Adam Rutherford Q&A: “What’s bugging me? Tedious opinions formulated to deadline”

The geneticist talks Star Wars, William Tecumseh Sherman, and the world's oldest democracy.

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Adam Rutherford was born in Ipswich in 1975 and studied under Steve Jones at University College London. He hosts BBC Radio 4’s “Inside Science” and recently discussed his time spent seriously ill with coronavirus and pneumonia on radio.

What’s your earliest memory?

Watching the first Star Wars film in the Ipswich Gaumont Theatre, 1979. Smitten.

Who are your heroes?

As a child, David Attenborough or Indiana Jones. Nowadays it’s Charles Darwin, who is a bit of both. 

What book last changed your thinking?

All books should change one’s thinking, otherwise what’s the point? Most recently The Idea of the Brain by Matthew Cobb, and currently General William Tecumseh Sherman’s memoirs.

Which political figures do you look up to?

The founders of Iceland’s parliament, the Althing. In 930 CE, a local baron was tried and found guilty of murder, and exiled to the interior. The people seized his land, got drunk and founded the world’s longest-running parliamentary democracy. 

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

Evolutionary genetics, Aristotle to genomics. Second round: Marvel Comics.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

I should very much like to have been on the Beagle with Darwin, and then, without revealing my mad time-travelling skills, helped him formulate the theory of natural selection in Down House over the 1840s, sneaking in some clues to 20th-century evolutionary biology and genetics.

What TV show could you not live without?

The Wire.

Who would paint your portrait?

There’s Rembrandt, and there’s other artists. But he’s a bit dead, so I’ll have Vic Reeves. 

What’s your theme tune?

“Unchained (The Payback/Untouchable)” by James Brown and 2Pac.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

I’m fond of William Tecumseh Sherman’s declaration of loyalty to Ulysses S Grant: “He stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk; and now, sir, we stand by each other always.” But in contrast to those great generals, another American hero told us: “There’s only one rule that I know of, babies – God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” Have I followed it? I’m working on it. 

What’s currently bugging you?

Tedious, predictable opinions formulated to deadline. “Reasoning will never make a Man correct an ill Opinion, which by Reasoning he never acquired.” Jonathan Swift, 1721. Also, I really need a haircut.

What single thing would make your life better?

The resurrection of Tupac and/or Douglas Adams.

When were you happiest?

Every time I am on a pebbly Suffolk beach with my family, scampi and chips and a pint of Ghost Ship.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

Wicketkeeper in an Ashes-winning team.

Are we all doomed?

On a long enough timeline the survival rate for everyone reaches zero. So fill your life with joy and wonder. 

“How To Argue With a Racist” by Adam Rutherford is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson

This article appears in the 08 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Remaking Britain

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