Welcome to this podcast about the wonderful space where science meets art to create education and entertainment.
So, this is from the European medicinal leech’s point of view… 0:51
I trained as an actor. I went to a drama school in Paris… 5:53
…for the letter D which is about DNA I’ve chosen two different genres starting with a D. See if you can guess what they are… 12:32
I’m gonna play you the final song from that show… 15:35
I’m really sorry guys, but the universe… It’s not gonna end nicely… 21:56
Arian Hi guys, how’s it going? Did you know birds scan the sea for fish to eat, but also some fish jump out of the sea to predate on overflying birds. Didn’t see that coming, did ya? ♪ tune
A Song about a Leech
Arian Welcome to this podcast about the wonderful space where science meets art to create education and entertainment. I met John Hinton, this episode’s special guest, during my first PhD rotation at King’s College London. He was working on his project at the time, the Ensonglopedia of Science, and wanted to find scientific advisors at the newly opened Centre for Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine. John is a theatre practitioner and science communicator. He is Artistic Director of Ensonglopedia, and his ‘Scientrilogy’ of musical comedies, in which he plays Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein and Marie Curie. Welcome to the show John!
John Hellooooo Arian… Lovely… Thank you so much for having me.
Arian Your shows are absolutely mesmerising. I found a brilliant review of your performance by Fringe Guru, that pretty much sums up the experience of watching you do your thing. It goes like this “After beguiling me with yet another diverse, engaging show, I’m starting to wonder if John Hinton can possibly really exist. Superb.”
John I’m here, I’m here! In person. I do, I do! I exist.
Arian Let’s show our audience what this show can really show. You’re performing a song for us today.
Arian I can’t wait! Tell me more about it.
John Sure. Absolutely. So, yes, as you were saying, Arian, you actually helped me out with a couple of my shows. Now when I was working on the second show in the Ensonglopedia series, Ensonglopedia of Animals, I sent you some lyrics and you replied about one of them in particular, that you’d enjoyed reading the lyrics out loud. And, I thought I would play that one for you today. This was especially for you Arian cos you…
John ...Cos you liked reading these lyrics out loud yourself. This is the European Medicinal Leech, ok, who is… You might be surprised to know is actually an endangered species now, partly because they are not using it as much in science anymore. They used to be used a lot in medical science, but they’ve since discovered they kind of got some things wrong in medical science…
John ...Over the, over the millennia. And… We know better now, right? But…
John …More’s the pity for the poor old European medicinal leech. So, this is from the European medicinal leech’s point of view.
Hush, I beseech you,
We’re about to hear a speech
From the European medicinal leech:
Ladies and gentlemen,
Distinguished members of the medical profession,
It is time for my confession.
I have a bit of an obsession:
An obsession with blood.
In days of yore,
People suffered from a superstition
Based on a theory known as humorism
That if I made a precision incision
Under supervision of a trained physician,
It would do you good.
So they bred me specifically
For medical use,
And they fed me terrifically
Gooey human juice.
And my life had a purpose
But then – curses!
You did me the disservice
Of spotting I was surplus
To medical requirements,
And the appliance
Of my type of violence
Was just bad science.
You had established that your cherished humorism theory was bogus,
And I was suddenly not as in vogue as
I used to be.
I thought you cared for me,
But now you’re just scared of me.
You did like my company,
But now you’re in a grump with me.
I’ve suffered an eviction from my previous position of highest distinction,
I am now near to being threatened with extinction.
Why oh why have things gone so awry?
I think it’s best if I
Just go away and cry.
I guess that was the end of the speech
From the European medicinal leech.
Arian [laughter, applause]
Arian I just… I could… I could not… I was trying not to burst out laughing a few times there.
John That is not against the rules.
Arian [laughter] It’s against the rules of this podcast but now they’ve been totally rewritten.
John We are rewriting the rules of your podcast as we go along.
Arian [laughter] Oh my god, that is just hysterical. Wonderful! This is just… I did not expect to have a song dedicated to me.
John Of course!
Arian I feel very serenaded.
Arian I’m just.. Yeah, I’m just flattered. That’s wonderful. I’m curious about how you got to do such unique and interesting work! Coming up next. ♪ tune
Who Is John Hinton?
Arian Tell me the story of John Hinton and his eclectic creativity and skills. You are so many things: actor, director, playwright, singer-songwriter, performance skills teacher, juggler and science communicator. How did all these arise?
