Comedian and self-proclaimed "interested idiot" Robin Ince is touring New Zealand with his live science-meets-comedy show A Cosmic Shambles Live. Ahead of dates in Wellington and Christchurch, he talked to Auckland University nanotechnologist and leading Kiwi science communicator Dr Michelle Dickinson.

So Robin, you are neither a scientist or a journalist by training, yet as a comedian you have managed to bring scientific issues and subjects to a wider audience than most scientists could dream of achieving in a lifetime. Thinking about this, was there one moment for you, a point somewhere in your life when you thought "science, this stuff really matters?"

Like many, I loved science as a kid, then something happened in secondary school education that seemed to detach the majesty of scientific endeavour from the academic requirements.

Science was not the earth beneath us and the stars beyond us, but a series of facts and equations on a board.

There was a point in my education where I thought, "that's a pity, obviously I don't have the right mind for science" and off to renaissance art history and Beowulf I went.

Advertisement

In my mid twenties, I started to become interested in the sceptic movement.

It was the frustration of seeing psychic mediums making plenty of cash by manipulating the grieving, and then that led to reading Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, and from there it snowballed.

I might not have the tenacity or intellect to gain a deep understanding of the laws of the universe, but it doesn't mean that I can't be interested in them.

I imagined there might be many more like me, so i decided to try to become an "idiot bridge", an example that approaching science need not be terrifying.

In a world powered by science, we have grown nonchalant to the advances around us.

Many of us have easy access to clean water, power and medicine.

Smallpox has been eradicated, the risk of childbirth for both baby and mother are hugely reduced for vast swathes of the population, and yet now we have an increase in anti-vaccination activists and political leaders who reject the majority, if not all, of the climate change data and research.

We need more evidence-based thinking not merely for progress but even to stay where we are ... and on top of that, it is fun and makes looking at all the things around you more delightful and intriguing.

Were you a science savvy kid at school, was it always your thing or did your fascination with science come later in life?

I was good at science until I was 13, then a disastrous result in a physics exam put paid to it all.

When I changed schools, it turned out I had missed a year's worth of physics.

Eighteen per cent in that exam, 35 years on it stings and I can still see it on the corkboard in the schoolyard.

To avoid failure, i cast myself as an artsy type.

You're touring New Zealand with your live show The Cosmic Shambles - it's science mixed with comedy and music - where did the concept for this show come from?

In 2004, I started a variety show called The Book Club, which mashed up odd acts, readings from weird books and tuba and accordion based covers of songs by The Smiths and Radiohead.

One night, due to illness, I lost many of the usual acts, and I thought I would try something different.

I contacted Dr Ben Goldacre and Simon Singh and mixed the music and comedy with some science instead.

It grew from that.

Some nights it would be an epidemiologist, a particle physicist, a man dressed as an Elephant Man Elvis Presley, a bluegrass band and Alexei Sayle.

Eventually, this led to The Infinite Monkey Cage with Brian Cox and from then on, most of my life is performing in and organising shows about science.

Comedy and science go well, because once someone has laughed, they are relaxed and open to ideas.

So you have been touring the Cosmic Shambles tour around the world, and have got to meet some new scientists along the way, have any of them taught you something new?

In San Francisco, Seth Shostack from SETI (the search for intelligent life in the universe) helped me understand the potential signals that we need to find to consider that life in the universe is contacting us; In New York, Janna Levin has helped the very finite space of my skull understand infinities; in Melbourne, Annalisa Durdle, a forensic scientist, helped me understand why it might the DNA transporting of a fly that gets me prosecuted for a murder I didn't commit; and you, Michelle Dickinson, will surely be pushing my mind into the direction of increased comprehension.

I love the power comedy has to open up science for people, do you think after the US elections with its anti-science stance that comedians have more power than scientists to get some of science's key messages through?

I think we need to work together.

There are so many scientists able to communicate well, we need to make sure people know about them.

The idea of my group shows and my solo shows is to use entertainment to lure people into worlds that may not have know about before.

It is about saying, "don't be afraid".

I don't think comedians should be put in charge of getting the message across, remember, we have short attention spans and we are flighty, but we can use our skills to show people where the messages can be found and explain why they are worth reading.

I see that the North Island robin is being reintroduced to Mt Taranaki this week, did you deliberately plan your visit to New Zealand to coincide with this Robin song science story?

As I have run away from Brexit in the UK, I hoped that I would be allowed to stay here if I could convincingly argue that I deserve to be part of a reintroduction programme too.

I am prepared to live in branches and sing if necessary, though it might be a Nick Cave song.

Not only are you a book author but you are also a massive book lover, if you were asked tomorrow to write a science book for fun, what science would it involve?

I am fascinated in why the human brain is as it is, its shortcomings and advantages, but I think I would like to write a book on the stages of our universe, from the "nothing, but nothing with a lot of potential" moment, to the cold, evenly spread final nothingness.

I would particularly like to write about this as I know so little on it and so it would be a reason to interview hundreds of cosmologists and particle physicists and prise open their minds.

I am also fascinated in the limits of human objectivity, oh and a book on the journeys of one atom from its formation near the start of the universe and then where it has been and what it has been part of it since then, and something about Orang Utans ...

Robin Ince hosts A Cosmic Shambles Live, an evening of stand-up comedy, scientific discoveries and live music: at Wellington's The Opera House (April 8) and Christchurch's Isaac Theatre Royal (April 10). For more information, see cosmicshambleslive.com