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In his element delivering rib-tickling jokes, Dara Ó Briain hasn’t restricted his talent to stand-up comedy. Britain’s favourite Irishman has earned a sterling reputation as a television presenter. Recently seen in Stargazing, he now features in BBC Knowledge’s Dara Ó Briain’s Science Club. Debashine Thangevelo traces his interest back to college where he studied mathematics and theoretical physics…
DARA Ó Briain is an interesting paradox. On the one hand, he is this comic legend. But he also has a sort of dormant scientist within and it pops up when he presents shows such as BBC Knowledge’s Stargazing and Dara Ó Briain’s Science Club.
Then again, it makes sense when you take into account that he studied mathematics and theo-retical physics at University College Dublin.
As a student, his leadership qualities earned him the job as auditor of the Literary and Historical Society.
He was also co-founder and co-editor of The University Observer college newspaper. And that would explain his romance with words and proclivity for writing. Talking science, Ó Briain was asked about his ultimate scientific hero.
A noted lively storyteller, he says: “My ultimate scientific hero would be Einstein. It seems like an obvious choice, but he was probably the high point of my education – which was a long time ago – when I had to study the theory of general relativity and study it thoroughly over a long period, step by step, equation by equation.
“And then a light bulb moment occurred when I got it! I got the bit when he took us from thinking that gravity was a sort of elastic string that went between bodies and pulled them together to thinking that gravity is the way mass changes the space around it and that what’s happening is that the smaller body is constantly moving towards the larger body because of the curve of space.
“Everybody should have a moment in life when they think ‘I get it’ and ‘that’s impressive’. That was a proper bit of brilliant invention. So well done, Einstein!”
Asked what he finds more challenging, live stand-up comedy or the world of astrophysics, he says: “People often ask what is more difficult. And the answer is being a physicist. Probably one of the major reasons I ended up being a stand-up is that science and physics are quite tough!
“You’ll see, as we go through Science Club, a certain quiet deference on my part to people who have genuinely made their career in this area. Running away to the circus is better rewarded – you receive your thanks in a very obvious way – but it’s not the more difficult thing. Stand up is not the loneliest trade – that’s being a lighthouse keeper. It’s not being a rocket scientist or a brain surgeon – it’s just being a clown. I’m a great man for reasserting our place in the natural scheme of things, so ‘props’ to the physicists!”
Asked for his opinion on the best invention – away from the sliced bread clichés – Ó Briain says: “It’s very difficult to narrow it down to one invention that has really made a huge difference.
“You have to say the man who came up with fire was really doing well that day. And the man with the wheel? Kudos to him – that was an excellent piece of work.”
In the six episodes of this series, Ó Briain looks into smart drugs, extinction, and space and reproduction, among an array of subjects. And he has expert scientists as guests.
“We’ve done a number of interesting experiments on the show, including one measuring the speed of light with cheese.
“But the one that stands out is the one where we boiled blood to simulate the effect of where you suddenly find yourself in a vacuum environment such as outer space. It was quite vivid.”
Best you tune in to the show to catch the serious side of the funny man. And who knows, you may also learn a thing or two!
• Dara Ó Briain’s Science Club airs on BBC Knowledge (DStv Channel 184) tonight at 11pm.