What is your new TV show Forces of Nature all about?
The show is all about the spectacular things that happen in nature and explains what happens to make it so beautiful. For instance Johannes Kepler, who we normally associate with astronomy, wrote a brilliant book in 1611 called The Six-Cornered Snowflake, which came about because a snowflake landed on him as he crossed the Charles Bridge in Prague. He was taken by how all snowflakes have a unique structure but with perfect, six-sided symmetry.
That’s what we wanted to get across in the show, things that you can see happen every day with shadows of something deeper in them to find. What Kepler did was pay attention to the world around him. That’s what science is all about, paying attention.
So far your Wonders of… series has looked at the Solar System, the Universe and life. What has moved you to focus on the Forces of Nature?
I wanted to look at the deep ideas in science and how they affect the world that we live in, for example relativity. When Einstein was thinking about relativity he began to wonder why, if the Earth is spinning at 600mph (in Britain), could we not feel it when we are standing still?
Forces of Nature is a completely different form of show from what I’ve done before. I was originally going to narrate over incredible videos of what happens at a microscopic level with these big scientific concepts, but we decided to make it a little more like the other series and I’ll still be on screen.
Will you venture into the world of biology now?
Forces of Nature is about the big ideas in science but it is still heavily a programme about physics. But I think we’ve moved on from the traditional categories in science of physics, biology and chemistry. Everything is so interconnected that it doesn’t make sense to limit ourselves into these areas now.
I have become increasingly worried about extreme discourse, especially on social media like Twitter. Since we first started crawling out of caves we have questioned everything, that’s how we have evolved as a species, and as scientists the best thing that can happen is to be proven wrong as it keeps us striving for more answers and a better understanding of the world.
What I see on Twitter is people believing and arguing their point no matter what and not accepting any other answer. Thinking you’re right all the time is the route back to the stone age! Take for example Kepler’s book on snowflakes. It ends with his recognition that ‘more research is needed’; he doesn’t know enough about the shape of the snowflake and that future generations should continue the study to work it out.
We recently asked Sir David Attenborough what his worst experience filming was. A few years ago he said he would like to pass the torch over to you, so in light of that what have been your hairiest moments?
I’ve found that the hairiest moments tend to be the most enjoyable. For example while we were thinking about Einstein and relativity we decided to test if we could move faster than the spin of the Earth. BAE lent us one of their Eurofighters, it’s a really beautiful plane, and we took off after sunset to see if we could outrun the Earth and see a second sunset. We were flying at over 600mph but it was beautiful to see the colours come back over the horizon for the second time.
Another incredible thing we wanted to test is how light is affected by water. To do this we needed to find the clearest water in the world, which is actually in Iceland, between the continental plates of Europe and America. I wore a red swimsuit and dived down into the beautiful crystal-clear waters. When we got to a certain depth the red of the swimsuit just disappeared because the wavelengths from the Sun couldn’t penetrate down that far. It was amazing.
If you could be involved in any other TV show, whether it’s science-related or not, what would it be?
I would really like to put the Infinite Monkey Cage on television. I think there is definitely space for engaging scientific discussion on the TV, but I would keep doing the show on radio. We’ve done nearly 80 episodes now and I just love doing it. In fact Robin Ince (check out his monthly column in BBC Focus magazine) and I are doing something in the future where it will be just the two of us on stage, so more like two monkeys rather than an infinite number.
Tim Peake is back from the ISS and has inspired the next generation of scientists. What do you think the future holds for science in the UK?
It’s difficult. Along with the United States we have some of the best universities at conducting research here in the UK, and pound for pound we are the best value for money in the world. But that can only really be the case with continued investment, and anything that we do that will limit the resources we can put in will weaken our position. On the other hand the more we invest in science the more we’ll get out.