Dara Ó Briain: 'I could have done science but I became a clown instead

He's better known as a comedian, but Dara Ó Briain's inner geek is coming to the fore as a presenter of three TV shows about maths and science. He tells us about a passion for sums, trouble with quantum physics - and why science is no laughing matter
Tim Lewis The Observer, Sunday 15 September 2013

Photograph: Pal Hansen for the Observer

For the photographs to accompany this article, one suggestion was that Dara Ó Briain dress up as a spaceman. Everyone loved this idea except, crucially, Ó Briain who, to use his word, "nixed" it. It was made clear – genially but firmly – that we could forget, too, about asking him to pose with props such as a Bunsen burner or wearing a white lab coat or any of the other visual cues that let people know instantly and without equivocation that something scientific is taking place here. Ó Briain, the theatre-filling comedian and doyen of the panel show, would probably not have had a moment's hesitation in popping on an astronaut's suit. But Ó Briain, the

presenter of a small empire of maths and science shows on television, is a different and distinct entity. His approach since he began making the programmes has been defined by a stubborn refusal to talk down to viewers. An expected stance, particularly for a public more attuned to seeing him presenting the comedy current affairs quiz Mock The Week or The Apprentice: You're Fired, would have been for him to play the bemused everyman standing beside a semi-functional egghead who has been allowed out of the lab. Or, as Ó Briain puts it: "You scratch your head and say: 'I don't know what Poindexter is talking about'" – a reference to the scientist from the Felix the Cat cartoons, typically attired in lab coat, Coke-bottle glasses and mortarboard. "But that just seems false to me; it's a patronising thing to do to the audience." Ó Briain, who has a degree in mathematics and theoretical physics from University College Dublin, is not claiming to be an expert, but equally he is not the football commentator assigned to cover rhythmic gymnastics at the Olympics. He won't mug for photographs with a Bunsen burner for the simple reason that he spent his student days working out proofs for Sylow theorems, not setting fire to small strips of magnesium. He now brings this not-explicitly-comical philosophy to three television franchises: the astronomy show Stargazing Live on BBC Two with physicist Brian Cox, which runs for three consecutive nights in January; Dara Ó Briain: School of Hard Sums on Dave, in which he (and comedy guests) attempt to solve puzzles set by mathematician Marcus du Sautoy; and Dara Ó Briain's Science Club, where each week he overlords a team of experts in a wide-ranging discussion on one specific topic (say, Einstein, time or invisible worlds). All these shows are successful: they score above-average ratings for their channels and each has been re-commissioned at least once. They are entertaining to watch, which makes it easy to forget just how radical they are in some ways. Science and maths are not supposed to be subjects with mainstream appeal. To make them accessible to a mass audience, conventional wisdom suggests these topics have to be simplified to the point where the people who are actually interested in them find them insultingly basic. Somehow, however, Ó Briain has found a way to walk the tightrope. "Anyone from the outside would say it was career suicide to do a show about maths on Dave," says Ó Briain's co-presenter du Sautoy, a professor of mathematics at Oxford University. "But the reason it works is that you can tell Dara really cares about it. He's always been very clear that you don't short-change the audience just to get a laugh. School of Hard Sums could have been laughing at the nerds, but actually it's more about revealing a kind of geek chic and saying, 'Hey, that's amazing, you can do these extraordinary things using maths'." When Ó Briain started on School of Hard Sums – the format was imported from a popular series in Japan – he called it his "rock star

excess"; he speculated, tongue in cheek, that it could end his career. It has done nothing of the sort, and Ó Briain is about to begin filming a third series. He appears to work incessantly and in his downtime he updates his 1.5 million Twitter followers (and watches Arsenal). The demand for him as a science and maths presenter has reached the point where he has to think seriously how to balance these requests with his day job in comedy. "I now think of it as scales, where I have to make sure I'm doing enough entertainment shows to balance the science shows. "Every Apprentice and Mock the Week allows me to throw in the maths show. This is in order to not become the Johnny Ball of this generation. Nothing against Johnny Ball, but I'm not fully committed in my heart to that being the only thing I do." Ó Briain is a big draw for audiences and networks – his name appearing above the door of two of the three science shows makes that obvious – but he is keen to downplay his significance in the recent boom. "My role is just as a conduit. I don't deserve to be included alongside people like [theoretical physicist and Radio 4 broadcaster] Jim AlKhalili and [anthropologist, TV presenter and the Observer columnist] Alice Roberts, because I'm not a scientist. I'm not presenting any work I've done. "You know, I ran away to the circus," he says. "I could have done science but I became a clown instead. And it's not like comedy isn't well-rewarded. I wouldn't describe it as thankless: I get my thanks every 15 to 30 seconds when I do standup, which scientists don't get. They might get a shake of the hand or something when they do a viva. So I'm not the one in the poor house. It's not a bad position to occasionally hand the microphone over to other people." If this is a golden age for science – as many experts, including Ó Briain, suggest – then it is because multiple factors have converged. A new generation of communicators is one part of it, with Cox and Alice Roberts the reigning king and queen. There has also been a long run of juicy, front-page stories that need explaining, from the Large Hadron Collider to the latest adventures of Nasa's Curiosity rover on Mars. But perhaps the most significant change is the sense of community that now exists. For Ó Briain, this loose grouping of like-minded rationalists came together through the increased ease of writing blogs, creating podcasts and spreading the word through social media. The heroes were Professor Richard Dawkins, Ben Goldacre, author of the best-selling Bad Science, and the rationalist standup comedian Robin Ince, and their targets were theists, quacks and the nutritionist Gillian McKeith. "Like the clumping of matter during the early stages of the universe, suddenly things began to coalesce," he says.

O'Briain in Stargazing Live with Brian Cox - part of a new generation of communicators but 'too pretty' for some. Photograph: BBC The terms "nerd" and "geek" may have been reclaimed now, but it was not always this way. Ó Briain, 41, grew up in County Wicklow, close to Dublin. He had an aptitude for maths but it was not especially important until he turned 16. "You're just insecure and a teenager, so it's nice to have a fiefdom. And, of course, there's nothing the ladies love more than the guy who's good at maths. They can see your glorious arm heading skywards first for all the questions. It's a bit of a gunshow as you sit there smiling: 'I've got this everybody! I'll take this difficult question.'" At university, Ó Briain had a painful realisation that he was no longer the smartest guy in the room. He hit a particularly immovable wall in his second year with quantum mechanics, although he accepts now that the subject was only part of the problem. "It was the same year I discovered college debating and drink and women – women after the women you knew in school would be the way to put that," he says. "So life became inordinately more complicated." Before his exam in quantum mechanics he necked caffeine tablets, which had the curious effect of keeping him physically awake but leaving him mentally incapable of abstract thought. "I could have dug a ditch but I couldn't solve an equation." Instead of being a wake-up call, it was the start of a slide in his academic career. "I just got more involved in exotic women, drinking and intervarsity debating." He won the Irish Times national debating championships, which would eventually lead to his first standup gigs. He also had "fingers in a lot of pies" at university: organising elections, making orientation speeches for first-years and eventually editing the student newspaper, the University Observer. Meanwhile, he was flunking his finals and he had to ask for special dispensation to sit them again. Second time round, he passed. He has no regrets but there may be some unfinished business. Last year he did a course in quantum mechanics, his nemesis subject, from the iTunes U, the home-study Apple "university".

