I have two reasons for choosing The Curious Cases of Rutherford and Fry to review this week. The first is that the news feels particularly bleak as the days grow darker and the prospect of spiralling energy prices and an NHS winter crisis looms, and we all need a little intellectual escapism. The geneticist Adam Rutherford and the mathematician Hannah Fry investigate everyday scientific mysteries in expert yet accessible detail that allows the over-anxious brain to switch off while still learning something. The second is that I have been accused of pro-cat bias for previous New Statesman articles, and balance is important in journalism. So this review is all about dogs.
The first episode of the new Curious Cases series begins with Hannah cooing at some puppies playing in a paddling pool. The duo want to find out how guide dogs know where they’re going, and start at the beginning. Humans have been using dogs to help us hunt for 10,000 years, Adam tells us, but how did the transition from wolves to dogs happen? “Wasn’t it just that one day there was a particularly nice wolf who was a bit less bitey than the other wolves, and then that nice wolf had nice baby wolves?” asks Hannah. This is the kind of content for which I pay my BBC licence fee.
Hannah visits a guide dog training centre. There’s an obstacle course where Very Good Dog Wilmott has to work out whether spaces are wide enough for his handler to walk through, and a terrifying exercise where Also Very Good Dog Wendy helps a blindfolded Hannah cross the road. We learn that, while dogs see mostly in black and white, thanks to advances in display technology they can now watch television. “My dog enjoys Wimbledon,” one trainer tells us.
By the end, I know far more about the unique relationship between guide dog and owner. I also feel more relaxed than I have all week. Adam compares dogs to the dæmon companions in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, calling them “an extension and a reflection of your own internal state”. It’s enough for me to acknowledge they might be almost as good as cats.
The Curious Cases of Rutherford and Fry
BBC Radio 4,
Aired 7 October,
4pm; now on catch-up
This article appears in the 06 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Unsafe Places