John I trained as an actor. I went to a drama school in Paris. I really enjoyed science at school, but then there comes this very strange and unfortunate moment where you have to decide what you’re gonna keep studying. And I was really into the arts, and unfortunately at A level, you can choose – I don’t know what it is now – but in my day there was basically 3 or 4 A levels, you choose, right?
Arian Same today.
John Same today! Same old, same old. I know the AS’s mean something slightly different from what it did in “my day”.
John But… So, you have to hone, right? You have to select very few. And then when you go to university, you have to choose one. Maybe two, if you do a joint degree, right? But there’s no such joint degree as science and art. It’s like, two humanities or two sciences or whatever, right?
John So basically, unfortunately, science fell by the wayside during that process of me selecting what I was going to study. Although I always really enjoyed it. And I really enjoyed it at GCSE. And went down the arts route. And that was fine, I did, I tried to be an actor for a bit, that was going so-so, it’s quite a difficult world. And touring shows is quite expensive, and it was suggested why don’t I do a solo show cos they’re cheaper. So I thought I’d write a solo show for myself, and after all I do write as well. And I decided to do that show about my all-time hero Charles Darwin.
And you do one show about a scientist, that goes quite well by the way, that was a very successful show, I’ve done it in 7 countries, I’m still touring it. And people say, Oooh, that was great, who’s the next scientist then? And I say, well, I didn’t know there was gonna be a next scientist. But, alright then, if you insist. Albert Einstein then. Of course. And then, that had to become a trilogy, the third person that I had to play was, of course, Marie Curie. For various reasons.
So that’s basically how John who’d not studied any science beyond GCSE suddenly became the person who was out there, teaching people about science. But through musical theatre. And then from there I decided to do something which was a bit more of a gig format, and I came up with the idea of the Ensonglopedias; which are collections of 26 songs all on a topic, one for each letter of the alphabet. So the song you’ve just heard there, European Medicinal Leech, that was from the letter E from the show Ensonglopedia of Animals.
Arian Ok. Two questions.
Arian One, do you speak French? You said you…
John Oui, je parle francais, biensur.
John On peut faire tout en francais si vous voulez.
Arian Non. I could not…
John Ok, alright sorry!
Arian …string a sentence to reply…
John Sorry to put you on the spot there Arian!
Arian And the second is, why was Charles Darwin your hero?
John Ohhh, goodness me! I mean… Whose hero is he not? Does that make sense?
John Who doesn’t have him as his, as their hero, is what I mean. Anyway…
Arian I know his face and paragraph are planted on one of the UCL buildings…
Arian So, you know, obviously it’s a lot of people’s hero.
John I mean…
Arian But why yours?
John Well, I mean, it’s a revolutionary way of thinking, right? He went against the grain in so many ways. You know, he really paved out the vision of who we are. I mean, people have tried to answer that question of what are we doing here on this planet, where did we come from, all of that; have tried so hard, in so many ways to answer that question, and have come up with so many woolly answers. And then he comes along and goes, no, throws all that out the window, it’s like this, it really actually makes sense.
Arian When did you first learn about Charles Darwin?
John Ohhh, I mean, back in the annals of prehistory I think.
Arian So is it fair to say that you actually were into science before art, or which one came first?
John Well, hey! I’m someone who works in both. I really like to think there is not as much distinction as people think. I think that’s… That’s a dichotomy that is kind of forced upon us by the way we, as I mentioned just now, the way we are forced to choose subjects at school.
Arian So despite being forced to from a young age, you didn’t see that distinction, or…
John I don’t know that I had the perspective that I have now, then. But I was certainly disappointed that I had to leave certain things by the wayside. And I really believe that, you know, there used to be these things called polymaths, right? Who studied across the wide range of knowledge right? A bit later in history they used to be called Renaissance men.
For some reason they were men, I don’t know. And nowadays that doesn’t really exist so much. Nowadays we really have to specify what we’re going to do as a profession, and study it and so on. I don’t really buy that, I think we can learn anything at any point in our lives. We can mix up the disciplines, and the world will be richer for it.
Arian Absolutely. Your style is very engaging and covers so many genres. In your ensonglopedia of science you have reggae, techno, nursey rhymes, even a konga! People really should see the breadth of what you can create. Let’s see if John wants to treat us to another song… ♪ tune
Drop, Drop, Drop the Nucleobase
Arian Indulge us, John! What’s this next song about?
