When people ask who were my influences, I find it difficult to give a straight answer. I cannot name a childhood hero in whose footsteps I wanted to follow, neither was there someone whose guidance or mentoring I’d particularly like to single out. I do have a number of scientific heroes now, people of whom I became aware as I learned more about the world, but they were mostly post-hoc, as it were.
We could however point to my English teacher when I was barely 12, who told my parents I should go to Oxford. We might mention Sir Fred Hoyle, who collaborated with Chandra Wickramasinghe on the concept of panspermia. I remember avidly reading a present from my parents, Diseases from Space, which more than anything else I can think of inspired my interest in science. I had the honour of working with Wickramasinghe on a special edition of The Biochemist magazine; unfortunately, although he wrote for us, I never got to meet Hoyle himself.
Someone else who left a huge impression on me was Lady Margaret Florey, who I met just the once, but whose reputation and life were very much an inspiration. Margaret Jennings, as she was then, conducted the animal tests of penicillin at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology in Oxford in the early 1940s. Other influences would have to include Sir Cumference, aka Neddy Seagoon, aka Sir Harry Secombe, who died just a few months before Hoyle. I was very fortunate to see him in ‘Pickwick’ at the New Theatre in Oxford, where he cracked up the cast and made me cry with laughter.
And I should also mention Sir Patrick Moore, who died at the weekend. Somewhere I still have at least one of his astronomy books for children, to go with my memories of Sky at Night. I was over the moon (to coin a phrase…) that he lent his support to our original Science is Vital campaign.
What do these people have in common?
On Sunday, an hour or two after I learned of Sir Patrick’s death, I poked around on Twitter for a little bit. It wasn’t long before, in between the tributes and expressions of sadness, that I found the tweet I’d been dreading. You know, the one along the lines of “That right-wing bigot?”. As if we didn’t know his views. As if they lessened his brilliance. As if that somehow negated the positive influence and inspiration he had been.
As if it mattered.
The thing is, we all have something wrong with us. There is, in each and every one of us, something that other people will find distasteful, perhaps even obscene. We all have faults; none of us is perfect in every way. “We all,” as Isaiah writes, “like sheep, have gone astray”.
But should that detract from the good and the beautiful things we human beings can do? Does it not rather make the good even more marvellous? That in our fallen and broken humanity we can create great works of art, make heartbreakingly beautiful music, put people on the moon and probe the secrets of life and the fabric of the universe (and, sometimes, even explain what we’re doing) makes those achievements more than wonderful. What’s more, it means nobody is excluded from brilliance, from aspiration, just because they can be a bit of a prick sometimes.
We are in a strange position, we humans. We have this amazing brain, and abstract concepts such as love, justice, selflessness, mercy and compassion; we have dreams and fears and hopes and hates—yet we are fundamentally broken. Terry Pratchett has it nailed when he talks about the “place where the falling angel meets the rising ape”.
So as one ape to another: thank you for everything, Sir Patrick; and everyone else, too.