Science Focus Podcast

Finding the fun in science - Dara Ó Briain

DARA: I mean, the idea is that I as an old man - sitting on a park bench, feeding ducks in my later years - when a woman, literally in a lab coat, walks past and goes, "Oh my god, I'm a scientist because I read your book when I was a kid". This obviously is a ridiculous leap of- why am I feeding dugs, why is this woman still wearing a lab coat while walking through the park? So many things wrong with this fantasy - but the general gist is hopefully, you sow a seed.1n You're listening to Science Focus Podcast from the BBC Focus magazine team. We're the UK's best-selling science and technology monthly, available in print and in several digital formats throughout the world. Find out more at or look out for us in your App Store.

ALEXANDER: Hello, and welcome to the Science Focus Podcast. I'm Alexander McNamara, online editor of BBC Focus magazine. Comedian and TV presenter Dara Ó Briain became hooked on maths after studying black holes and the Shape of Space as a teenager. He went to university to pursue Maths and Mathematical Physics before veering way off course into Comedy and Science Communication, hosting shows like Mock the Week and Stargazing Live. He's drawn skills from all of those areas to create his second science book for kids, called Secret Science; The Amazing World Beyond Your Eyes. In it, he details the tiny and invisible things that are very, very important to everyday life. We talked to Dara about the joys and challenges of communicating science to kids, and what to do if you find science boring; he shares his favourite nerdy science joke with us, as well as why he's fascinated by the sleeping habits of giraffes and the details of the disappearance of the brontosaurus. Here's BBC Focus editorial assistant Helen Glenny talking to Dara Ó Briain.

HELEN: So you studied Maths and Physics at university?

DARA: Maths and Mathematical Physics in UCD in Dublin; it was a specific kind of fast track for those who really wanted to get down to the mathematical stuff, without any of the dusty practical, soldering yourself to the table-kind of thing. It narrowed really quickly into doing just very, very mathematical content immediately.

HELEN: Do you remember as a child how you first got into science?

DARA: I remember the point where I knew; at that point where you're about 14, when you really register. I don't remember specifically being into it before that - any more than just the usual curiosity we all have, hopefully! - and I've had conversation with various scientists I know; (UNCLEAR) ... to know that there's a point about 14 where it sort of grabs, in a big way. So for me, it was like a teacher went off-piste in science lectures (UNCLEAR) ... Because there's a point where it was before we had to get to any syllabus for exams, so we kept a very open - "this amazing thing, or that amazing thing". He was doing Shape of the Universe and black holes, all the kind of stuff that (UNCLEAR) , and that grabbed me in a huge way. And also then reading In search of Schrodinger's Cat by John Gribbin, and various other popular science books around the times; so yeah, I was about fourteen.

HELEN: After doing that study, did you ever consider entering academia?

DARA:  No, it wasn't really the- I toyed with the notion. I think I had myself down for a couple different Masters programs (UNCLEAR) "then", but then ran a newspaper instead in the college; and then put myself for different Masters program there, for journalism; and then it became loads of work, so I didn't even do that! So no, and I have kind of an ongoing respect for those who went ahead and did the more - well, nothing is more less thankless than comedy, cos we get thanked every thirty seconds, (UNCLEAR) "if we do it right" - so those who have actually done the more difficult thing that requires years of work; and then producing something that would do without getting a thousand people in the room cheering/applauding you, I admire that. It's a character flaw of mine that drove me to showbiz; it was never seriously an option, because I just got drawn away into other things.

HELEN: So you've ended up with these parallel careers as a science communicator and as a comedian; how did that come about?

DARA: Well, there's kind of a way it works. If you get any kind of note in television, they'll sit you down and go "what other things do you like?"; because it's useful to cross-pollinate the schedules, to have somebody go, "Well, actually I'm also really into this", so they know they can take audience from one place and bring it across to another. We were having conversations about doing something like that, but then somebody came out with the idea for Stargazing Live, and they felt - particularly because Brian had just started doing stuff - that it would be useful for Brian to have a broadcasting co-host; so someone who's there, whose job it is to be keeping an eye on the time and move it along. So Brian gets passionate, lost in the subject, but somebody'd be there to go, "Well that's great, Brian, but we're gonna have to move on!" So I was asked if I wanted to do that; it helps the fact that I know a bit about this, and so wasn't being unfazed by the conversations and stuff with that. I was able to pitch it - not to the level of Brian does, but still able to pitch in with things - and know when to go, "Listen, can we just explain that a little bit better?" But a lot of the job is being the responsible one when Brian's getting passionate about something; to go, "Yeah, that's all very well, but there's an airplane hovering above Scandinavia wanting to give us live footage of something, so we're gonna cut this off and go!" I've a routine in the show actually, a current show, about how there are people who genuinely think that when I interrupt Brian - I have to go, "Brian, I'll stop you there" - they think I do it because I'm jealous. They genuinely think that I when I host Stargazing with Brian, that I sit there angrily thinking, "Look how much attention he's getting"; and coincidentally around about the four-minute mark, I go, "I can't take this anymore". I have to stop him and move the entire show somewhere just out of envy - when in fact it's somebody shouting in my ear going, "10 seconds to Scandinavian village!" or whatever, and I have to do that - but we both found it very funny. It's such a common thing; it's a common Twitter thing of going, "Oh stop interrupting Brian!" I'm not interrupting Brian, I'm hosting a show that Brian is on. Obviously people probably don't realise that Stargazing in particularly is a tremendously coordinated show; the live one hour is like, "You got this, then this; then this, then this then this"; and there's four different locations, and there's the camera crews here; and the Liz is off at the other side of the planet, and Tim Peake is arriving at the Space Station or whatever. So it's an incredibly produced show - more so than I think we make it look, which is great - but it should flow really quickly. The best shows flow really quickly, but this one is "Boom boom boom boom boom" and somebody has to be the one doing the thankless task, so that's me doing that. We used to have a show called "Back to Earth" which is a half hour after it, which we never had time- the first was really rehearsed, and the second show was completely unrehearsed. That was honestly the most fun I've ever had in my professional life, because it was completely unrehearsed and I basically controlled the whole thing; then we had complete scope to let the conversation flow. Meanwhile there's a producer going, "Could we get that in, could we get that in?" and seeing the moment pass where I'm just ignoring them and going, "No no, this show is just for talking now." So they needed someone with both the interest in the thing, but also had years of live television to help anchor it. I'm the first to say, my job in all these things is - when I'm doing the broadcasting - is to be the person standing next to the expert, and I get the information out of the expert. Actually, doing a kids book is sort of the perfect level in terms of, I love explaining it; I love bringing the passion across for these things, but I'm unlikely to- I honestly wouldn't deign to write the book that explains this to adults, because there are tons of great science writers out there who are also scientists as well. I think that's the thing that they'll do far better, and they'll bring far more to it; whereas I can go, "That's very interesting, the way you put it, but I think I can explain it a bit better; I can make it funny, and I can make it more appealing to a young audience." That's kind of a different skillset, but you do still occasionally get people going, "Oh yeah, did Brian help you to explain?", and you going, "Actually, it's okay. Brian's got these other books, I've got other books; the stuff is in books, Brian didn't invent this stuff", you know? The scientists, we all came through school and had to be taught the same to children as well. I just stopped attending these lectures after a while, but all the information is out there; and that's possibly in itself quiet a new thing. All this information is out there, it's not the preserve of any one group of people, whether it be astronomers, biologists or whatever, or scientists on the telly. It's no-one's preserve, that information is all free to go; we're just repackaging it in an exciting way to draw you in again, but none of this is a secret.


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