Oddly Connect

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.

I was reading a piece from this week’s Nature as I rode the underground last Friday night on my way to a recording of the TV show QI, and the name Archibald Vivien Hill suddenly leapt off the page.

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.

Mr Fry in his element

The venerable Mr Fry (from the BBC)

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.

This entry was posted in Fun, History of Science, Science & Media, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to Oddly Connect

  1. Eva Amsen says:

    I can only watch QI through not entirely legal channels. I’ve even been on the forums and suggested some things once (during thesis avoidance time). I want to be a QI Elf! (It’s probably in my top 5 of ideal jobs.)
    And my very,very favouritest part of any QI episode is this:
    I have watched this so many times…

  2. Sara Fletcher says:

    I miss London for reading on my daily commute. On the train rather than the tube but I loved it. Perhaps the only thing I miss about living in London!

  3. Stephen Curry says:

    Eva – let your jealousy be tempered by the fact that we didn’t get in to see the show, though we still have the advantage of being able to see QI on the box when it comes out. I won’t mention your illegal activities to anyone! Loved the clip – what a wonderful chemist!
    Sara – no time for reading on the flying trapeze?

  4. Martin Fenner says:

    Steven, thanks a lot for telling me about QI! I have to find (legal) ways to watch it, but I definitely want to see more of it.

  5. Kristi Vogel says:

    Somehow — miraculously — he has bucked the British distaste for erudition
    [Channels Crocodile Dundee]
    That’s not a distaste for erudition!
    [Pulls out American version]
    THIS is a distaste for erudition!
    I saw one episode of QI when I was in England, and I thought it was brilliant. Nothing like it on US television. Hopefully it will show up on BBC America in a year or so … perhaps as a replacement for the vile Mistresses. Please?

  6. Heather Etchevers says:

    I’ve also been jealous of you English having QI after reading about it on Mr. Fry’s (now fairly quiet) blog.
    As for “though I sometimes wonder if it is a deliberate inversion of IQ, a more mechanical and perhaps largely meaningless measure of intelligence” I am sure you are right. To any French speaker (which is not much of the audience, admittedly) that is exactly what it means.
    It’s quite lovely to have the possibility to attend nationally broadcast, interesting shows when living in a [cultural] capital. One of my major regrets last week for not living in Paris was missing the opportunity to attend a free concert by Lila Downs next week that was advertised on the unequalled FIP) – recently re-broadcast in Toulouse, thank goodness for small favors.

  7. steffi suhr says:

    Oh wonderful, Stephen – another obsession, just what I needed… 😉

  8. Richard P. Grant says:

    bq. I’ve also been jealous of you English

  9. Stephen Curry says:

    Glad to hear news of QI has tickled the interest of so many – hope you can all find routes to enjoy it!
    Richard – I’m not going to go there, unless you are simply implying easy access to BBC output. Interestingly, Fry, who seems the very model of an English gentleman, has very broad roots!

  10. Richard P. Grant says:

    The English are a bastard race. We take the best of everywhere else and make it our own.

  11. Mike Fowler says:

    I’ve read a couple of the QI books, which were enormously good fun, and a reliable source of good birthday present for big brothers everywhere (the siblings, not the vile Dutch inspired excuse for the basest of voyeurism, nor the 1984 type). But, it ain’t appeared on Finnish tv yet – my afternoon will now be ruined hunting for snippets on tooyoub.
    Especially the one which immediately follows Eva’s tantalising clip (stop sniggering at the back, please).

    Anyway, which religion…

    Got it right? Cuts out the middle man and hits babies with hammers? Invented the cigarette?

  12. Stephen Curry says:

    @Kristi – my brain is in slo-mo this morning. Very much enjoyed your Crocodile Dundee scenario!
    @Stefi – this is one obsession worth committing to…
    @Heather – yes, his blog is a bit quiet and the same goes for the podcasts but they are always worth listening to. I especially enjoyed the ones on wallpaper and language. Plus, if you are into Twitter, I believe he is an enthusiast…
    @Richard – can’t believe you walked into that one, you bastard! ;-p
    @Mike – given the accumulation of comments to that effect accumulating from far flung Europeans like yourself, I’m astonished the BBC hasn’t sold this more widely. But I guess it’s un-dubbable and subtitles just wouldn’t do the show justice. And it can get a bit ribald at times…

  13. Mike Fowler says:

    Indubitably undubbable. Don’t think I’d have managed to say that late on Friday night without spraying my babycham o’er one and all.

  14. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Thanks for the lovely post, Stephen. I like QI – and never doubted it was an inversion of IQ. Surely that was intentional? My only very minor quibble is, like most British quiz shows, hardly any women ever appear on it – aside from Jo Brand.

  15. Stephen Curry says:

    @Jenny – never doubted it was an inversion of IQ
    You’re clearly much smarter than me – I only wondered about it this weekend!
    Perhaps you should be on the show to make up for the lack of female guests. I recall seeing Doon McKichan (what a great name!) and, in her day, Linda Smith but few others spring to mind. A quick search revealed that this topic has already been raised on the QI blog.

