YOUNG Brian Ford must have been the teachers' pest when he was at the King's School in Peterborough. He was always asking awkward questions. Told that thistles had prickles as a defence against being eaten, he asked why prickle-less grass hadn't been eaten to extinction: "I always thought of things in a different way from my classmates," he said.
That kind of mental process brought its reward. Today, he is a chartered research biologist with a string of achievements, titles and posts: traveller, author, lecturer, university fellow, TV pundit, member of this, chairman of that, newspaper journalist, award winner, rhythm and blues pianist, former keyboard player with a rock band, and radio man. Jimmy Young ("quick thinker, very talented") and John Dunn regularly have him on their shows to simplify the complicated for people like me.
It's difficult to know where to begin. How do you zoom in on the mind of a man whose two most exciting moments are as far apart as discovering microscope specimens prepared in 1674, and meeting rock and roll king Little Richard?
His width of knowledge is shown by his son and daughter both using textbooks written by their father, although he is studying catering at Peterborough Regional College and she is reading human anatomy at Manchester University.
I was a bit nervous of going to Brian's home in Eastrea to talk to a man with a whole page in the 1993 edition of the International Who's Who of Intellectuals. But he sized me up professionally and gave me a tailor-made talk to suit the audience. That is simple for a man whose latest book, First Encyclopedia of Science, out next week, is aimed at pre-teenagers.
"My little eyes twinkle if someone says they have a problem they can't solve. I adore problems," he said. Then he launched into the tale of how he got the cork out of the bottom of an empty bottle without damaging either. If he made it up to illustrate a point it didn't matter. Splendid timing from the bow-tied academic showed why he has been on so many TV shows. There is a touch of showman about Brian J Ford.
From corks and bottles to head louse infestation, sex and health, plant physiology, haemostatic mechanisms, science education, Brian ploughs a broad patch. Proudly, too. "Two hundred years ago I'd have been regarded as a natural philosopher," he said. "I've always thought that science should draw disciplines together, but it's become too specialised."
Brian has achieved what he has with O and A-levels from the King's School and little else. He never completed his degree course at Cardiff University (although he is a Fellow and Member of the Court of Governors) because he thought he was wasting his time. But even in his teens he was well-known, especially in the world of microscopes which became his speciality.
Brian kept dropping out enough remarks to keep a chat show going for hours: "The level of knowledge is very low trivia games are so popular because people long to soak up knowledge;" "The most important factor in health is stress, and health campaigns can certainly cause stress;" "Massive problems have had so little attention." Like what? I asked. "Almost no work has been done on love and emotions," said the author of Patterns of Sex: The Mating Urge and Our Sexual Future. "The point of being alive is to advance society. If everyone does that, society will boogie along like mad."