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Interview: Kissy Sell Out on astrophysics

When did you first get into astrophysics?  Were you a geek at school?

Not at all.  At school I wasn’t interested in space or science.

But you must have had a mathematical mind…

I always found maths very easy.  I had some learning difficulties at school.  I’m not very good at reading comprehension but I found equations and trigonometry SO easy because they gave you the answer and then told you to work it out.. In English, you had to read a book and say what the book was about, but I would just look at the words, flick through pages and not really take any of it in.  My grades at school weren’t terrible, but there was a definite gap between my grades in maths and English.  I nearly did maths as a degree.

So why did you choose to study graphic design?

I’ve always been a sociable guy and I liked meeting people but I was tremendously shy at school.  I wanted to be able to make friends and have the confidence to talk to other people, so as an art student I loved the fact that it gave you the chance to do just that; to hang out and meet loads of outgoing, artistic people.  I felt that I wouldn’t have had the same experience had I done maths.  I was probably wrong, but that’s how I felt at the time.  I got a B in A level art and an A in maths.  I got 100% in one of my maths papers.  I’ve very proud of that.

So maths was seen as being too geeky for you…       

No, not at all.  When you hear TV presenters and newsreaders talking about science, they don’t seem to know what they’re talking about.  For instance, with the recent Higgs Boson particle discovery, or near discovery (Ed-look it up, kidz), nobody on BBC news seemed to be able to explain what it was.  Take the speed of light theories.  Nothing can travel faster than the speed of light because it’s mass then becomes infinite.  E=MC2.  I knew that equation at secondary school but I had no f*cking clue what it meant and it’s only in the past few months that I figured it out.  This happened to coincide with the Higgs Boson stuff at CERN so I really noticed it when these guys with baldheads and glasses were on TV – they weren’t able to explain it in a language that you could understand.  That’s what it was like when I was doing further maths at school.  I was with people who were incredibly intelligent at academic things, but they had no social or verbal skills at all.

So if not at school or art college, when was it that you became so passionate about quantum theory and cosmology, and what was it that ignited that interest?

I think it was about 2 years ago.  I was not interested in space at all and then I saw the NASA ‘Ultra Deep field’ photo.  I literally could not believe what I was looking at.  I had just never even thought about it.  You hear people talking about the Big Bang and the universe, but I had no idea they were actually taking photos of it.  Every point of light in that photo isn’t a star, but a galaxy.  Incredible.  I just thought: ‘bloody hell, how did they manage to take a photo of something so far away?’  I wanted to know more about it.  I looked a lot of stuff up on Wikipedia and then started buying books.  There was a lot of stuff I didn’t understand first time round but I have since gone back to it and think I have a handle on it now.

The other thing that got me interested in physics was when I realised everything in the universe has gravity.  I had no f*cking idea.  I thought there was just up and down.  But then I learned that the only reason it appears that we have up and down is because we are on such a massive planet – the scale is too large to see it any other way.  If you and me were floating in space, however, we would float towards each other, because everything has a gravity of it’s own. It’s called accretion.

A lot of the laws of particle physics have been around for 40 years or so, but nobody talks about it in a normal language, so the rest of us have no idea it exists which is extraordinary considering how much of an effect science has on our lives.

HAVE YOU READ HAWKING’S ‘A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME’?  DID YOU UNDERSTAND IT?

Yeah, I read it and yes, I think I understood it.  He’s got a really good writing style.  As I said earlier, I’m not very good at reading and don’t really enjoy it, but if I‘m interested in something then I find it easy to read. I also read his Grand Design book which is when I started to understand the theory of general relativity and special relativity – that time is relative, so, for instance, clocks go at a different speed depending on how close to the Earth they are (Ed – HEAD EXPLODES).  And it’s all related to gravity.

