Once a physicist: Ben Miller
Ben Miller is an actor and comedian
Your parents were both English teachers. How did you get into physics?
My father actually had an interest in physics as a hobby, and I think what got him interested was the American writer Thomas Pynchon, who often writes about physics (and particularly about information theory and entropy). So I was very lucky, in a way, because my father could tell me about some of the really fascinating new stuff that was coming out. When I was at school in the 1980s, the topics you studied in physics class were pretty dull, and unless you’d heard about quantum theory and relativity from someone who was “in the know”, you would never have guessed that that was where your physics lessons were heading. My teachers were very good, but the curriculum at the time seemed like the dullest thing I’d ever encountered in my life. I carried on studying almost in spite of it. Then, once I got to degree level, I found it fascinating. To be able to spend three years just learning about physics was an absolute joy for me.
You started a PhD in semiconductor physics. What was it about?
Quantum dots, basically, which was a very “sexy” PhD topic at the time because it was about the interesting physics at the boundary between the quantum world and the everyday world. My supervisor at the University of Cambridge, Mike Pepper, is a truly inspiring man, and I enjoyed every second I spent with him. But I’d never really intended to do science as a career. It was more of a hobby, and by the time I was doing my PhD, I’d already stumbled across sketch comedy and acting, and I decided that was what I wanted to do.
How has your physics background helped you?
Acting on camera is very technical, and a lot of actors are in the unfortunate position of standing in front of the camera with no idea what the other 50 people in the room are doing. But one of the things I’ve always loved about being a physicist is that you have a pretty good understanding of how most things work – and that’s yours for keeps. I’d also say that comedy is essentially a sceptical art. It’s about cutting things down to size and seeing things as they really are – you’re not attempting to paint things in a way that is romantic. And science is the original sceptical pursuit, so there’s a natural leaning towards the sciences for many comedians.
You’ve started writing science books recently. What motivated you to do that?
I was really missing that kind of buzz that you only get from doing physics, and writing It’s Not Rocket Science was a nice way of brushing up on my basics. But the book I’m working on at the moment is about a more recent interest, which is astrobiology. Back when I did my degree, if you were remotely interested in mathematical science, you probably wouldn’t have considered studying biology, but the advances since then have been enormous. Today, I think I’d be hard pushed to choose between physics and biology – especially now that, with planet hunting and what we’re learning about the early history of life on Earth, biology is becoming really multidisciplinary in a way that I think is really exciting. I’m also working on a programme for children’s TV based on the Horrible Science series of books. I think children are generally interested in science, but it’s something we manage to beat out of them by the time they’re about 11 or 12. You see this when you go to a science museum and it’s full of either 60-year-old men and women or six-year-old boys and girls, and nobody in-between. So I’ve tried to make the science show that I would have liked to have watched when I was a kid.
Any advice for today’s physics students?
I don’t have any advice except this: enjoy it. Whether you go into it as a professional or not, physics is one of the most absolutely enchanting subjects there is, and everybody needs physicists – nobody ever says, “Oh dear, they’re a physicist, we’re not going to employ them.” You can walk into any area of life, really, and it remains one of the most wonderful subjects to study.
A few years ago, Brian May went back and finished the astrophysics PhD that he’d left in order to play guitar in Queen. Are you tempted to do the same?
What, to play guitar in Queen? Well, basically Brian May lucked out, because he wrote his PhD about zodiacal dust, which turned out to be (thanks to planet hunting) one of the most urgent and awesome PhD topics in contemporary cosmology. Sadly, the area I studied isn’t like that – quantum dots are so over and done with, they’re now almost a standard bit of kit – so I don’t think anybody would be interested in my PhD anymore. However, I am practising my guitar chords and I would love to be in Queen, so…!