The funny thing about science: Five minutes with Timandra Harkness
She presents BBC Radio 4 series, FutureProofing and documentaries, Data, Data Everywhere, Personality Politics and The Singularity. Recent live shows include Your Days Are Numbered: the maths of death with standup mathematician Matt Parker, which toured the UK and Australia after being a surprise hit on the Edinburgh Fringe.
Also a Visiting Fellow in Big Data, Information Rights and Public Engagement in the University of Winchester's Centre for Information Rights, this week Timandra was at the University to present Big Data: Who's in control? Her lecture is based on her new book Big Data: Does Size Matter? which was published earlier this year by Bloomsbury Sigma.
Before her lecture, Timandra answered our questions about her multi-faceted career and what's so funny about science.
Science is a very serious subject isn't it? What's funny about it?
Like all human activity there's a strong streak of the absurd through science. It's also a good rule of thumb for comedy that the more serious something is, the more you should laugh at it. So when someone is dealing with very big topics like: 'How old is the Universe?' or 'What are we made of?' then there is a great twist of the absurd there.
Scientists are people who are just like us and are grappling with the most enormous questions of our existence as well as everyday problems like: "Can I fit in lunch?" and: "Have I remembered to bring my laptop to work?". Things that just lend themselves obviously to comedy.
One of the first things I looked into was the sex lives of insects which are frankly absurd: did you know that earwigs have two penises? And then there's multiverse theory which argues that there are an infinite number of universes, each slightly different from the other. This is a classic comedy scenario: somewhere there's a universe in which I'm the one divorcing Brad Pitt. Or there's a universe in which the speed of light only travels at two miles an hour, with the prospect that no speed camera would ever work again because you'd be moving away from the camera faster than the light could get your number plate.
You're a comedian but you're not a scientist, so how and why did you carve out a career in science comedy?
I came to science through comedy. There are other people doing science comedy these days, many of whom are scientists but I came to it the other way in that I was doing comedy and I was becoming bored of the same old stand up subjects - sex and drugs and differences between men and women.
Around the same time I was writing comedy scripts with another person and one of the characters in our script was an astronomer. We were trying to find sponsorship to take our show to Edinburgh and the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council told us it had a fund to support us but we would have to work with one of their astronomers. We said: "You'll give us money and an astronomer? This sounds like a complete bargain!".
At about the same time, I was also doing some journalism on stem cell research at the Royal Society and bumped into somebody I knew from the comedy circuit. I had no idea she was a stem cell research scientist and she suggested doing some comedy about science. And then to clinch it she rang me about a week later and said we have a booking for a show so we'd better write something.
So for me it came about that way - it wasn't that I was looking for a 'fun way' to make everybody love science. It was the opposite: I wanted more interesting material to make comedy out of.
Although ironically I found that we ended up doing jokes about the chemical composition of alcohol and drugs and I did an entire stage show about the differences between men and women in the cause of exploring brain science. So it's the same topics - but now I have graphs and data to back it up.
Your talk at the University is about one of the decade's new ideas, Big Data: is it a force for good or should we all be afraid of how it might transform our lives in the future?
I think that's the big question which we have the opportunity to address. It's also why I first got interested in it, apart from the bit of me that really likes Maths and gets excited about how clever it is. But I really first got interested because I thought this has enormous potential to transform our lives for the better but it also has the potential to be part of some very worrying trends.
Big Data is still relatively new - it's less than ten years since people have been using the phrase and we're still figuring out what we can do with it and we still have the opportunity to say that just because we can do something doesn't mean we have to do it. It's important that we don't have a fatalistic attitude that there's nothing we can do. For example, the new Investigatory Powers Act gives intelligence agencies sweeping powers to access our data. I think we should push back against that and say there is a great opportunity to deal with serious crime and terrorism but we should have oversight of the way it's used, in the same way that some police carry guns so that they can deal with criminals and terrorists but we don't give them carte blanche to shoot everybody.
We are only just starting to realise how putting together quite innocuous databases can give us a much bigger picture. The fact that you can put together disparate information and get really useful results is one of Big Data's great strengths. For example, I spoke to a brain scientist who pulled together people's medical records and postcodes and the weather reports for those postcodes to look at whether the amount of sunshine you get affects your health. But the flip side of that is that you don't need many databases before you can identify individuals and so we have to think about the privacy implications.
How should law and society deal with the challenges raised by Big Data?
This is one of the things I'm hoping to learn about in more detail through my visiting fellowship at the University. I'm very interested in levels of regulation: just because it's possible to use data in this way, it doesn't mean we should be allowed to. We need to think about how and why data is collected and how it is stored and used.
As a society we also have to think about what's important to us and why. Privacy is the obvious example but if we effectively decide that nothing is private and we put everything about ourselves on Facebook and Twitter, then we have in effect destroyed the private sphere for ourselves, regardless of what the law says and what data companies collect.
But it goes even wider than that because one of the things Big Data is really good at is predicting things over a whole population and finding correlation between them. For example, there are websites that do mass average calculations based on your age and postcode. Where I live in south east London gives me a life expectancy of about 84 years. But if I put in a Hampstead postcode, my life expectancy changes to 87 years. Now that might be useful for the local authority to plan services for elderly people living in their area but it doesn't really apply to me as a person - it's really unlikely that if I moved to Hampstead I would suddenly live three years' longer although I wish it was true!
We all know that looking at an average doesn't tell us that much about an individual but I think we can tend to forget that, especially with health issues. We are told that if everybody ate less salt we would save so many lives: that might be true, although it's quite a leap to go from very broad health findings to that specific a prediction. But for me as an individual, the impact of eating less salt - unless I have a medical condition - will have a very small effect on my likely outcomes. So then we have to ask whether it's reasonable to try and change the lifestyles of millions of people based on what it would do to a population when as an individual I think I'd rather just have the bacon sandwich.
What does your role as a Visiting Fellow in the University of Winchester's Centre for Information Rights involve?
It's very loose and flexible. I hope to explore in more detail some of the thoughts and ideas about Big Data that are in my book and also to do some work on public engagement and outreach because that's one of the things that I bring to the table.
I know how to write an entertaining book or make a comedy show or give a talk, which make a connection between research and public discussion. The fellowship at Winchester came about because I've done a number of panel events and public debates with Marion Oswald [head of the University's Centre for Information Rights] over several years so I hope we will be able to carry on that kind of discussion with the public in different forums.
Finally, you once learned the flying trapeze: do you ever regret giving it up?
The truth is that I gave it up because I just wasn't very good at it! I am not naturally sporty in any way but I fell in love with the trapeze because it's very thrilling to do and if anybody gets the chance to try it I recommend it.
I also realised that the more I tried to do it really well and the more I pointed my toes and looked serious, the more everybody laughed at me. So I moved on to clowning and improvisation and stand-up comedy which was an obvious move, because people were finding me funny even when I was trying to be serious.
In a way, it brought me to where I am now because comedy brought me more generally to the idea of communicating ideas. Comedy is only a part of what I do now but it is all about contact with people, giving them pleasure and provoking them to think in a new way about things and if I could carry on doing that I'd be happy.
I do still miss the trapeze though. Every time I see somebody on the trapeze I start rocking to and fro on my heels feeling the rhythm and thinking "I wish that was me up there".
Helen Ryan, Head of the Department of Law, and Marion Oswald, Head of the Centre for Information Rights, pictured at the University's West Downs Campus with Timandra (centre) before her talk.