  16. Eva Amsen says:

    I’ve watched it on TV in Holland, but on the regular BBC. I don’t know which other countries receive BBC. I’d imagine it reaches Belgium as well, at the very least.

  17. Stephen Curry says:

    Thanks for that Eva – I guess Martin or Steffi can tell us if the signal reaches as far as Hamburg, though I’m guessing not.

  18. Eric Michael Johnson says:

    Yes, Eva and I enjoy the bounty of QI pirates on the open seas of the interweb. I can’t really be blamed. The American equivalent of an intelligent television program got cancelled after Who Wants to Marry a Midget took its slot on the evening schedule. I disconnected my television signal several years ago and haven’t looked back.

  19. Clare Dudman says:

    We always watch QI – but don’t think I’ve truly appreciated it now I’ve read your post. But yes – it is all those things – and a great way of learning things on the sly. How irritating you couldn’t get in! They should have the same system museums and art galleries have for popular shows – ‘at this point you will have to wait three hours’ or ‘at this point you have a 0.5% chance of getting in.’ Thought that anecdote about your brother-in-law hilarious too!

  20. Stephen Curry says:

    The American equivalent of an intelligent television program got cancelled after Who Wants to Marry a Midget
    My sincerest, deepest commiserations Eric…
    You’re right Clare, it would have been relatively easy for them to send someone out to count the queue before they even opened the doors. That would at least have saved us having to wait around for 45 mins or more. Oh, well.

  21. Austin Elliott says:

    Just ran across this post. Talking of AV Hill, Stephen, he was also a key part of the Academic Assistance Council that helped Jewish and other persecuted academics flee the Nazis in the 1930s.
    Don’t know if you have heard the story, but Hill had an extended argument with the physicist-Nobelist-turned Nazi science-gauleiter Johannes Stark in the pages of Nature in the early 30s. The correspondence ended with Hill famously commenting that, since his last letter, he had received many donations to help the AAC’s cause – but he felt he could not really take the credit, as the donors’ generosity surely owed more to Stark’s (racist-ideological) arguments. Hill’s most famous sidekick of latter years, Bernard Katz, was himself a Jewish refugee from the Nazis and sought Hill out partly because of the correspondence (you can read more of this here).
    Anyway, Katz always used to quote a saying of Hill’s that I find rather apposite when thinking of chiropractors (and possibly of Libel Laws and Judges), which is:
    “Laughter is the best detergent of nonsense”

  22. Stephen Curry says:

    Thanks Austin – I didn’t know any of that. Hill as a person was new to me, even though I was familiar with his equation. This just makes him all the more impressive. And reminds me why I love history so much – it really makes science come alive.
    And Katz’s remark – right on!

  23. Frank Norman says:

    I’ve seen the name of AV Hill quite a bit when researching history of past NIMR staff; he does seem to have been a central figure in the scientific establishment of his day. His daughter was married to John Humphrey, one of our early immunologists.
    Some more biog details here .

  24. Maxine Clarke says:

    A V Hill’s influence was very active in the muscle crossbridge field when I worked in it, in the 1970s and 1980s. Some people had collaborated with him and others were working to test his equations.

  25. Austin Elliott says:

    AV Hill got his Nobel very young, in 1923 when he was barely 37 years old, which is part of why he was such a tremendous presence on the British physiological (and general scientific) scene for at least four decades after that.
    I second what Maxine says about Hill’s influence being felt very directly into the modern era – my father, who worked in muscle physiology in London from the mid 50s on, remembers Hill as a key personality at meetings through the late 50s and well into the 60s, and Hill only stopped doing experiments when he was pushing 80. As a graduate student at UCL in the mid 80s I knew at least two Professors in the Department who had been postgraduate students of Hill’s. I remember one Departmental elder telling me how Hill’s labs, which had been on the very top “AA” floor of the UCL Gower St building, had had to have large umbrellas over all the equipment so that the leaks in the roof did not damage them.
    Hill married into the Keynes family (his wife was John Maynard Keynes’ sister). This kind of unplanned dynastic inter-linking of the great academic families seems to have been typical of Cambridge and London intellectual life in the period from the late Victorian era right through until between the wars. Among Hill’s children, his son David or “DK” (1915-2002) went on to be a muscle physiologist, Professor and FRS too.
    Nicholas Humphrey, AV’s grandson and John Humphrey’s son, wrote about helping with his grandfather’s experiments in a chapter of a book published a few years ago called Curious Minds: How a Child Becomes a Scientist. The Amazon entry for the book has an extract from Humphrey’s chapter.

  26. Frank Norman says:

    Yes, the scientific set seemed quite close in those days. I’ve noticed other links from time to time. I’ll have to look up that book.

  27. Stephen Curry says:

    @Frank, Maxine and Austin – thanks for those insights – so many ‘odd connections’! That Curious Minds book sounds intriguing. Has anyone read it?

Comments are closed.