Property of NASA

Another thing I got really interested in is the Moon.  It’s really fascinating.  In fact, it’s more interesting than a lot of other planets.  Planets are generally just made of out of rock or gas and are formed by accretion from the sun, whereas moons can come from outside the solar system.  They are smaller bodies that collect a lot of the crap that’s floating about in space.  Planets are literally just rocks that are so hot where nothing can be formed. None of the water on this planet, for instance, came from the Earth.  Another example is gold.  The temperatures needed to create the nuclear fusion to make gold are hotter than our sun, which means that all the gold we have on Earth wasn’t made in our solar system.  Isn’t that fucking crazy??

 

WHAT DO YOUR DJ COLLEAGUES THINK OF YOUR OBSESSION?  DO YOU FIND YOURSELF DUMBING DOWN FOR THEM?

No, not at all, although I was talking to one guy once from a well known pop band who just didn’t seem to get it.  He started to talk about ghosts.  He was like ‘yeah, I’m well into all that stuff too, mate.  I’ve seen a ghost before’.  He didn’t understand.  But he’s the only one.  Everyone else is seems pretty interested. I only talk about it when I’m asked, because I’m learning all this for self-discovery, not to spread the word.

One of the most interesting things about science is that there is always something new to learn about.  Just when you think you’re done, something else pops up that sends you off into another realm of learning.  The thing with art and music is there is so much subjectivity about it and so much dependence on mediums, you’re not discovering, you’re creating.  Creating things is amazing, but it’s entirely different to discovering.

WITH THE RECENT ARRIVAL OF PROF BRIAN COX ON THE SCENE, IS ASTROPHYSICS BECOMING A BIT SEXY?

Yeah, I think it is.  I went off him a bit after his Wonders of the Universe program, though, because the first episode about thermo dynamic entropy was SO depressing.  I don’t think he explained it well at all – this idea that all systems inevitably degrade and simplify.  Something didn’t ring true with me, so I started reading up on the laws of thermo-dynamics and quantum physics.  He didn’t mention anything about evolution and the fact that humans, or life on earth, is proof of negative entropy.  We, as a species, are developing and enhancing ourselves and basically getting stronger and more complicated.   The brain is more complex and mysterious to scientists than a lot of the solar system.  So when he was telling everyone that the sun is going to envelope the earth and the planet will die because of entropy, I found it deeply depressing so I stopped watching.  The force of life, be it grass, fish, you and me, whatever, is the only thing in the whole universe that contradicts entropy.  That’s pretty amazing and not depressing at all.  He missed a trick there.

BUT YOU HAVE TO ADMIT THAT PROGRAMMES LIKE WONDERS OF THE UNIVERSE HAVE REIGNITED INTEREST IN THIS AREA OF SCIENCE

It was definitely the catalyst that compelled me to look up more stuff.  My mum has never been religious but she always said that she believes that there’s a force in all of us and although that sounds a bit hippy-ish, when you learn about thermo-dynamic entropy and you realise that life is the only thing that displays negative entropy you start to think about things differently.  It suggests that there is something that happens inside you and me that we don’t understand and that chooses to defy the laws of thermo dynamics – that’s the force that I think my mum was talking about.  If you were going to look for a description of what life is, then that’s where to look for it.  Signs of systematic organisation.  We have this magical force inside us that we don’t truly understand.  I wish at the end of the programme Brian Cox had said that you and I are the most magical thing in the universe.  We don’t understand why or how we came to be here in the first place, but whatever it is it breaks all the rules.  To give him credit, he is brilliant at explaining incredibly complicated theories in a simple way, so props to him for that.

Property of NASA

FAVOURITE PLANET/MOON?

I find Jupiter very interesting, because it’s the bodyguard of the solar system and stops asteroids hitting us. My favourite moon is Enceledus around Saturn, because that it one of the ones that is most likely to have life on it.  It has two giant geysers at it’s poles that spew out water into space.  Totally mad.  It’s life changing when you learn about stuff like that.

 

WOULD YOU GO INTO SPACE?