John Yes, as you mentioned Arian, the show Ensonglopedia of Science has a lot of different musical styles in it. There’s a very specific reason for that in that show, in that I had the crazy idea, which I kind of regretted as soon as I started writing the show, of trying to do each of these songs not only about an area of science starting with each letter of the alphabet, but also, either a genre of music or an instrument starting with the same letter of the alphabet.
So, for example, we have an a cappella song about atoms, we have a beatboxing song about the Big Bang, we have a cell calypso with a bit of conga thrown in, and for the letter D which is about DNA I’ve chosen two different genres starting with a D. See if you can guess what they are.
I’m gonna delve deeper into the human cell, Through the nuclear membrane, the protective shell In which forty-six molecules have set up home. They’re made of DNA and they’re the chromosomes.
They’re made of D…N…A…A…A… Deoxyribonucleic Acid… Acid… Acid…
DNA is the set of instructions
That gives the directions for how the cell functions.
It’s the code so the organism knows how to grow,
Whether feathers feature, whether you’re adapted for the snow. It was DNA placed those ace features on your face.
Drop drop drop… the nucleobase!
When a cell divides, it first makes a copy
Of the DNA, but cell division can be sloppy,
And the new DNA may have tiny mistakes,
And oh what effects a mistake sometimes makes!
Mistakes can cause diseases like cancer,
But changes also mean there’s a chance o’ Mutations creating helpful adaptations,
And that’s evolution, but it takes a lot of patience – Generations upon generations…
And it’s all thanks to D…N…A…A…A… Deoxyribonucleic Acid… Acid… Acid…
And now that we know how the code fits together,
We can set to work and make unhealthy organisms better
DNA is the key to the needs of the species; Diseases can cease if we replace the right pieces.
Splice that code! Cut it up! Rip it, flip it, drop it in a new place, With my programmable endonuclease,
But only under supervision of a highly regulated lab space. Drop the nucleobase.
Adenine, Guanine, Thymine, Cytosine,
These are the bases, these are the jigsaw pieces that make up each gene, Which fit together to help my body parts slot neatly into place,
This double helix rises like a phoenix to continue the race.
Drop the nucleobase.
I’m Not Shy Mate, I’m a Primate, and I’m Proud
Arian Your content is extremely funny and eye-opening. It’s no doubt that everyone walks away from one of your shows having thoroughly enjoyed it. But your work does have an underlying hope, an agenda that these scientific topics can arouse intrigue, and perhaps stick with children for long enough that they may want to study them. What do you hope children take away from your shows?
John Yeah. Children and people of all ages, I mean, it’s certainly… Certainly some of it is aimed at young people. I want them to… Two things really, take away some knowledge that they may not already have, and secondly just go away with a proper earworm stuck in their head. And, you know, having tapped their foot to death, you know. It’s about giving them entertainment number 1, it’s gotta be a good show. But you know, I do, I do really like my facts.
John So, and… And I like them to be right as well, it’s very important they are right.
Arian Ideally not fake news.
John Not.. This is not fake news. These are not fake songs.
Arian And you’re doing shows all the time.
John I am touring round. I’m touring the country. I was in Felixstowe last night, I’m in North Norfolk in Kettlestone tonight, that’s actually with my first show, the show that stated this whole science song writing theatre thing off for me – my show about Charles Darwin. So it’s really nice that after a decade of doing that show, it is still out on the road.
Arian Could we have a little song from that?
John Ohhh, go on then, you’ve twisted my arm.
John I’m actually gonna… I’m gonna play you the final song from that show. So I suppose it’s a bit of a spoiler in a way. Spoiler alert! Spoiler alert! We are related to the primates.
John Sorry about that.
Arian Oh no!
John I’ve given away the ending. So this is Charles Darwin having his idea for his, for one of his many books, The Descent of Man.
Since man first appeared on this watery planet,
He’s thought of himself somehow chosen by God. But what if he’s just another animal? Can it
Be possible? Why should that thought be so odd?
I knew an orang-utan named Jenny.
She lived up at London Zoo.
Now Jenny had tantrums, and emotions, and many other human behaviours like me or like you, Oooh-hooh-ooh!
Now Jenny, she helped me in solving
The question of how humans, too,
Fit into the picture. Are we also evolving,
Or is the Old Testament literally true?