There are 27 classes each of around 50 minutes, taught by the noted astrophysicist Professor JJ Binney from Oxford, and Ó Briain methodically went through them, sitting at his kitchen table in west London. "It was this weird Proustian rush of just transcribing maths that made me feel like I was 19 again. "I was watching this guy, and the only difference was that occasionally when I got behind I'd stab the space bar on my computer, and he'd stop. But at this age, you're nowhere near as sharp. It gets rusty and you suddenly realise you don't remember all the rules of differentiation, let alone the rules of integration. And he goes, 'Obviously, then…' Obviously! No, not obviously. I'm a guy in my 40s in my kitchen, why obviously?" His love for the subject matter is impossible to fake, says du Sautoy. "And Dara's good at it, I'm really impressed working with him on School of Hard Sums. It's a pretty terrifying gig for him, actually. I get to set the questions and obviously I know what the answers are, but he's doing this blind. "You can see when he doesn't get the answer to a problem that he hates it; it just eats him up. And when he does get it, the passion and the elation that comes through is what's so magical about that series." Du Sautoy has even started to believe that there might be a connection between performing comedy and abstract problem-solving. "Standup comedians have got this way of doing lateral thinking," he suggests. "If they are in a gig and they get some abuse from the audience, they have got to use that and find an interesting way to solve the problem. So I think their mentality is perfect for coming on this programme: you fire a problem at them, and they think in really weird ways, and sometimes they come up with the right answers because of that." Every so often a viewer will contact Ó Briain and accuse him of over-simplifying on one of his shows. It doesn't happen often, he says, but his response is always combative. "It's a running joke whenever we get these complaints: 'How can you have a comedian here?' Or 'Brian Cox is too pretty'. There's always somebody who can call your show dumbeddown; it doesn't matter how technical you go. Now I just send them a slow round of applause. It means: 'Well done to have spotted that this 60-minute magazine show hasn't fully covered the issue of neuroscience this week. I really don't know what we'd do without you.' "I come from a heckle-based environment. Sometimes people who write these things don't expect that it will be returned in the same tone very quickly. I quite like a fight." One group that has overwhelmingly responded well to Ó Briain, however, is the scientists. Ó Briain had always teased Griff Rhys Jones, one of his companions in BBC Two's Three Men In A Boat series, about older comedians suddenly announcing "their retirement passion". He was aware he was now opening himself up to a similar charge. "But the strike rate in terms of people not bitching has been astonishing. People,

thankfully, have taken it for exactly what it is, which is an enthusiastic fanboy who has been given an hour of television that he really wants to hand over to smart people, telling you about stuff." The experience compares favourably with other fields Ó Briain has dipped his toe into, notably writing a sports column for the Guardian during the 2009-10 football season. "I have found worlds that have a lot less intellectual rigour in them, where people have been a lot more precious. Sport! Jesus wept! If you have an opinion on sport, people are very critical. Everyone was like, 'Why is he writing it?' It's a joke; it's a funny column. Science has been remarkably free of that." While he believes it is important to maintain a gap between Ó Briain the comedian and Ó Briain the science nerd, the distinction can be – spacesuit aside – a nebulous one. Scientific research is often surprisingly funny: his standup routine has included riffs on the subatomical particles neutrinos and the pseudoscience of the now-defunct BBC show Honey, We're Killing the Kids, which promised to show parents accurate computer projections of what their child would look like as a 40-year-old. Ó Briain certainly does not shy away from a tussle; ongoing adversaries include astrologers and homeopaths, and he saves a special disdain for psychics. He is aware that these are arguments that he is not going to win definitively. I ask if any of his friends believe in homeopathy – his wife, Susan, is a surgeon – and he thinks for a moment before telling the story of a woman who went to a healing retreat. In the pub afterwards, the man who ran the course had a heart attack and the group's response was to surround him and form a healing circle. Ó Briain smiles guiltily: "My friend watched them while waiting for the ambulance to arrive: 'Sorry, do you mind breaking up the healing circle? We'd like to get in and defibrillate the guy…' "I occasionally get into discussions with astrologers but I don't want to be an arse about it. It's like the religion thing: I'm not one of the angry atheists. That's their world view. No one is ever going to go, 'I have wasted my life! No, you are absolutely right'." He thinks there might be a few "floating voters" he can win over but is mostly satisfied that the scientific community is in such robust health. His belief that there is an audience for smart, high-brow science and maths programmes has been handsomely vindicated. He is convinced there is room for these shows to become even more specialised. The moment he realised this was during Back To Earth, the more relaxed, half-hour debrief that follows Stargazing Live. Studio guests had previously included Top Gear's James May, actress Jessica Hynes and comics Ed Byrne and Josh Widdicombe, but on this occasion a comedian who was due to appear cancelled. At the last minute, producers recruited another scientist, and Ó Briain was thrilled to discover the show didn't suffer – in fact, it was probably more engaging.

"Scientists are really passionate about their subject, they are curious about other people's fields, and they are just generally funny and nice people to talk to." He pauses, "And they are very easy to book. Comedians are pouting about this, that or whatever – instead you can book these people who are thrilled to do it and actually know stuff. It's great."

Ó Briain won the National Irish language championship at 22. His Three Men in a Boat series draws 3 million viewers a year. His Stargazing Live show led to the discovery of exoplanet 'Threapleton Holmes B' in 2012.

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