Absolutely not.  It would be really unpleasant place to be in.  Your digestive system stops almost completely.  Also your muscles waste away.  The main problem with getting an astronaut to Mars is that they’ve never managed to keep a human alive in space for the amount of time it would take to get there.  The thing that makes space travel so expensive is not the fuel or the materials; it’s all spent on keeping the astronauts alive.  It’s really important to get to Mars, though.  The sun is eventually going to expand and envelop the Earth, so we either need to move the planet, of which there are theories of how to do it – such as dragging Earth further from the sun by moving an asteroid near to us, which will drag us outwards through gravity – but basically we need to get off the planet.  It’s the only way that we will be able to preserve the human race.

SO THE MUSIC SCENE ISN’T GOING TO LOSE YOU TO THE COSMOS…

Not at all.  The thing is, when you grow older, your perspective on things change.  When you’re young you think all older people are boring, but when you’re older you just understand things a bit better and question things more, and act differently because of that.  When I talk to a lot of the young musicians on my label (San City High) I realise that there are so many questions that I didn’t have answers to when I was their age and just starting out.  Now I like to help pull young talent through and help guide them through my own experience – that’s what I really enjoy about my position as a DJ now.  I’m not going to disappear into science any time soon.

THE TECHNICAL SIDE OF MAKING ELECTRONIC MUSIC IS PRETTY SCIENTIFIC AND INTRICATE.  I GUESS YOU CAN EXERCISE YOUR GEEK SIDE THAT WAY TOO…

For me, science provides answers for a lot of things and this applies to making music.  With music the answer is ideas – if you have the ideas, it isn’t really what you know about mastering or side chaining or any of these technical terms.  All art and music is about ideas.

AS A PERSON SEEN BY FANS AND THE MEDIA AS BEING ‘COOL’, HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THIS NEED TO PIGEONHOLE PEOPLE INTO ‘COOL’ OR ‘UNCOOL’.  YOU SEEM TO BE A HAPPY AMALGAMATION OF BOTH.

Any successful musician must be a bit of a geek on some level, because you have to know what you’re doing.  Just setting up musical equipment can be pretty damn intricate.  Music is complicated – even in this age of everyone saying you just need a laptop to make music.  I’m not one of those guys who spends hours picking just the right mic or taking ages getting the right level of background ambience on a track, but you can’t simply make a professional electronic track on a lap top.  There’s more to it than that. Being a DJ is pretty geeky.  People say that a lot about DJs.  It’s common knowledge within the industry that Drum n’ Bass DJs are the geekiest of them all.  People imagine that they sit about smoking reefers saying stuff like ‘yeah, just sling a bit of bass on that, bruv.  Whatever. Who cares’.  It’s not like that at all!  Chase & Status, for example, are just a couple of quiet guys from Bristol.  It’s really complicated music, because in order to get the sub bass to come through properly you have to roll off all the bass from everything else in the track, but you have to do it without anyone noticing, and that’s the difficult part.  They really are the geekiest guys out there.  So it goes to show that if the most underground, dark side of the dance industry is so full of geeks, who’s to say what’s cool and what’s not.

SO WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU HAVE TO SOMEONE WHO FEELS THEY DON’T TICK ALL THE ‘COOL’ BOXES?

Don’t get education and intelligence confused.  In order to enjoy life, you can revise for exams and do your work, but at the same time get out there and express yourself.  Go out and try to kiss a girl or a guy.  Get a stupid haircut. Get life experience.  The word geek transcends the two ways of thinking, which is why there is a bit of negativity about the word, as it implies that being intelligent isn’t cool.  In fact some of the coolest people I know are really, really clever, formal education or not. Look at Branson, or Steve Jobs.  They didn’t play by the rules and did their own thing.  Teachers will never tell you that at school.  Be curious.

And at this point, CALMzine’s melon was well and truly twisted and we had to go and have a lie down…

As featured in CALMzine: https://www.thecalmzone.net/calmzine/

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