Uncaged Monkeys: Night Of 200 Billion Stars

Review of Hammersmith Apollo gig, by Steve Bennett

Is particle physics the new rock and roll?

Well, obviously not... but even a couple of years ago, it would have seemed ridiculous to suggest that a bunch of scientists could fill a mid-sized rock venue, as one of them talked the audience through graphs of the invariant or transverse mass distributions for selected collisions, seeking evidence of particles around the 125GeV mark.

But those charts were fresh off the press – the results from the large hadron collider that provided evidence for the elusive Higgs boson, the so-called God particle. And the member of the CERN Atlas team explaining the significance of the day’s news to the Hammersmith Apollo was none other than science pin-up Brian Cox.

I say ‘explain’... I surely wasn’t the only one who didn’t understand most of the finer details, and I’ve a physics degree (barely used). But Cox is undeniably a great communicator and expertly coveys the excitement and importance of the discovery and even the broad concept of a Higgs condensate, even if the detailed meaning is lost.

A video link-up to his colleagues in Switzerland might have filled in some gaps... but the most complex machine man has ever built has an internet connection stuck in the dial-up age, and the Skype signal kept cracking up.

It’s testament to Cox’s charisma, though, that his explanation of the complexities of the Standard Model filled the audience with more wonder and awe than the more esoteric ideas coming from the mind of comic-book artist Alan Moore, proclaiming his faith in a 2nd century sock puppet snake god and spouting some nonsense about how we’re all cosmic holograms in a rather rambling contribution to the night.

This was all in the second half of this rationalist show, which curator Robin Ince has grown into a pre-Christmas tradition. Tonight was headlined by Tim Minchin, who hotfooted it to Hammersmith direct from recording the Jonathan Ross Show alongside Tom Cruise, and treated the audience to a silly new song about a ‘Woody Allen Jesus’ and his beautifully touching Christmas classic White Wine In The Sun, accompanied by Cox reviving his D:Ream past on keyboard.

Before the interval, mathematician Simon Singh delivered his favourite, if now over-used, set piece debunking those who see hidden messages in the Bible, before demonstrating an actual wartime Engima encoding machine; Guardian science writer Ben Goldacre made a case for evidence-based policymaking, rather than just running on hunches and doctrine; and geneticist Adam Rutherford broke from his field of expertise to introduce an inspiring eight-minute video compilation video of Space Shuttle missions.

‘We’ve become desensitised to wonder,’ he said succinctly – although this often inspiring, if inconsistent, show surely would have served to reignite that flame among many.

As well as the science bits, there came the usual bookish humour from Robin Ince and regular collaborator Josie Long, who read from a fictional version of Charles Darwin’s diaries in which he munched his way through most of his case studies, and a bit of variety from jugglers Feeding The Fish. All that and unlocking the secrets of this universe... what more could you want?

Published: 14 Dec 2011

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