Frontiersmen: the 1962 US Mercury crew
Show Hide image

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

Show Hide image

The Fall is back - and once again making me weary

Five more episodes to go, after which its “feminist” writer (his word, not mine), Allan Cubitt, should pull the plug on it at last. Plus: Damned.

It is with much weariness that I return to The Fall (Thursdays, 9pm), the creepy drama that still doesn’t know whether it wants to be a horror-fest or a love story. I’ve written in the past about what I regard as its basic misogyny – to sum up, it seems to me to make a fetish of the violence committed against women, a preoccupation it pathetically tries to disguise by dint of its main character being a female detective – and I don’t propose to return to that theme now. However, in its early days, it was at least moderately gripping. Now, though, it appears to be recovering from some kind of nervous breakdown. If in series two the plot was wobbling all over the place, series three has misplaced the idea of drama altogether. Nothing is happening. At all.

To recap: at the end of the last series, Paul Spector, aka the Belfast Strangler (Jamie Dornan), had been shot while in police custody, somewhat improbably by a man who blames him for the demise of his marriage (oh, that Spector were only responsible for breaking up a few relationships). On the plus side for his supposed nemesis, DSI Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson), before he fell he led them to Rose Stagg, the ex-girlfriend he’d locked in the boot of a car some days previously, and she is going to live. On the minus side, Spector’s injuries are so bad, it’s touch and go whether he’ll survive, and so Gibson may never see him brought to justice. Of course, the word “justice” is something of a red herring here.

The real reason she wants Spector to live is more dubious. As she stared at his body in the ICU, all tubes and monitors, her expression was so obviously sexual – her mouth opened, and stayed that way, as her eyes ran over every part of his body – that I half expected her to reach out and stroke him. Just in time for this nocturnal visit, she’d slipped into another of her slinky silk blouses that look like poured cream. (Moments earlier – think Jackie Kennedy in 1963 – she’d still been covered in her love object’s blood.)

The entire episode took place at the hospital, police procedural having morphed suddenly into Bodies or Cardiac Arrest. Except, this was so much more boring and cliché-bound than those excellent series – and so badly in need of their verisimilitude. When I watch The Fall, I’m all questions. Why doesn’t Stella ever tie her hair back? And why does she always wear high heels, even when trying to apprehend criminals? For how much longer will the presumably cash-strapped Police Service of Northern Ireland allow her to live in a posh hotel? Above all, I find myself thinking: why has this series been so acclaimed? First it was nasty, and then it was only bad. Five more episodes to go, after which its “feminist” writer (his word, not mine), Allan Cubitt, should join Gibson in the ICU, where together they can ceremonially pull the plug on it at last.

Can Jo Brand do for social workers in her new comedy, Damned, what she did a few years ago for geriatric nurses in the brilliant Getting On? I expect she probably can, even though this Channel 4 series (Tuesdays, 10pm), co-written with Morwenna Banks and Will Smith, does have an awfully inky heart. Hungry children, drug-addict parents, a man who can go nowhere without his oxygen tank: all three were present and correct when Rose (Brand) went to visit a client who turned out to be a woman who, long ago, had nicked her (Rose’s) boyfriend. Ha ha? Boohoo, more like.

Damned is basically The Office with added family dysfunction. Al (Alan Davies) is a hen-pecked wimp, Nitin (Himesh Patel) is a snitch, and Nat (Isy Suttie) is the stupidest and most annoying temp in the Western world. This lot have two bosses: Martin (Kevin Eldon), a kindly widower, and Denise (Georgie Glen), the cost-cutting line manager from hell. And Rose has a plonker of an ex-husband, Lee (Nick Hancock). “I’ve been invited to the Cotswolds for the weekend,” he told her, trying to wriggle out of looking after the children. “Is that why you look like a knob?” she replied.

Jerky camerawork, naturalistic acting, a certain daring when it comes to jokes about, say, race: these things are pretty familiar by now, but I like it all the same.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories