Laughter can have an electrifying life force but is not linked to our day-to-day survival. Photo: Bim Hjortronsteen/Millennium Images
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What makes us human? Our innate curiosity and our ability to laugh

People have been wondering what stuff is made of since the beginning of time. Antelopes, by contrast, haven’t, writes John Lloyd. 

This is a big question, but one answer covers it all: we ask questions. There are quite a few human languages – Latin and Irish among them – that don’t have words for “yes” or “no” – but every language on earth has a word for “why”.

Why is this? Why are we the only species on earth that is concerned about things that don’t directly concern our survival or that of our offspring? Porcupines do not look up at the night sky and wonder what all the sparkly bits are; weasels don’t worry about what other weasels think of them; lobsters really don’t enjoy pub quizzes.

When my son was about 14 I was trying to explain what a hydrogen atom is like. The fact that we have any idea at all is, in itself, an extraordinary testament to human curiosity. People have been wondering what stuff is made of since the beginning of time. Antelopes, by contrast, haven’t. And no antelope has ever expressed what Harry said next: “Dad, why is there something and not nothing?” This is a question first posed by the German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz, often said to be the last man in history who knew everything that could then be known. But he didn’t know that, it seems.

Stephen Hawking recently asked the question in a different way: “Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?” He happens to be a friend of Jimmy Carr and it’s the most wonderfully moving thing to see Jimmy make him laugh. Laughter, I would say, is another thing that makes us human, and being able to make people laugh is a high calling. Watching Bill Bailey live on stage always makes me proud to be a member of the same species.

But why do we laugh? I’ve been in comedy for 40 years and I still don’t know. It’s the simple things that don’t have answers. What is life? No one knows: biologists can’t tell the difference between a live hamster and a dead one. “What is the meaning of life?” is even more difficult. Scientists can’t agree on the meaning of the word “meaning”.

Where do ideas come from? What is consciousness? Where is last Thursday? Do they artificially sweeten the delicious glue on the back of envelopes? Once you start asking questions, you become like a five-year-old child. You can’t stop. And you become very annoying. When I was that age, I asked my father: “Daddy, what is the Holy Ghost?” “M’boy,” he replied, “St Francis of Assisi struggled with that question for 40 years in the wilderness – I cannot help you.”

Andrew Billen, the TV critic of the Times, once asked me: “Why do you think the universe is interesting?” To my surprise I found myself answering without thinking: “First, to lead us to ask the questions that really matter, and second, to distract us from ever finding them.” As Niels Bohr, the great Danish physicist, used to say: “At last, gentlemen, we have encountered a paradox – now we have some hope of making progress!” Bohr was a bit of a paradox himself. He kept a lucky horseshoe over his door. When asked: “Surely you don’t believe in that nonsense?” he said: “Of course I don’t believe in it, but I understand it works whether you believe in it or not.”

What do you believe in? What questions really matter? I think there are only two: “Why are we here?” and “What should we do about it while we are?”

The question of what it means to be human is central to all science fiction, and one of the greatest writers in the genre, Robert Heinlein, had this to say: “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, co-operate, act alone, solve equations, analyse a new problem, pitch manure, programme a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialisation is for insects.”

We must get on, there’s a lot to do. 

The “What Makes Us Human?” series runs on the Jeremy Vine show (Radio 2)

John Lloyd is the creator and producer of “QI” (BBC2) and the co-creator and presenter of “The Museum of Curiosity” (Radio 4)

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double 2014

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Katy Perry’s new song is not so much Chained to the Rhythm as Chained to a Black Mirror episode

The video for “Chained to the Rhythm” is overwhelmingly pastel and batshit crazy. Watch out, this satire is sharp!

If you’ve tuned into the radio in the last month, you might have heard Katy Perry’s new song, “Chained to the Rhythm”, a blandly hypnotic single that’s quietly, creepingly irresistible.

If you’re a really attuned listener, you might have noticed that the lyrics of this song explore that very same atmosphere. “Are we crazy?” Perry sings, “Living our lives through a lens?”

