Frontiersmen: the 1962 US Mercury crew
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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.

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

This article first appeared in the 19 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Space Issue

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Putting the “savage” back in Sauvignon Blanc

This grape is so easily recognised that it might as well wear a name tag, but many varieties are brasher and bolder than you'd expect.

I was once the life’s companion of a man who was incapable of remembering names. This should have bothered him but he’d grown used to it, while I never could. At gatherings, I would launch myself at strangers, piercing the chatter with monikers to pre-empt his failure to introduce me. I was fairly sure that it was the other person’s name he couldn’t remember but I couldn’t discount the possibility that he had forgotten mine, too.

In wine, the equivalent of my bellowing is Sauvignon Blanc. This grape is so easily recognised that it might as well wear a name tag: it tastes of grass, gooseberry, asparagus and, occasionally, cats’ pee. The popularity of its New Zealand incarnation is probably partly a result of that cosy familiarity – which is ironic, given that “Sauvignon”, harking back to its evolution from wild grapes in France, comes from the French for “savage”. Never mind: evolved it has. “Wine is the most civilised thing we have in this world,” wrote the 16th-century author Rabelais, and he was born in the Touraine, where the gently citrusy Sauvignon makes an excellent aperitif, so he should know.

New World Sauvignons are often brasher and bolshier. It is likely that Rabelais’s two best-known heroes – Gargantua, who is born yelling, “Drink! Drink! Drink!” and whose name means “What a big gullet you have”, and Pantagruel, or “thirsting for everything” – would have preferred them to the Touraines. They work well with spice and aromatics, as Asian-fusion chefs have noticed, while the most elegant Loire Sauvignons, Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé, make fine matches for grilled white fish or guacamole – in fact, almost anything enhanced by lemon. In Bordeaux, where whites principally blend Sauvignon and Sémillon, the excellent Dourthe is entirely the former; 9,000 miles away in Western Australia, Larry Cherubino makes a rounded Sauvignon in a similar style.

Many variations but one distinctive flavour profile – so I thought I was safe asking my best friend, an unrepentant wine ignoramus, whether she liked Sauvignon. Her shrug spurred an impromptu tasting: Guy Allion’s quaffable Le Haut Perron Thésée 2014, from Rabelais’s Touraine; a Henri Bourgeois Pouilly-Fumé Jeunes Vignes; and Greywacke Wild Sauvignon from Kevin Judd. Judd, who was largely responsible for making New Zealand whites famous when he worked for Cloudy Bay, is now putting the savage back in Sauvignon using naturally occurring (“wild”) yeasts that make the wine rich and slightly smoky but are not, by his own admission, terribly easy to control. This was the most expensive wine (£28, although the Wine Society sells it for £21.50) and my friend loved it.

She had expected to prefer the French wines, on the slightly dubious basis that she is Old World: of Anglo-Danish stock, with a passion for Italy. Yet only familiarity will tell you what you like. This is why bars with long lists of wines by the glass provide the best introduction. A favourite of mine is Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels, a Covent Garden joint run by two women, the sommelier Julia Oudill and the chef Ilaria Zamperlin. If the menu – scallops with Worcestershire sauce, croque-madame with truffled ham and quail egg – is delicious, the wine list is fabulous, with at least ten whites and ten reds at 125ml, with prices ascending into the stratosphere but starting at £6.

There are usually a couple of French Sauvignons, although many bottles still don’t name the grapes and the winemaker Didier Dagueneau (the “wild man of Pouilly”), whose wines feature here, preferred the old Sauvignon name Blanc Fumé. Thank goodness Sauvignon, despite its reputed savagery, has the manners to introduce itself so promptly: one sip, and you can move on to the congenial task of getting to know one another.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war