In the words of Richard Feynman, “We are matter with curiosity.” But how can that curiosity be sated?
What started as an idea for a documentary is now an app by writer and comedian Robin Ince and writer and director Trent Burton, and involves a growing number of leading scientists, writers, and performers from around the world, expressing their love of how far the human imagination combined with scientific thinking can get us.
Designed to be easily approachable and understandable to people who may not have picked up a science book since they left school, The Incomplete Map of the Cosmic Genome aims to cover all sciences and be updated every month with new ideas, people, theories, explanations, and videos of science’s most recent endeavors.
It’s like an interactive magazine-documentary-television show all in one. Whether it is Richard Dawkins taking a good fifteen minutes to explain the selfish gene theory or Helen Czerski detailing the importance of bubbles, it will be an entertaining resource, but also an inspiration to dig further into these topics. And TIMOTCG makes the digging easier with plenty of external links to more articles, papers, and videos right inside the app.
Kylie: Firstly, how did the two of you meet and how did this project start?
Robin: We met because Trent used to go to a comedy night I did called “The Book Club.” I believe this is correct. Then needed someone to do commentary on…What the hell did I do? What was that called?
Trent: It was a documentary I directed about mathematicians and statisticians who had left their jobs to go play online poker because they basically worked out a system that they could make millions off online poker. Robin narrated that.
Robin: We were doing a bizarre documentary and I do very little narration—we basically sat in a room for a day in West London and I had to read this script with an incredible number of words, just an incredible amount of speech. One of those things where they go, “We’ve only got five seconds. Can you say this—and make sure that within that you include that line about Euclidian geometry of card playing?”
You go, “OK.” And so, it was basically watching a man stumble over words for an entire day.
Trent: Very hard from memory!
Robin: Yes, it was one of those booths filled with the white heat of unpleasant advertising money that was required to make this. Am I allowed to say that or will you work with them again?
Trent: No, no. It’s OK!
Kylie: I kind of spotted that Trent’s got an Australian accent like me…
Trent: I do. It won’t leave me!
Robin: Is it still good? One of the things that I like is my sister lives in Australia and she’s lived there for twenty years. She lives there in Tasmania. Of course she is too English to be Australian and now when she returns here she is too Australian to be accepted by English society. You don’t seem to have lost any of your accent, Trent. You seem to very much still represent the alpha male of Australia!
Trent: Yes, I secretly watch my AFL in a quiet corner!
Kylie: So, there you were getting involved in science documentaries—how did it lead to an app?
Robin: Originally it was going to be a documentary. We had this idea based around one of the shows that I was doing at the time last year, a stand up show called“Happiness Through Science.”
I thought, “Why don’t we make a documentary where there’s so much talk about the idea, even now, where science is this cold, clinical thing where people gather facts and they have a different kind of mind to all other human beings.”
Having met so many people doing things like the radio show, “Infinite Monkey Cage,”and various live events, knowing the enthusiasm of scientists and their passions and also the idiocies that all other human beings have, as well—I wanted to make a documentary which showed the excitement of scientific ideas and of rationalists, that in no way does it remove the poetry and the excitement of self-conscious existence in the universe.
We tried to get the documentary shown anyway. British TV companies, they normally need a level of celebrity and that kind of stuff and we didn’t really want to make it like that.
That’s when Trent came up with the idea. He said, “Young people love apps.” I don’t. I can’t even look at the app that we’ve made because I don’t have the technology so I have really no idea what’s on there but it’s lovely, this kind of Schrodinger’s App that exists in my mind. And that was it! There were so many ideas that once you sit down with a scientist and they start talking about whether it is bubbles or bonobos or big bang or whatever, you don’t want to turn it into a sound-bite thing.
To the scientists, I said, “Don’t feel you have to answer this as if you’re doing a TV documentary and you have to get everything in forty-five seconds. We want to have you talking to us as lengthily as you wish,” which is sometimes an error because it turns out some people…Well, when it gets to the second hour when they’re talking about their particular favourite particle that they might have discovered while working at the LHC, we realize some editing is required!
