Better to look stupid than be ignorant, says comic Robin Ince. Ask questions, be curious, immerse yourself in life; stop being so passive, avoid laying back and certainly don’t let things wash over you.
“Life, to me, is finite, certainly life on Earth whatever you may believe,” he says, pacing around London Euston station while on the phone, barely stopping for breath and trying to avoid a speeding Royal Mail buggy and the gaze of interested onlookers.
“We live in an age where we are so bombarded with images, whether on television or other people’s opinions in magazines, that sometimes you fail to do anything.”
He says the older he gets, the more he feels one has to ask as many questions as one can.
He spends his life asking questions to panellists on Radio 4’s Infinite Monkey Cage, which he presents with physicist Brian Cox, as well as writing for his stand-up shows.
Together with Cox, he looks at the world through science – though Ince admits he knows very little about the discipline.
As such, he wants to hold himself up as the guinea pig to encourage others to join his crusade of knowledge-seeking.
It’s the reason he’s returned to Brighton Science Festival and has decided to make a direct follow-up to his last show, Happiness Through Science, with a new investigation of seeing the world, The Importance Of Being Interested.
“I hope to encourage people to go, ‘Do you know what, I would rather ask a stupid question and find something out at the end of it and go, I know more, even though I felt a bit embarrassed, I wasn’t sure if that was the right question or whether I pronounced the name of that particle correctly’.”
Among Ince’s heroes is the American physicist Richard Feynman, whose incredible mind was bolstered by the fact he cared not a little about whether he might be regarded as ignorant.
“He wanted to know, to get to the bottom of things and he didn’t allow the ego to get too much in the way.”
Another is Alan Moore, the open-minded science fiction writer whom Ince has worked with, and Dennis Potter, the playwright who talked about seeing the “blossomist blossom” in an interview he gave to Melvyn Bragg shortly before his death.
“He knows it is the last time he is going to see that blossom toward the end of his life. There is something so beautiful about that. Also [Dr Feelgood guitarist] Wilko Johnson talks about the way death has focused his mind.”
Ince’s aim is to bombard people with as many ideas as possible in the hope that some will stick and people will want to read and learn more and not waste a minute.
“None of my shows are an education. I can’t tell people what to think. All I want is to get involved more in the things I’m interested in.”
When he was in his 20s, Ince suddenly realised how many things he was missing out on – not just in science. “I want people to be as excited by the world as I am. It might be juvenile or silly or even highfalutin’.”
Ince guest co-edited the New Statesman’s Christmas edition with Brian Cox. In its editorial they wrote how it doesn’t matter how clever or good your experiments are, the ultimate judge is nature. Rather than human arrogance and superiority, the universe will decide whether we are right or wrong.
“Carl Sagan says astronomy is a humbling quest because it shows you the enormity of what is around us, but equally the fact we have evolved to have inquisitive minds.
“You think of the agony your mother went through in childbirth and a lot of that is our great big skulls. What a pity to then not use what lies within.”
Through the role, Ince met another hero.
“When you meet someone like David Attenborough and you see their body of work it is inspiring. You see that desire to impart information and he really does go, ‘This is an amazing world, you won’t believe what I’ve just seen’.
“He’s an 86-year-old man, he has been broadcasting for 60 years and you get no sense of cynicism or boredom after all that time. And he also knows how much is still out there.”
You might also be asking, how does this fit into a comedy show?
“That’s what I want to know. I’m lucky because I’m dealing with Darwin and the animal world is filled with wonderful bizarre designs you can’t believe exist, while the science world is so mysterious.”
The Importance Of Being Interested is one of two shows. First, and by popular demand (he was asked by the Brighton Science Festival), he is to return to The Book Club, which he toured and turned into a book.
He will perform its sister production, the Dirty Book Club, which is a rare treat.
Expect anecdotes and readings from old science books, including Sexlink, with its secrets from the animal world, such as the tales of misogynistic ducks and one creature which uses its testicles as a battling device.
“I always want the show to be funny, I’m always looking for gags. But the most important thing is that it is interesting.”
- Dirty Book Club: Old Market, Upper Brunswick Street, Hove, Friday, February 8, starts 8pm, £9/£6, call 01273 201801
- The Importance Of Being Interested: Blind Tiger Club, Grand Parade, Brighton, Wednesday, February 13, starts 8pm, £6.30/£9, limited tickets on the door