The germ of this post started with a remark by Kristi, who was struck on a recent visit to the UK by the number of people reading on public transport.
The Nature article, an extract from CP Snow’s Science and Government was an entertaining account of how a science-led committee pushed through the development of radar in Britain in the 1930s, a far-sighted planning decision that helped to save the country from invasion in WWII. The committee, chaired by chemist Henry Tizard contained two other eminent scientists, Patrick Blackett and Archibald Hill, both Nobel laureates, for physics and physiology respectively.
I already knew of Blackett’s prominent role in applying scientific principles to Britain’s wartime defence: my lab is located in the Blackett Laboratory, which also houses the Physics department that he used to head. But Hill’s involvement was a revelation.
What caused my wide-eyed double-take was that, just hours before, I had been revising my Protein Science lectures and adjusting the treatment of the Hill equation, a formula that is commonly used to describe the binding of small molecule ligands to cooperating binding sites on proteins. Hill developed the equation back in 1910 while trying to account for the cooperative binding of oxygen to haemoglobin, the iron-containing protein that gives blood its deep red colour. Ninety-nine years later, it is still worth setting in front of biochemistry undergraduates.
Hill’s famous paper
But this brilliant innovation was not what earned Hill the Nobel prize in 1922. Rather it was his insights into the workings of muscle fibres that were rewarded. As with many people of genius, Hill’s interests and capabilities were broad and deep.
It wasn’t just the range of his knowledge that made him truly impressive. As AC Grayling argued in The Guardian last Saturday, knowledge itself is not enough to make a genius. The marks of true intelligence are being “being creative, thoughtful, quick-witted, humorous and perceptive”. I can’t speak for Hill’s sense of humour but the astute recognition of the value of radar belies all the other attributes.
Knowledge, rather than intelligence, is what quiz shows usually demand from their contestants but QI, for those who don’t know it, is very different. Contestants are awarded points for the most interesting and entertaining answers and are penalized for falling into the oft-laid quizzical traps of the show’s host, the inestimable Mr Stephen Fry. Hence the title: QI stands for Quite Interesting, though I sometimes wonder if it is a deliberate inversion of IQ, a more mechanical and perhaps largely meaningless measure of intelligence.
What is so wonderful about QI is not just the witty repartee between the host and the guests, most of them comedians of one stripe or another who invariably chime with Grayling’s definition of intelligent and are adept at making imaginative connections between facts and ideas, often hilariously. But even more impressively, QI celebrates learning, not just on a narrowly-defined topic, but about almost everything, including science. Now in its sixth season QI has touched on subjects as various as the triple point of water, the Parisian sewer system, the number of moons that orbit the Earth (ans ≠ 1), the origin of apples, the architecture of the Parthenon, and what English words rhyme with ‘purple’!
Fry is the only imaginable chair of such a show: actor, comedian, novelist, documentary maker, poetry teacher, tech-geek, blogger and podcaster, he is a true modern polymath and has reached the venerable status of ‘National Treasure’ in the UK. Somehow — miraculously — he has bucked the British distaste for erudition. It is truly delightful to see a mainstream TV show that is at once fantastically funny and deeply curious about the world. Snow, with his enthusiasm for cultural breadth, would surely have loved it. For those of you outside the UK, there are plenty of tasters on YouTube.
On Friday night my enthusiasm for QI cooled momentarily because, having queued outside the studios on London’s south bank for over three quarters of an hour, my wife, sister, brother-in-law and I — along with about a hundred others — were turned away as surplus to requirement for that night’s audience. Needless to say we were none too impressed with the show’s organisers.
But we were determined not to let the evening go to waste and shortly repaired to a restaurant in Southark for some fabulous Turkish cuisine. During the meal my brother-in-law, an erstwhile boom-operator who had worked on Stephen Fry’s best-known film, Wilde, regaled us with the story of shooting a scene during which Fry would have to walk out of shot and stand behind him. On each take Fry whispered in mock-salacious tones a developing commentary on the contours of my brother-in-law’s rear end, reducing him on the third go to such a fit of laughter that he dropped the microphone. As the director exploded with anger Fry graciously stepped forward with his mea culpa.
On the train home that night, I finally finished the article about the radar committee. There just isn’t enough time for reading, so you have to take advantage of every chance you get.