Trent: When you ask Ben Goldacre to talk about antivaxers at length he does. He really does!
Robin: I think Ben was one of them because when I first worked with Ben Goldacre and I first put him on stage and said, “Don’t worry too much about time.” He went on stage at 11:00 pm, which is late to be talking about epidemiology anyway with an audience that have been drinking!
But when it hit midnight that was the point where I had to try and work out some gesture which was meant to say, “Wrap up,” which I think he maybe thought meant, “Talk faster, but continually, at length.”
Kylie: Brilliant. Obviously, documentary making is a background that Trent has. What about the science element? What led you to think, “OK, let’s start heading more into the science and the apps, in that regard?”
Trent: Me, well I did science at university originally, at Edith Cowan University in Perth; I was there for a few years and then went to Murdoch to do art, which was a much more lucrative industry, obviously!
Kylie: Yeah, having majored originally in philosophy I know what you mean!
Trent: And then I’ve just sort of spent the last six or so years somehow merging the two.
Robin: You did philosophy? What is the problem with philosophy versus science? We were talking about this with AC Grayling recently, most of which don’t think we use on the app because it was officially off camera. There was an article that I wrote with Brian Cox at the end of last year. We had an enormous number of philosophers of science and then we attempted to argue with philosophers but that takes a long period of time due to the number of definitions required per sentence.
Kylie: I think that I have to send you a new book by Massimo Pigliucci because he, for me, is the great example of a bridge between philosophy and science! Back to the app however—how about the opening quote from Cosmic Genome app: “The boundaries of our ignorance increase daily.” How does the app address that specifically?
Robin: One of the things I quite enjoy is the fact that because it’s called the “Incomplete Map of the Cosmic Genome,” which is mainly another one of my stupid titles like, “Infinite Monkey Cage.” It’s not meant to really mean too much but we’re really getting people going, “Should I wait until it’s complete?”
I go, “No, no, no. The idea is that it will always be incomplete!” Human knowledge, the idea that we will eventually get to the end... “Oh, I think we know everything now” seems wastefully preposterous!
I think with the current human condition, we’re beyond a few thousand years before we get to the end of all knowledge. We’re trying to just put out as many ideas as possible—first of all, so people don’t feel threatened by some of the big ideas of physics, of biology, of chemistry, biochemistry, et cetera and inspire them to want to know more and realising you don’t have to just pick up a science book and if it’s difficult go, “Oh, I can’t do that,” and give up. When they finish a book and they think, “I’ve just read a book on quantum physics and I still don’t understand it all. That’s too much effort.”
One of the things behind the app is the idea there are lots of wonderful ideas and you don’t have to know the answers to find that ideas can still illuminate your world. You don’t have to get to the end to go, “Now I see some form of light!” The light is there all the way as you continue to just make that journey of trying to know more. That’s why it’s littered with scientists and science enthusiasts talking about their favourite ideas.
The ideas that I’ve offered, of course they haven’t come to a conclusion. One of those things that I talk about a lot in my new show which is we’re not looking at ideas being right. We’re looking at coming up with things that are the least wrong. This is the least wrong answer we have now. Hopefully in another 10 years, in another 100 years, in another 1,000 years we will have an answer that is less wrong than that.
That’s part of what it is. With all of these different people talking, we are building up a body of knowledge that is hopefully less wrong than it was a decade ago.
Trent: That’s what’s nice about being an app, as well, rather than it just being a documentary that sits there. We can update it in February—“Remember that thing we said back in June? We’re less wrong now. This is what we think now!” We can continually keep self-correcting!
Robin: For example, there’s an example that I’ve got in my show, which involves an idea of singularity and black holes. And, of course, people are all, “Oh you do know that...”
