Robert Winston: "Would you rather live in 1913 or 2013?"

The Imperial College Professor of Science and Society takes the NS Centenary Questionnaire.

What is the most important invention of the past 100 years?

It’s a very arguable point. Possibly the microchip, because it has facilitated so much of what we do in modern society, and what we will do in the future as it becomes more and more miniaturised at the nano level. But I think you could say that the close runner-up would be the laser. It is one of the most ubiquitous pieces of technology. First posited by Albert Einstein in 1905 in his special theory of relativity, it wasn’t actually made until 50 years later. It can be used for nuclear fusion, for microscopes, for recording, for surgery.

What is the most important scientific discovery of the past 100 years?

Maybe the discovery of subatomic particles, because although we knew a bit about electrons, the organisation of the atom has been a phenomenal discovery in terms of our understanding of the universe.

What is the most important sporting event of the past 100 years?

I think the Olympic men’s 1,500 metres, because that gives a very good yardstick of how human performance has improved. In 1900, the world record was about three minutes and 56 seconds. By the 1970s it had fallen to around three minutes 30 seconds. It’s now down to three minutes 26 seconds. It’s actually improved about 8.6 per cent in that time. So that gives you an idea.

We have probably peaked at three minutes 26 seconds, so unless we genetically modify humans, or give them drugs, it won’t improve much more.

Who is the most influential politician in the past 100 years?

Denis Healey. I think that it was one of the great tragedies of British politics that he never became prime minister.

He was widely educated, with a very powerful intellectual background and an extraordinary sense of humour, and great fun to be with.

And philanthropist?

Leonard Wolfson. He was a remarkable philanthropist who did amazing things for the medical and the arts community in Britain and overseas. He was an extraordinary man, although very difficult to deal with.

I am deeply grateful to him; he was very supportive of some of the things I find very important.

What is your favourite quotation and why?

I quite like Gerald Kaufman’s comment, which was also quoted by Denis Healey. It’s “the longest suicide note in history” – referring to the 1983 Labour Party manifesto, which wanted to renationalise a whole lot of industries, and all sorts of things that were completely insane.

What is your favourite speech?

Robin Cook’s resignation speech at the time of the Iraq war. He demolished the front bench of the Conservative Party and it was one of the funniest and most abrasive speeches. Cook at his masterful best.

What is the most significant change to our lives you envisage over the next 100 years?

I think that’s a really stupid question. It is quite impossible for us to envisage what is going to happen to us over the next five years, let alone the next 100 years. We live in an uncertain world. I don’t think that we should try to make predictions. It’s only when uncertainty becomes certainty that it becomes dangerous. Both religion and science are at their most dangerous when they are certain.

So then, what is your greatest concern about the future?

I’m an optimist. I think that human affairs are becoming steadily better. Would you rather live in 1913 or 2013?

Of course I have concerns. But I think that people are becoming more concerned for other people, and we are valuing our children more than ever before. There are all sorts of signs that human society is improving.

In your own field, what will be the most dramatic development?

I have no idea! I don’t think you can predict any developments in my line of work.

Science is never clear where it is going to go, but this is what I find interesting.

What is the most important priority for the future wellbeing of people and our planet?

The education of young people, especially primary school children and below. Having a better, broader education for people before the age of nine is important, because by the age of nine and ten, children start to lose that wide-eyed innocence.

We corrupt their view of the world and stultify their innovation and imagination. What we need to do is to start maintaining that inquisitiveness and inventiveness of children. They are the young scientists.


The New Statesman centenary questionnaire (Illustration: Ellie Foreman-Peck)

This article first appeared in the 30 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Should you bother to vote?

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For the first time in my life I have a sworn enemy – and I don’t even know her name

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

Last month, I made an enemy. I do not say this lightly, and I certainly don’t say it with pride, as a more aggressive male might. Throughout my life I have avoided confrontation with a scrupulousness that an unkind observer would call out-and-out cowardice. A waiter could bring the wrong order, cold and crawling with maggots, and in response to “How is everything?” I’d still manage a grin and a “lovely, thanks”.

On the Underground, I’m so wary of being a bad citizen that I often give up my seat to people who aren’t pregnant, aren’t significantly older than me, and in some cases are far better equipped to stand than I am. If there’s one thing I am not, it’s any sort of provocateur. And yet now this: a feud.

And I don’t even know my enemy’s name.

She was on a bike when I accidentally entered her life. I was pushing a buggy and I wandered – rashly, in her view – into her path. There’s little doubt that I was to blame: walking on the road while in charge of a minor is not something encouraged by the Highway Code. In my defence, it was a quiet, suburban street; the cyclist was the only vehicle of any kind; and I was half a street’s length away from physically colliding with her. It was the misjudgment of a sleep-deprived parent rather than an act of malice.

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

I was stung by what someone on The Apprentice might refer to as her negative feedback, and walked on with a redoubled sense of the parental inadequacy that is my default state even at the best of times.

A sad little incident, but a one-off, you would think. Only a week later, though, I was walking in a different part of town, this time without the toddler and engrossed in my phone. Again, I accept my culpability in crossing the road without paying due attention; again, I have to point out that it was only a “close shave” in the sense that meteorites are sometimes reported to have “narrowly missed crashing into the Earth” by 50,000 miles. It might have merited, at worst, a reproving ting of the bell. Instead came a familiar voice. “IT’S YOU AGAIN!” she yelled, wrathfully.

This time the shock brought a retort out of me, probably the harshest thing I have ever shouted at a stranger: “WHY ARE YOU SO UNPLEASANT?”

None of this is X-rated stuff, but it adds up to what I can only call a vendetta – something I never expected to pick up on the way to Waitrose. So I am writing this, as much as anything, in the spirit of rapprochement. I really believe that our third meeting, whenever it comes, can be a much happier affair. People can change. Who knows: maybe I’ll even be walking on the pavement

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood