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TEDGlobal 2011

Robin Ince: Science versus wonder?

July 13, 2011

Does science ruin the magic of life? In this grumpy but charming monologue, Robin Ince makes the argument against. The more we learn about the astonishing behavior of the universe -- the more we stand in awe.

Robin Ince - Comedian
The rational-minded Robin Ince conducts live experiments in comedy. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
I'd like to apologize, first of all, to all of you
00:15
because I have no form
00:18
of PowerPoint presentation.
00:20
So what I'm going to do
00:23
is, every now and again, I will make this gesture,
00:25
and in a moment of PowerPoint democracy,
00:27
you can imagine what you'd like to see.
00:29
I do a radio show.
00:33
The radio show is called "The Infinite Monkey Cage."
00:35
It's about science, it's about rationalism.
00:38
So therefore, we get a lot of complaints
00:41
every single week --
00:43
complaints including one we get very often,
00:45
which is to say the very title, "Infinite Monkey Cage,"
00:48
celebrates the idea of vivisection.
00:51
We have made it quite clear to these people
00:54
that an infinite monkey cage is roomy.
00:56
(Laughter)
00:59
We also had someone else who said,
01:01
"'The Infinite Monkey Cage' idea is ridiculous.
01:03
An infinite number of monkeys
01:05
could never write the works of Shakespeare.
01:07
We know this because they did an experiment."
01:09
Yes, they gave 12 monkeys a typewriter for a week,
01:12
and after a week, they only used it as a bathroom.
01:16
(Laughter)
01:19
So the main element though, the main complaint we get --
01:21
and one that I find most worrying --
01:23
is that people say, "Oh, why do you insist
01:25
on ruining the magic?
01:28
You bring in science, and it ruins the magic."
01:30
Now I'm an arts graduate;
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I love myth and magic
01:34
and existentialism and self-loathing.
01:36
That's what I do.
01:38
But I also don't understand
01:40
how it does ruin the magic.
01:42
All of the magic, I think,
01:44
that may well be taken away by science
01:46
is then replaced by something as wonderful.
01:48
Astrology, for instance:
01:50
like many rationalists, I'm a Pisces.
01:52
(Laughter)
01:55
Now astrology --
01:58
we remove the banal idea
02:00
that your life could be predicted;
02:02
that you'll, perhaps today, meet a lucky man
02:04
who's wearing a hat.
02:06
That is gone.
02:08
But if we want to look at the sky and see predictions, we still can.
02:10
We can see predictions of galaxies forming,
02:13
of galaxies colliding into each other, of new solar systems.
02:16
This is a wonderful thing.
02:19
If the Sun could one day -- and indeed the Earth, in fact --
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if the Earth could read its own astrological, astronomical chart,
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one day it would say,
02:28
"Not a good day for making plans.
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You'll been engulfed by a red giant."
02:32
And that to me as well,
02:34
that if you think I'm worried about losing worlds,
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well Many Worlds theory --
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one of the most beautiful, fascinating,
02:41
sometimes terrifying ideas
02:44
from the quantum interpretation --
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is a wonderful thing.
02:48
That every person here, every decision that you've made today,
02:50
every decision you've made in your life,
02:53
you've not really made that decision,
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but in fact, every single permutation of those decisions
02:57
is made, each one going off into a new universe.
03:01
That is a wonderful idea.
03:04
If you ever think that your life is rubbish,
03:06
always remember
03:10
there's another you that's made much worse decisions than that.
03:12
(Laughter)
03:15
If you ever think, "Ah, I want to end it all,"
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don't end it all.
03:19
Remember that in the majority of universes,
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you don't even exist in the first place.
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This to me, in its own strange way,
03:25
is very, very comforting.
03:28
Now reincarnation, that's another thing gone -- the afterlife.
03:30
But it's not gone.
03:32
Science actually says
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we will live forever.
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Well, there is one proviso.
03:39
We won't actually live forever. You won't live forever.
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Your consciousness, the you-ness of you, the me-ness of me --
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that gets this one go.
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But every single thing that makes us,
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every atom in us,
03:52
has already created a myriad of different things
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and will go on to create a myriad of new things.
03:57
We have been mountains
04:00
and apples and pulsars
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and other people's knees.
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Who knows, maybe one of your atoms was once Napoleon's knee.
04:07
That is a good thing.
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Unlike the occupants of the universe,
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the universe itself is not wasteful.
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We are all totally recyclable.
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And when we die,
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we don't even have to be placed in different refuse sacs.
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This is a wonderful thing.
04:24
Understanding, to me,
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does not remove the wonder and the joy.
04:28
For instance, my wife could turn to me and she may say,
04:32
"Why do you love me?"
04:35
And I can with all honesty
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look her in the eye and say,
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"Because our pheromones
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matched our olfactory receptors."
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(Laughter)
04:46
Though I'll probably also say something
04:48
about her hair and personality as well.
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And that is a wonderful thing there.
04:52
Love does not die because of that thing.
04:55
Pain doesn't go away either.
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This is a terrible thing, even though I understand pain.
04:59
If someone punches me --
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and because of my personality,
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this is recently a regular occurrence --
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I understand where the pain comes from.
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It is basically momentum to energy
05:09
where the four-vector is constant -- that's what it is.
05:12
But at no point can I react and go,
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"Ha! Is that the best momentum-to-energy fourth vector constant you've got?"
05:16
No, I just spit out a tooth.
05:21
(Laughter)
05:23
And that is all of these different things -- the love for my child.
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I have a son. His name is Archie.
05:28
I'm very lucky,
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because he's better than all the other children.
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Now I know you don't think that.
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You may well have your own children
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and think, "Oh no, my child's best."
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That's the wonderful thing about evolution --
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the predilection to believe
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that our child is best.
05:45
Now in many ways, that's just a survival thing.
05:47
The fact we see here is the vehicle for our genes,
05:50
and therefore we love it.
05:53
But we don't notice that bit; we just unconditionally love.
05:55
That is a wonderful thing.
05:58
Though I should say that my son is best
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and is better than your children.
06:02
I've done some tests.
06:05
And all of these things to me
06:07
give such joy and excitement and wonder.
06:09
Even quantum mechanics can give you an excuse
06:12
for bad housework, for instance.
06:15
Perhaps you've been at home for a week on your own.
06:17
You house is in a terrible state.
06:20
Your partner is about to return.
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You think, what should I do?
06:24
Do nothing.
06:26
All you have to do
06:28
is, when she walks in, using a quantum interpretation,
06:30
say, "I'm so sorry.
06:32
I stopped observing the house for a moment,
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and when I started observing again,
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everything had happened."
06:38
(Laughter)
06:40
That's the strong anthropic principle of vacuuming.
06:42
For me, it's a very, very important thing.
06:46
Even on my journey up here --
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the joy that I have on my journey up here every single time.
06:50
If you actually think, you remove the myth and there is still something wonderful.
06:52
I'm sitting on a train.
06:55
Every time I breathe in,
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I'm breathing in a million-billion-billion
06:59
atoms of oxygen.
07:01
I'm sitting on a chair.
07:03
Even though I know the chair is made of atoms
07:05
and therefore actually in many ways empty space,
07:07
I find it comfortable.
07:09
I look out the window, and I realize
07:11
that every single time we stop and I look out that window,
07:13
framed in that window,
07:15
wherever we are,
07:17
I am observing more life
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than there is in the rest of the known universe
07:21
beyond the planet Earth.
07:24
If you go to the safari parks
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on Saturn or Jupiter,
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you will be disappointed.
07:30
And I realize I'm observing this
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with the brain, the human brain,
07:34
the most complex thing in the known universe.
07:36
That, to me, is an incredible thing.
07:39
And do you know what, that might be enough.
07:41
Steven Weinberg, the Nobel laureate, once said,
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"The more the universe seems comprehensible,
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the more it seems pointless."
07:49
Now for some people,
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that seems to lead to an idea of nihilism.
07:53
But for me, it doesn't. That is a wonderful thing.
07:55
I'm glad the universe is pointless.
07:58
It means if I get to the end of my life,
08:00
the universe can't turn to me and go, "What have you been doing, you idiot?
08:02
That's not the point."
08:05
I can make my own purpose.
08:07
You can make your own purpose.
08:09
We have the individual power
08:11
to go, "This is what I want to do."
08:13
And in a pointless universe, that, to me, is a wonderful thing.
08:15
I have chosen to make silly jokes
08:18
about quantum mechanics and the Copenhagen interpretation.
08:20
You, I imagine, can do much better things with your time.
08:23
Thank you very much. Goodbye.
08:26
(Applause)
08:28

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Robin Ince - Comedian
The rational-minded Robin Ince conducts live experiments in comedy.

Why you should listen

Is rational thought funny? And is comedy scientific? are the pair of questions on which Robin Ince has built his recent career. On his own and as part of the BBC4 radio show The Infinite Monkey Cage, Robin Ince makes science-friendly comedy with pals like Brian Cox, Ben Goldacre and Simon Singh. TIMC just won the Best Speech Programme at the 2011 Sony Radio Awards, the first science program to win in ... aeons. They recently took the show on the road as "Uncaged Monkeys," about which the Telegraph's critic said, "I was expecting more knickers thrown at the stage, to be honest."

Onstage, Ince conducts live experiments into the science of comedy and laughter. He and his team set out to discover secret of timing, discover if people are born funny, and if computers can tell jokes.

He says: "Most scientists I know have movies and novels in their houses, whereas there are novelists whose houses I've been to who don't have any science books."

The original video is available on TED.com
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