I go “Yes, yes, yes—I can’t update all the jokes to the show constantly with the changing scientific knowledge. But yes, I have taken that on board but unfortunately by using that piece of scientific evidence, the punch line doesn’t work as well. So we’re relying on January’s scientific knowledge to get to a better punch line!”
Trent: We interviewed a couple of guys recently who have a new book coming out called...I think it’s called “The Big Questions in Science.” One of the questions Robin asks them, which was, “When you finished writing it are you worried that by the time it’s published and people buy it you might actually have some of the things wrong?”
I think their answer was, “No, we tried to pick things that will at least be right until the publish date and then after that you’re on your own.”
Robin: Yeah, and then they can update it for the paperback edition. That’s why with science, I think that’s something that more people need to know is that there is a constantly changing body of knowledge, sometimes very minor changes, sometimes major changes.
Kylie: I love the excitement of it. For example, I was teaching ethics earlier this year and the very morning I was going to talk about ethics and genetics a mouse had been cloned from a drop of blood and I was able to run into class and say, “You will not believe it, guys. Guess what happened this morning? Isn’t this awesome? Debate. Go.”
It was brilliant. I guess I was a little bit worried when I saw the app. I thought, “Oh, is it a quote of the day from a scientist?” But it’s not. There’s book clubs and everything in here. You’ve got so many options of what you can do with the information.
Robin: That’s what we want it to be because we’ve had a lot of people asking about why it’s not on more formats, why it’s not Android yet. There are many, many different reasons. People say, “Can’t you just make a simpler version?”
We don’t want to make a simpler version. Already we’re using the periodic table for the front page where you can bounce around scientist and science enthusiasts there and we already know that will be filled by the end of the year so we’ve now had to think, “What’s part two of a piece of design?” Which means you actually enjoy the experience of playing with it.
Kylie: Oh, I’ve got good news. They’ve just added a new one to the periodic table so just keep on going as they add more elements.
Trent: I saw that yesterday, so we get an extra one before we have to design something new.
Robin: I’m going to ring AC Grayling now and tell him we can fit him in, after all! We didn’t want it to be sound bytes. Some people look to the trailer and think “Is that all it is?”
I go, “No, the reason it’s called a trailer is that that’s not the full thing. It’s not just Richard Dawkins saying, ‘I think The Selfish Gene is a fabulous and exciting idea. The end.’ It’s Richard Dawkins talking for 15 minutes about the idea of The Selfish Gene. What inspired him to write the book and the science that is behind it.”
That’s, again, something that I think television can’t do as much and a lot of other forms can’t do. It’s a bit like podcasts versus radio. Podcasts allow you to have a much longer form of dialog. It doesn’t have to be chopped up where you go, “Yeah, that’s sounds like the end of a sentence. We can end it here.”
Trent: What’s nice about that long form, as well, it goes back to what you were saying earlier, is that just by sticking the camera there and letting people talk, it humanizes these people in white coats. The more you see them thinking, you see them making mistakes and changing their mind, and then you see the enthusiasm as they remember something else that that’s reminded them of.
Rather than having to go, “We didn’t like that version. Can you do another one that fits in this bracket, while you’re looking at that thing for TV?” It’s just nice to let people talk like humans talk, and in the transcripts, we’ve made sure that we put in some of those stutters, and some of the trying to remember what people are saying.
Robin: For most of the participants, the first thing is they just lean, and go, “What exactly is this?” As if we know. We don’t as yet!
Trent: There was a magazine the other day that said the app was “Chaotic, yet hugely engaging,” which I took as a brilliant compliment. That’s essentially what we’re doing.
Robin: I want people to, in that same way that, when I’m reading a book, I finish very few books. I get to a point where I read about someone, or something, or some idea, and I think, “Oh, I want to know about that now.” You play a mental “tag” game all of the time. I think that’s what the app can do, which is you’re constantly playing “tag.”
