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It is perhaps worth remembering that most of our great insights and innovations came from independents. The white coated scientist of popular political myth tends to produce papers and contradictory statistics. If you review the Greatsyou will find that they were either unsupported or from outside of the field they revolutionised. In many cases, early school had dismissed them or the establishment had ignored and rejected them.
. . . (Edison) showed what has almost become a sign of genius; after only three months he returned home in tears, reporting that the teacher had described him asaddled. This was in fact no cause for alarm. Leonardo da Vinci, Hans Andersen and Niels Bohr were all singled out in their youth as cases of retarded development; Newton was considered a dunce; the teacher of Sir Humphrey Davy commented,While he was with me I could not discern the faculties by which he was so much distinguished, and Einsteins headmaster was to warn that the boy would never make a success of anything.
(From Edison The Man Who Made The Future by R.W. Clark, published by Macdonald and Janes).
The list is, sadly, endless. Faradays history is probably well known but few realise that Oliver Heaviside preceded Einsteins discoveries and revolutionised telecommunications theory (to the disgust of the Post Office and the British academy fraternity) as well as discovering the eponymous ionospheric layer. The reason for this apparent diversion is to give further insight into B.J. and his determined search for scientific truth. Indeed he will wax lyrical on the character of the innovator, a subject of some of his own publications (Nonscience, Wolfe).
When he made that remarkable discovery of Leeuwenhoeks original specimens, the received wisdom was that the great microscopist, the discoverer of the cell, had fudged or invented his discoveries. It was B.J.s determined, painstaking work which proved conclusively that Leeuwenhoek, the draper, had actually resolved those microscopic structures with his single lens, in his spare time. (Single Lens, B. J. Ford,published by Heinemann).
Lest my own description of the man astounds, I can only say that Scientific American went into raptures reviewing his book, Single Lens. The staid and literate Listener said,Brian J. Ford is an almost perfect presenter, interlocutor and commentator. A model of such things. The often carping New Scientist commented, Brian J. Fords programmes are an example of the best kind. He is a broadcaster of many years standing who believes that scientific research can easily be understood, provided it is not distorted by the media.
How then do I interview an interlocutor? I do not. I precis aparagon. B.J., like many mental giants, likes to walk as he talks. Much of his brilliant conference work must be lost by the stationary microphone because of his habit of striding up and down as he answers questions spontaneously. Each pronouncement is clearly and beautifully articulated, making you feel as though it had all been practised word perfect. It hasnt.
At one conference he was asked a question about dwindling food resources. Instantly, he conjured up an image of a bacteriological broth fermenting in a tank. This could producemore than enough nutrient to feed a population one hundred times larger than that currently on the globe. Giving the dimensions(10 square km. of ten metre high tanks), he then pointed out that the excess heat generated could be a problem unless the tank was located on the polar ice-cap. It would taste like Marmite, madam, he told a delegate. We were all left with the picture of a large pot of Marmite sitting on the North Pole. This knack of conjuring up appropriate images makes me wonder why he is not presenting science on TV. He has already won theBBCs nomination for the Italia Prize and gained their highest ever Audience Reaction Index for a major programme in 1974.
It might be that his coruscating charisma, his sheer brilliance, is a little hard to take for some people. After all, if he shines so brightly, might he not contrast unfavourably with the dull and incompetent mediaocrities? Certainly being in his company is a delight. He gives the impression of having all the time in the world for you alone and never gives the feeling of pretence or talking down. It is almost as though he is making you privy to an exciting journey of exploration and discovery.
A chance breakfast remark I made about my waterproof watch exhibiting a sudden angular switch from transmission to total internal reflection (one tiny turn of my wrist underwater and the watch face was replaced by a silvery disc) lead to an instant explanation, followed by an unexpected letter giving clear and extensive detail.
If hes so smart, why aint he rich? In his own way he is. He lives his way and does what he likes to do. He doesnt own a car because he doesnt like driving them. He travels extensively and uses whatever is available and appropriate. He doesnt have a television, presumably the point is to be on it rather than watch it. He enjoys good food, good wine, good company and his family.
He is quite capable of chairing Question Time and would easily succeed the delightful Sir Robin Day. It is hard to think of him as having a speciality when he ranges so effortlessly from subject to subject. That effortlessness is the same as SebastianCoes easy grace. We all know that years of gruelling hard work and training have produced the champion and yet they make it all look so simple.
Lets ask him a simple question: Which way round does a hen lay its egg sharp end first?
Not necessarily. The egg is usually laid sharp end first because of the natural tendency for any such object to come out that way: but on, say, one-third of occasions the egg is laid with the blunt end leading. Eggs are amazingly constructed, more so when you realise that an unfertilized birds egg is nothing more than a single cell, the largest kind of animal cell known. Once you have taken off the shell, you have a gigantic single cell which is much like many of the other cells of which we are made, but a few billion times more bulky. The yolk is the food storage centre, which in one form or another many cells have, and the translucent white of the egg is protoplasm. This is the basic ingredient of all living cells. Most people find it hard to imagine exactly what a single living cell is like, but a hens egg is an excellent example and should give you some sense of wonder for the way in which a vast community of glutinous globs, working together, manifest themselves as a person who can pick up a book and read it.
Right in the midst of the home computer boom B.J. predictedthe crash. People will soon tire of games on screens. Looking the average home within the next few years and youll find the home computer tucked away in the attic, gatheringdust. He predicted the schoolchildrens head-louse blight before it bit, so to speak. He also blew the whistle on asbestos hazards.
Is he a radical? In the proper sense, yes. He does go right to the root of questions and is one of the few who can step easily from etymology to entomology and back without a bat of the eyelid or twist of the tongue. Is he an eco-nut? No, he knows what he is talking about and is unlikely to make extreme statements about the dangers of decimating (eliminating one in ten) dandelions. He is down to earth about global pollution, pointing out a few home truths about trees on the way. Trees do not contribute any more oxygen to the environment than they consume one way or another a tree will eventually oxidise. Oxygen comes to us from microscopic organisms called algae. Theres a case to be made for termites producing more carbon dioxide than all of our industries.
Sometimes it is a salutary exercise to reflect on the fact that natural substances, from carbon dioxide to organic waste, have been around a lot longer than has Homo sapiens, and nature is an old hand at dealing with them. Is that a recipe for unbridled pollution? Of course not: if we damage our own planet we are acting in a manner that lies somewhere on the scale between thoughtless and devastating. But on the other hand, it is as well to keep a sense of proportion in these matters.
That sense of proportion will find him praising the benefits of chocolate, cautioning you on calorics and warning on wild watercress. Whats the safest way to see if youre over-weight?
One, stand in front of a mirror. Two, divest yourself of all clothing. Three, spring up and down a few times and watch which parts wobble. Some are intended to, and we all know which they are. The rest shouldnt. If they do, you are fat. If it takes some time for your whole body to come to rest then you are very fat indeed. And if you find it difficult to get onto your tip-toes in the first place, then you must be ruddy enormous . ..
His humour helps his sense of proportion. An inveterate punner, he loves to pepper his serious statements with witticisms. I have kept a punning duologue going with him longer than anyone most people retire groaning after a few exchanges, B.J. must have nerves of steel.
Blood must out, or in his case steam, since he is a descendant of Sir James Watt. After building his first micrographic camera at the age of fifteen, Brian wrote an article for a local publication; by the age of twenty he was a regular columnist. His list of fellowships and memberships make Mensa look somewhat wan in their company. He has written for us, chaired meetings and has been our guest speaker but he remains a little cautious of the nutters who crawl out of the woodwork from time to time.
His enormous energy and considerable output must be due to the fact that he loves what he is doing. He is relaxed, urbane and smiling. You might expect a tense driven sour soul; you would be wrong. As he says in his 101 More Questions About Science (Hamish Hamilton), You may feel after some of this, that science isnt as remote as it sometimes seems. I hope so: it isnt.
It seems that B.J. has discovered that long held dream of thinking mankind limitless human energy. Here is the key:So in each of these apparently unrelated phenomena, the same scientific mechanism is at work. For me this pooling of concepts from a range of fields, and linking them through a common causal mechanism, is one of the greatest challenges in my work, and one of the most satisfying of intellectual occupations. The ultra-specialisation of much modern training might seem to clash with the linking together of different disciplines but then, ultra-specialisation has little to do with science. Science is has to be! fun. And that is what finding answers to questions is really all about.
Brian J. Ford has published many books, among them101 Questions About Science, Patterns ofSex , Cult of the Expert and Compute Do I Have To?. Members can obtain a complete bibliography by writing to the Executive Editor.