The Importance of Being Interested - Robin Ince

In his new book The Importance of Being Interested Robin Ince interviews astronauts, comedians, teachers, quantum physicists, neuroscientists and more as he charts his own journey with science and investigates why many wrongly think of the discipline as distant and difficult. Ahead of Robin's upcoming appearance at Hay Festival Winter Weekend, we’re offering an exclusive extract of the book: here's chapter one...

I often ask myself how scientists came to be doing what they are doing. Why weren’t they bored to tears in their science lessons? Do their brains work differently? What do they see when they are explaining quantum indeterminacy? Are they born with scientific brains? Is the ability to understand supernovae or charm quarks somehow hard-wired? This was one of my first anxieties when I started making science shows. Was I allowed to think on such things? Did I have permission even to ponder these subjects, without qualifications? Scientific ideas can seem so daunting that they may feel both forbidding and forbidden. Any question from a novice like me surely has a high probability of being a stupid question. 

It can be easy to believe that scientific ability is built into us by a quirk of nature – our genetics. If you find science hard, it is because your father found it hard, and your father’s father found it hard, and you have inherited the ‘not understanding cosmology’ gene. This was how it seemed to me. I struggled with learning science at secondary school and ended up believing that I didn’t have the correct configurations in my brain to check into Hilbert’s Hotel or diagnose Schrödinger’s cat. I don’t think I’m alone in believing this; but that so many people should presume they are unfit for science perhaps suggests there is something wrong both with how we learn science and with what we believe it to be. 

Even Carlo Rovelli, who is a founder of the loop quantum gravity theory and a writer of very beautiful books on physics, struggled with the tedium of some of his science education, but he was able to see beyond it. As he writes in his book Helgoland, ‘What attracted me to physics was that beyond the deadly boredom of the subject taught in high school, behind all the stupidity of all those exercises with springs, levers and rolling balls, there was a genuine curiosity to understand the nature of reality.’ Fortunately, I have found a way back into feeling a fascination about science, though I can assure you that I will not be contributing anything of any significance to loop quantum gravity theory. 

I have totted up daily the pros and cons of confronting my ignorance, and I am pretty sure the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. Sure, it means I now live in a meaningless universe, by the looks of things, but existential philosophy was eager to tell me that before astrophysics ever got involved. If you want to feel frighteningly alone in the universe, sit on a railway-station platform in midwinter, waiting for a train that increasingly looks as if it will never come, and read Jean-Paul Sartre: ‘Every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness, and dies by chance.’ And then he doubles down on that with: ‘It is meaningless that we are born, it is meaningless that we die.’ These are the sorts of aphorisms that would lose you your job in the fortune-cookie factory.

Robin Ince joins us at Hay Festival Winter Weekend on 25 November to discuss The Importance of Being Interested. Buy tickets here or buy a signed copy of the book here.