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Science and music extravaganza from the Infinite Monkey Cage duo


BWW Review: BRIAN COX AND ROBIN INCE'S CHRISTMAS COMPENDIUM OF REASON, Royal Albert Hall What links Boy George, botflies, black holes and the brain? No, this isn't a question from Only Connect, it's a snapshot of the line-up for this year's Christmas Compendium show hosted by Professor Brian Cox and Robin Ince. This is a variety show like no other, combining pop sensibilities with physics until you start to question the very nature of reality - in a good way.

To hammer this message home, the night kicked off with a Shakin' Stevens cover by Sophie Ellis-Bextor and was swiftly followed by a talk by Professor Jim Al-Khalili about time. Whilst I couldn't repeat his ideas back word-for-word, the main point I took away from his talk was that time travel is possible; we can already travel into the future, but there's nothing to say we won't be able to travel into the past at some point - the reason we haven't encountered any time-travellers yet is that the Universe has to follow the laws of physics, which state cause comes before effect. I presume that's what the Doctor means by "wibbly wobbly, timey wimey".

In their own ways, Anil Seth's talk about consciousness and Nina Conti's comedy ventriloquism set both had the audience questioning the concept of free will, before Olympian Helen Glover came on to blow our minds about willpower - just imagine your lockdown project being 'return to the British rowing team in time for the Olympics' (with or without giving birth to twins). Her equally intrepid husband, Steve Backshall, later came on to give sharks some much-needed good press - though it was absolutely heartbreaking to see so many being mutilated and then returned to the sea, all in the service of human greed.

Sticking with the aquatic theme, Helen Czerski felt that the time had come to set the record straight about the interminable comparisons between the Moon and the deep ocean; she's absolutely right that it is a bit of a bizarre pairing, considering one is extra-terrestrial and dead, and the other functions as Earth's engine. That's not to say that the Moon is useless, by any stretch of the imagination, but we probably should move on from this conversation now.

Charismatic earth sciences professor Chris Jackson did his utmost to encourage us to become halophiles - salt lovers - by using a selection of awe-inspiring images and the strange tale of Lake Peigneur, whilst Dr Erica McAlister did her best to convince us of the cuteness of flies. I can't say that I was persuaded, especially seeing the size of some of these critters, but her enthusiasm really does know no bounds.

The musical treats, by Cox's own admission, mostly act as an excuse to relive his youth - this time securing Soft Cell's Marc Almond, as well as the aforementioned Boy George, to perform a couple of songs each. Nitin Sawhney made several appearances, once to perform one of his own tracks and the rest as part of a Compendium supergroup to close out both acts - including a Sophie Ellis-Bextor cover of "Life on Mars". There was also a special appearance by Tanita Tikaram, performing "World Outside Your Window"; this was a very special song for astronaut Helen Sharman, as she took it into space with her, so it was only right that she record a brief introduction.

Obviously it would have been a waste to have Professor Brian Cox there and not give him a chance to do a talk of his own, and so he chose the endlessly fascinating topic of black holes; I (like many people of a scientific bent, apparently) have a bit of a morbid fascination with them, as I'm really curious as to what it would be like to travel through one - but you wouldn't live to tell the tale. It sounds like it would probably be a completely painless death, as you spend a few hours in there before reaching the end of time, so perhaps that will be what Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk turn their attention to next.

Robin Ince is the ideal co-star for events such as this, representing everyone who doesn't have extensive science education, but has discovered a passion for it since school. Through his association with The Infinite Monkey Cage, the Cosmic Shambles Network and beyond, his enthusiasm shone through each time he introduced an act - as well as talking about his own recent experiences touring with his new book.

To round things off in fittingly spectacular (and mind-boggling) fashion, everyone assembled onstage as the supergroup - led this time by Boy George - performed "Fairytale of New York", in a last-gasp attempt to get us all in the Christmas spirit. Based in the heart of Albertopolis, the educational and cultural hub inspired by Prince Albert, this is the perfect venue for such an event - let's hope it gets the chance to return in years to come.

Brian Cox and Robin Ince's Christmas Compendium of Reason was at the Royal Albert Hall on 14 December

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From This Author - Debbie Gilpin