No! Man is related to the dog, he’s related to the bird, He’s related to the frog, is it really that absurd?
He’s related to the barnacle, related to the bee,
But his closest relation is the chimpanzee, Hee-hee-hee!
I’ll shout it out loud, I’ll stick my head above the crowd, No I will not be cowed, my words must be allowed,
The world will be wowed when I have avowed
I’m a primate, and I’m proud.
Hi mate, I’m a primate, and I’m proud.
So don’t be shy mate, be a primate, and be proud! This is the singalong bit, goes like this:
I’m not shy mate, I’m a primate, and I’m proud! Wherever you are, sing along!
I’m not shy mate, I’m a primate, and I’m proud! There’s a harmony if you prefer, goes like this:
I’m not shy mate, I’m a primate, and I’m proud! Pitch your harmony and sing:
I’m not shy mate, I’m a primate, and I’m proud! The A Level Biologist Dot Co Dot UK!
I’m not shy mate, I’m a primate, and I’m proud! Final time, if you believe me!
I’m not shy mate, I’m a primate, and I’m proud!
Yes! Man is related to the dog, he’s related to the bird, He’s related to the frog, is it really that absurd?
He’s related to the barnacle, related to the bee,
But his closest relation… is the chimpanzee-ee-ee-ee-eeeeeeeee!
Arian [laughter] [applause]
Arian I am positively mind blown.
Arian Oh god. It’s just… Overwhelmingly, flateringly, mind blowingly… Goes back to that, really, I’m not sure John Hinton really exists!
John Well he just left and went into the bathroom there, I don’t know where he’s gone now, but I don’t think he did ever exist actually.
Arian He did slowly creep into the bathroom. Well, the chimpanzee slowly faded into the bathroom, and someone else came out. I don’t know who he is.
Arian Right, so… I think we need a break. We’ll be right back.
John the Scientist
Arian I wonder if John accidentally inspires himself to go into science. You’ve exposed yourself to pretty much all of science through your shows. If you were to change your career, what kind of scientist do you think you’d be?
Arian What area of science has caught your eye?
John Goodness me. I, I’m just, generally I’m just really fascinated by… By living beings, for one. I mean, hey! There’s also really, really interesting things inside atoms, don’t get me wrong. I mean, the beginning of the universe, the end of the universe, neutrinos, dark matter, dark energy, whoa! That stuff is amazing.
But, I really love, you know, animals, humans, just how we fit together, how it all works so marvellously. We live in a very low entropy world here, right. So, entropy being basically the movement towards disorder. Which is basically where we’re all going in the universe. I’m really sorry guys, but the universe… It’s not gonna end nicely.
Arian We’re all just heading into a black hole.
John Well, yeah, and the black holes are heading into black holes and… Worse. But because of the Sun, we live on an amazingly low entropy corner of the universe. Which enables, you know, plants to spring from the ground, and poetry to appear out of nowhere, and all these marvellous things that we see around us in the world. That’s what really fascinates me.
In fact my next show that I very recently, just like a week ago, got my Arts Council funding for – which is quite exciting – is called Ensonglopedia of the Human. And I’m gonna be looking at 26 different answers to the question What does it mean to be human, one for each letter of the alphabet.
Arian Good luck!
John I haven’t yet worked out what my alphabet is, so, hey guys out there, if you want to jot down a little alphabet A to Z of what it means to be human I’d be really, really grateful. Thank you so much.
Arian That sounds like a really nice creative challenge. I might do that.
John Please! Please, Arian.
Arian So basically you’re into the biological sort of, organisms side of things with a hint of theoretical physics, because that’s literally what I’m into.
John That’s great.
Arian Quantum mechanics, theoretical physics, that’s like my dirty science secret.
Arian But mainly biology.
Arian Thank you for joining me John, thank you for playing those wonderful songs, you’ve been a lovely guest, thank you for listening, and if you want to check out more of John’s songs please go to www.ensonglopedia.com or search Spotify, iTunes or YouTube for Ensonglopedia, that’s E-N-S-O-N-G-L-O-P-E-D-I-A, like an encyclopaedia, but of song. And remember, 95% of all avocados on sale today are descended from one tree grown by a Milwaukee postman in 1926.
Arian …No one says bye. I’m just like Byee, I look at them, I say, Ok you say bye now.
Arian Let’s do it again.
Learn more about John at http://ensonglopedia.com/