Explorers … or nosy parkers

The planetary scientist Collin Pillinger has died aged 70 following a brain haemorrhage. In a piece for the NS in February, he argued that it’s our thirst for discovery that makes us human.

Frontiersmen: the 1962 US Mercury crew

What makes us human? In my case, “us” means scientists. Scientists, like all human beings, are curious: but we are real nosy parkers. And like the lady in the corner house on the street where I was a kid, who hid behind her aspidistra to watch the comings and goings of everyone in the neighbourhood, we like to tell people what we’ve found out.

But what made me a scientist? I can’t claim it was school. I only went there because there were other boys to play football with. I planned to leave as soon as I could. I ended up at university because the maths teacher called my parents in and persuaded them I should become a sixth-former. My mother would have been easily convinced – when she passed an exam to go to a grammar school during the First World War, her Dickensian stepmother threw the offer letter on the fire, and my mother worked in a factory making boots for soldiers.

I didn’t enjoy being an undergraduate much better than school. Again, I was hoping to pack it in … then I discovered research – the chance to find out things that nobody else knew. And you were expected to tell people about your discoveries by writing them up and publishing the results.

The first paper I submitted was an instant success. I had more than a hundred letters asking for a copy. I had devised a set of rules to allow other scientists to understand the spectra they measured for unknown organic chemical compounds that they had extracted from plants and things.

It was the method used to make new drugs – but, as I was about to find out, it was also a way to determine when life began on earth. When applied to certain ancient rocks, the instrument I was expert with, a mass spectrometer, can search for “chemical fossils”. You can’t see chemical fossils; they are compounds made of carbon. Mass specs detect them, and by measuring the abundance of different forms of the element (isotopes), you can demonstrate that biology was involved in creating these molecules billions of years ago.

My next lucky break was that, in 1969, Nasa needed people like me to see if there had ever been life on the moon. My first job after getting a PhD was to analyse the lunar samples collected during the Apollo missions looking for evidence of extraterrestrial life. I say lucky, because somebody else had turned the job down, saying he couldn’t see a long-term future in the space programme.

Me, I would have done it for nothing; instead, I was being paid to answer a question everyone was interested in: “Are we alone in the universe?” And believe me, I soon found out that everyone wanted to know. If I went into the local pub with my father, who was out-and-out working class, I was bombarded with questions from his mates wanting to know about what I was doing.

When years afterwards I was trying to raise funds for Beagle 2 to land on Mars in order to prove that I and my colleagues had discovered Martian life by studying meteorites that had fallen to earth from the Red Planet, I knew I had “the man in the street” on my side. While I was involved with Beagle 2, I never met a taxi driver who didn’t want to spread the message about what Britain was doing to the next person he had in his cab.

I don’t know who said “the only thing that increases in value if you share it is knowledge”, but if no one else claims it, I will. The grants we get for our work these days require us to communicate what we find out to the public. Many scientists do it to audiences that already have some knowledge. I prefer talking to people who would never have believed they had any interest in science: preaching to the unconverted.

This brings me back to where I came from – Kingswood, a place where, 200 years ago, I would have been crawling underground as a child dragging a truck overloaded with coal. I would probably have ended my days, if I’d survived, in “the workhouse”. The man who changed all that was the local evangelist George Whitefield. He seemed stuck with life as a missionary, until a friend suggested there was no need to travel to far-off countries by asking him: “Are there not savages enough for you in Kingswood?”

I guess I must have picked up something in the Kingswood schoolroom that bears Whitefield’s name, where he provided free teaching for the poor miners’ children. Now, by talking to ordinary people about the excitement of space exploration, I hope to make a few converts. And any typically nosy human being can become a scientist and share the fun I’ve had.

The “What Makes Us Human?” series is published in association with Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine show

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