Night of 200 Billion Stars – Manchester Apollo

The Uncaged Monkeys are a group of popular speakers that hold entertaining mini-lectures on a variety of scientific topics. Hosted by Robin Ince, regular contributors include Prof. Brian Cox, Dr. Ben Goldacre and Simon Singh, with a number of guest speakers as well.

The ‘Night of 200 Billion Stars’ show kicked off in the Manchester Apollo on Tuesday, with Tim Minchin, Adam Rutherford and Helen Arney also appearing.

Favourite part? The video by science journalist Adam Rutherford consisting of original clips of the Space Shuttle program’s 135 missions, arranged in chronological sequence. I felt it was a moving tribute to one of mankind’s greatest accomplishments and beacons of hope. You can view the Space Shuttles United video on Nature Video Channel (YouTube); it’s accompanied by an amazing soundtrack by 65 daysofstatic, so turn the volume up to 11.

Robin Ince’s performance as a compere was top-notch, he kept things rolling along nicely even with having to make difficult segues between speakers on unrelated topics. Great story about 8 monkeys attempting the works of Shakespeare…

The cryptologist Simon Singh exhibited an actual Enigma machine, even dismantling it on stage to see the workings. He also rubbished the centuries-old trend of finding hidden codes and predictions in religious texts, by demonstrating them to be down to pure mathematical chance.

Dr Ben Goldacre gave what is quite possibly the only talk on statistics ever that could be termed ‘interesting’! As a doctor treating patients, he was concerned with ethics committees and drugs companies making it hard for doctors and patients to trial and/or see evidence supporting claims of drug benefits.

Prof Brian Cox walked us through the timeline of our cosmic beginning, with an interesting note about evolution in molecular biology, and I learned that Hubble’s Constant (rate of expansion of our universe) can be written as 42 miles/ second/ 3 million light-years. He ended with a quote from Dr. Carl Sagan’s Cosmos; in fact the last words in the book’s last chapter ‘Who Speaks For Earth?’

I’ll type up the words from my copy; they deserve to be repeated:

“Some 3.6 million years ago, in what is now nothern Tanzania, a volcano erupted, the resulting cloud of ash covering the surrounding savannahs. In 1979, the paleoanthropologist Mary Leaky found in that ash footprints – the footprints, she believes, of an early hominid, perhaps an ancestor of all the people on the Earth today. And 380,000 kilometers away, in a flat dry plain that humans have in a moment of optimism called the Sea of Tranquility, there is another footprint, left by the first human to walk another world. We have come far in 3.6 million years, and in 4.6 billion and in 15 billion.

For we are the local embodiment of a Cosmos grown to self-awareness. We have begun to contemplate our origins: starstuff pondering the stars; organized assemblages of ten billion billion billion atoms considering the evolution of atoms; tracing the long journey by which, here at least consciousness arose. Our loyalties are to the species and the planet. We speak for Earth.Our obligation to survive is owed not just to ourselves but also to that Cosmos, ancient and vast, from which we spring.”

Wasn’t too sure about the funny songs by Helen and Tim though; I guess the format just doesn’t work for me beyond raising a few chuckles. The lyrics just end up being too brainy, and get shoe-horned into some semblance of a song. You can also see why audience participation is necessary to allow the performer(s) to feed off; it was kind of hard getting a stadium full of sceptics to sing along!

Thanks to Tom and Jill for arranging tickets!!