Why do you find space so fascinating?
I grew up intrigued by great big notions like black holes and the sheer heft of galaxies. I did a degree in maths and theoretical physics, then became a comedian, but the passion was still there. In the six years I’ve done Stargazing, we’ve had probes landing on comets, eclipses, Tim Peake on the International Space Station (ISS)… it’s an amazing playground of cool things.
See Tim Peake's images of Earth from space
The book is full of great astronomy facts. What’s one of your favourites?
I live in London, so space is closer than the seaside. Just 60 miles above our heads. The ISS, at its closest point, is only 250 miles away. If going to the moon is walking to the shops, the ISS is stepping onto the front porch and going, ‘Do I need a coat?’
I also love the fact that all Russian cosmonauts, before they board the rocket, have this custom that they wiggle themselves around in their space suits and have a wee on the back wheel of the bus that has bought them up to the rocket. The last action they have on earth is to clear their bladders.
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Did your two young kids inspire you to write a children’s book?
I didn’t think, ‘Ah, I have children now, so I shall give something to them’. They might not be interested – although I’m doing Robot Wars and they are obsessed with that. But children are a good audience for space, because it is so full of wonder.
Would you encourage grandparents to help youngsters discover astronomy?
Yes, you’re getting to introduce them to this deeper, eternal part of life. Take Orion… you can see it from any garden, it does look like a man holding a club and you can tell children, ‘See that star? It’s really close. That star there: it’s really far away, but it’s huge and slightly different colours.’ Orion the warrior was killed by a scorpion – and when Scorpius rises on one side of the sky, Orion drops on the other. Who wouldn’t love a grandparent who told them that?
If you could head for the stars, where would you go?
To see Mars or the sweep of Saturn’s rings would be amazing. Bouncing through them would be amazing. But things get a little cold and blue, once you get further out.
Venus is horrendous. It’s possibly the worst place in the solar system, if not the universe. Showering rain of sulphuric acid, horrible crushing gases, everything melts.
I wouldn’t want to go on one of those $250,000 Virgin Galactic flights to the edge of space. We’ve all bought expensive tickets to a West End show and sat there thinking ‘This is good, but not £125 good.’
You’ve done TV shows with Stephen Hawking, Professor Brian Cox (Stargazing Live) and Marcus du Sautoy (The School of Hard Sums). Who was most impressive?
You’d have to say Stephen Hawking, because of his story and, at 75, he’s skipping far ahead of people with his ideas. But they’re all impressive. In a culture where we tend to favour those who shout the loudest, it’s nice to value people who actually know things.
We’ve had Springwatch and primetime TV programmes about space and maths. What topic should be next?
Probably the body. We know about basic stuff like the lungs and kidneys, but I think it would be great to give people a primer about how everything works – and how it stops working.
You’ve been on several TV adventures, including canoeing down the Zambezi for Comic Relief and driving the Pan-American Highway. What other trips do you particularly hanker after?
I would love to go to Scandinavia. It’s beautiful and quirky. In Norway, for instance, there’s russ, where school students are encouraged to get hammered for a month, while wearing red trousers. Then, after that, they do their exams and go to college, like they’ve got it out of their system. A strange tradition.
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You’re a big fan of computer games, presenting Go 8-Bit on Dave. Why?
There’s an image of a teenager alone in a basement playing Call of Duty for 40 hours, but computer games can be a very communal, imaginative thing. In my house, they’re bundled in with board and card games. There’s one title called Overcooked, which is amazing. My wife, kids and I will be there going ‘OH, NO! You’ve left the sausages on and now they’re on fire.’
How is Brexit from an Irishman’s point of view?
It feels like one of those occasions when the younger and older generations weren’t talking to each other, like younger people turning to them and saying ‘Actually, free movement in 27 other countries will be really useful to me when I’m older’. It emphasises the difference between the Irish and the British. We don’t have the same island mentality. We are bred to travel and if someone tried to reduce our freedom of movement in Europe, we’d be ‘WHOA!’
How much might Ireland be affected by Britain leaving the EU?
There are people in Northern Ireland who were talked down from extreme positions during the peace process – the lack of a hard border with the south made that easier. If one were introduced, what does someone who, say, regularly goes from Derry to Donegal do? People worry how others would react.
Beyond the Sky by Dara Ó Briain is out this month - visit the Saga Bookshop to buy your copy
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