Trapped in our white picket fence
Like ornaments
So comfortable, we’re living in a bubble, bubble
So comfortable, we cannot see the trouble, trouble
Aren’t you lonely?
Up there in utopia
Where nothing will ever be enough
Happily numb

The chorus muses that we all “think we’re free” but are, in fact, “stumbling around like a wasted zombie, yeah.” It’s a swipe (hehe) at social media, Instagram culture, online dating, whatever. As we all know, modern technology is Bad, people who take photos aren’t enjoying the moment, and glimpses other people’s Perfect Lives leave us lonely and empty. Kids these days just don’t feel anything any more!!!

The video for this new song was released today, and it’s set in a (get this) METAPHORICAL AMUSEMENT PARK. Not since Banky’s Dismaland have we seen such cutting satire of modern life. Walk with me, through Katy Perry’s OBLIVIA.

Yes, the park is literally called Oblivia. Get it? It sounds fun but it’s about oblivion, the state of being unaware or unconscious, i.e. the state we’re all living in, all the time, because phones. (I also personally hope it’s a nod to Staffordshire’s own Oblivion, but cannot confirm if Katy Perry has ever been on the Alton Towers classic steel roller coaster.)

The symbol of the park is a spaced-out gerbil thing, because, aren’t we all caged little hairy beings in our own hamster wheels?! Can’t someone get us off this never-ending rat race?!

We follow Katy as she explores the park – her wide eyes take in every ride, while her peers are unable to look past the giant iPads pressed against their noses.


You, a mindless drone: *takes selfies with an iPad*
Katy Perry, a smart, engaged person: *looks around with actual human eyes, stops to smell the roses*

She walks past rides, and stops to smell the roses – and the pastel-perfect world is injected with a dose of bright red reality when she pricks her finger on a thorn. Cause that’s what life really is, kids! Risk! At least she FEELS SOMETHING.


More like the not-so-great American Dream, am I right?!

So Katy (wait, “Rose”, apparently) takes her seat on her first ride – the LOVE ME ride. Heteronormative couples take their seats against either a blue heart or a pink one, before being whizzed through a tunnel of Facebook reaction icons.

Is this a comment on social media sexism, or a hint that Rose is just too damn human for your validation station? Who knows! All we can say for sure is that Katy Perry has definitely seen the Black Mirror episode “Nosedive”:

Now, we see a whole bunch of other rides.


Wait time: um, forever, because the human condition is now one of permanent stasis and unsatisfied desires, duh.

No Place Like Home is decorated with travel stamps and catapults two of the only black people in the video out of the park. A searing comment on anti-immigrant rhetoric/racism? Uh, maybe?

Meanwhile, Bombs Away shoots you around like you’re in a nuclear missile.


War: also bad.

Then everyone goes and takes a long drink of fire water (?!?!) at Inferno H2O (?!?!) which is also a gas station. Is this about polluted water or petrol companies or… drugs? Or are we just so commercialised even fire and water are paid-for privileges? I literally don’t know.

Anyway, Now it’s time for the NUCLEAR FAMILY SHOW, in 3D, no less. Rose is last to put her glasses on because, guess what? She’s not a robot. The show includes your typical 1950s family ironing and shit, while hamsters on wheels run on the TV. Then we see people in the rest of theme park running on similar wheels. Watch out! That satire is sharp.

Skip Marley appears on the TV with his message of “break down the walls to connect, inspire”, but no one seems to notice accept Rose, and soon becomes trapped in their dance of distraction.


Rose despairs amidst the choreography of compliance.

Wow, if that didn’t make you think, are you even human? Truly?

In many ways – this is the Platonic ideal of Katy Perry videos: overwhelmingly pastel, batshit crazy, the campest of camp, yet somehow walking the fine line between self-ridicule and terrifying sincerity. It might be totally stupid, but it’s somehow still irresistible.

But then I would say that. I’m a mindless drone, stumbling around like a wasted zombie, injecting pop culture like a prescription sedative.

I’m chained…………. to the rhythm.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.