially when the questions being asked are so universal.

Admittedly, some will be more open to keep on questioning, while others will accept a handful of explanations at face value. But we all feel the need to understand the whys and hows – we just look for the answers in different places.

Yesterday, while listening to the episode about oxygen, Dr Gabrielle Walker told everyone the story of the Poisonous Plant. And I felt like the luckiest daughter in the world all over again, for having had such a bright and generous mind to share my curiosity with.

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