You might get to the end of a bit of an interview with Steve Jones, or at some point, and go, “Hang on, you just talked about...Oh. There’s a person Helen Czerski, she talks about that idea. I’m going to have a quick look at that.” You might stop halfway through an interview, to suddenly leap to another scientist.
Kylie: That’s exactly what I ended up doing!
Robin: Good, that’s exactly the right thing!
Trent: It works!
Robin: I think with the next edition, we’re at, what? Fifty-six or fifty-seven people?
Trent: A bit less. Fifty-two I think...
Robin: That “tag” game gets better and better. As I said, by the end of the year we’re certainly up to 120.
Kylie: You mentioned demographics. What is the target demographic? Apart from people like myself, who has the shortest attention span, they’re really keen on science, and like to hop all over the place with my brand new iPad.
Robin: It’s exactly that thing, where we didn’t put much thought into it, apart from...The stand-up shows that I do, I think, all I need from an audience is that they have some level of interest.
That they’re interested in the world, and they don’t just want rehashed ideas of, “Hey, you know when you’re drunk, don’t you do this?” “I do! I do! Thank you for telling me! Yes, that was a reminder! I do that.”
All we require is a certain level of open-mindedness and interest. You certainly don’t have to be a scientist in any way.
Trent: Also, it leads you on to stuff that you may not know about: Chris Addison talking about “Ascent of Man” is a good example. I imagine a lot of people who know Chris Addison will have never have heard of that TV series. They watch that, and they might go back and watch one of the greatest science series there’s ever been, essentially.
Robin: You always end up, the way you say “Ascent of Man” sounds like it’s some kind of perfume that Bronowski made. I smell corduroy, Sagan, Bronowski! It’s in the air!
Trent: It’s a new documentary I’m working on. You have to narrate later. It’s very evocative.
Robin: The pheromones of litmus paper!
Kylie: You already said over fifty people have been involved in this. What are some of your goals, in terms of participants?
Robin: We’ve actually got about ninety in the can!
Trent: Yeah, we filmed close to a hundred people already, they’re just not all in the app yet.
Kylie: Are people offering themselves up to be interviewed?
Robin: Yes, it’s a nice thing that we’re seeing, which is as people...In fact, from the people who’ve been involved, and from scientists who’ve seen it, it has been universally positive.
Hopefully, as I said, what we’re trying to create is some enormous archive of people’s ideas, but also the people themselves.
Someone said they saw a clip of the Dawkins piece that goes up soon, and they went, “Oh, he doesn’t talk about religion at all!” No—because Richard Dawkins is someone who’s written very beautiful books about science. For some people this seems to be a surprise, because of course, in the media, he’s predominantly now known as that atheist who gets angry every now and again.
That’s the other thing, is that we want to show the real personality behind these people. That’s to me one of the most important things behind this, is the humanity behind the endeavor of understanding the universe.
These people are not people with, as I said before, brains that are so different that they just sit there and they take in the numbers, and they go, “Good, I’ve got the numbers that are required to give us the answer.”
That’s not what Richard Feynman was like. That is not what most of the people that we particularly admire are like. They are people who really are very excitable individuals.
Trent: It’s also a nice opportunity to get people, obviously like Brian Cox, and Richard Dawkins and them are on the TV as it is, but there’s lots of people that have incredible research that just don’t have a platform where they can get out and say “This is what I’m doing. Isn’t this amazing?” Being able to give those people somewhere they can actually say, “I now live in Antarctica, and hunt for neutrinos beneath icebergs,” which is someone we’ve got coming up in a couple of months. It’s great to be able to hear those stories.
Robin: It’s that excitement. I remember the first time that I started to actually really understand some idea of what a neutrino was. When you first hear about it, as a non-scientist like me, you go, “What do you mean neutrinos are passing through our body all the time? That doesn’t make any sense at all!”
Then you keep reading and reading, and then you go, “Now I get it!” I’m beginning to get that idea, in the same way as when you first start to get the idea of what happens when particles collide, and what they’re trying to understand—and it’s just a really exciting story.