Sir David Attenborough at 90, Boaty McBoatface, and the Song of the Lyre Bird

Today is the 90th birthday of one of my biggest heroes, Sir David Attenborough, so let me start by wishing him many happy returns of the day!
There has been some controversy recently about the new Polar Research ship being called the Sir David Attenborough despite overwhelming support in a public poll for it to be called Boaty McBoatface. The latter name has been retained for one of the remote-controlled submersibles carried by the larger vessel, but I’ve seen a number of complaints that this was inappropriate. Actually, I disagree. For one thing the new vessel is undoubtedly a ship rather than a boat; its prefix ‘RRS’ means ‘Royal Research Ship’ after all. For another, submarines – even the very big ones – are always known as boats. This has been the practice since the earliest days of submersible craft, presumably because the earliest ones were small enough to be carried by other vessels. A submersible Boaty McBoatface is absolutely fine by me!

Anyway I thought I’d use the occasion of Sir David Attenborough’s birthday to post one of my favourite clips from one of his many TV programmes, and the piece I wrote about it a while ago

I wonder what you felt as you watched it?  What went through your mind? Amusement? Fascination?  I’ll tell you how it was for me when I first saw it.  I marvelled.

Seeing the extraordinary behaviour of this marvellous creature filled me with a sense of wonder. But I also began to wonder in another sense too. How did the Lyre Bird evolve its bizarre strategy? How does it learn to be such an accurate mimic? How does it produce such a fascinating variety of sounds? How can there be an evolutionary advantage in luring a potential mate to the sound of foresters and a chainsaw?

The Lyre Bird deploys its resources in such an elaborate and expensive way that you might be inclined to mock it, if all it does is draw females to “look at its plumes”.  I can think of quite a few blokes who adopt not-too-dissimilar strategies, if truth be told. But if you could ask a Lyre Bird it would probably answer that it does this because that’s what it does. The song defines the bird. That’s its nature.

I was moved to post the clip in response to a characteristically snide and ill-informed piece by Simon Jenkins in the  Guardian a while ago. Jenkins indulges in an anti-science rant every now and again. Sometimes he has a point, in fact. But this article was just puerile. Perhaps he had a bad experience of science at school and never got over it.

I suppose I can understand why some people are cynical about scientists stepping into the public eye to proselytise about science. After all, it’s also quite easy to come up with examples of  scientists who have made mistakes. Sadly, there are also cases of outright dishonesty. Science is no good because scientists are fallible. But scientists are people, no better and no worse than the rest. To err is human and all that.  We shouldn’t expect scientists to be superhuman any more than we should believe the occasional megalomaniac who says they are.

To many people fundamental physics is a just a load of incomprehensible gibberish, the Large Hadron Collider a monstrous waste of money, and astronomy of no greater value to the world than astrology. Any scientist trying to communicate science to the public must be trying to hoodwink them, to rob them of the schools and hospitals that their taxes should be building and sacrifice their hard-earned income on the altar of yet another phoney religion.

And now the BBC is participating in this con-trick by actually broadcasting popular programmes about science that have generated huge and appreciative audiences. Simon Jenkins obviously feels threatened by it. He’s probably not alone.

I don’t  have anything like the public profile of the target of Jenkins’ vitriol, Lord Rees, but I try to do my share of science communication. I give public lectures from time to time and write popular articles, whenever I’m asked. I also answer science questions by email from the general public, and some of the pieces I post on here receive a reasonably wide distribution too.

Why do I (and most of my colleagues) do all this sort of stuff? Is it because we’re after your money?  Actually, no it isn’t. Not directly, anyway.

I do all this stuff because, after 25 years as a scientist, I still have a sense of wonder about the universe. I want to share that as much as I can with others. Moreover,  I’ve been lucky enough to find a career that allows me to get paid for indulging my scientific curiosity and I’m fully aware that it’s Joe Public that pays for me to do it. I’m happy they do so, and happier still that people will turn up on a rainy night to hear me talk about cosmology or astrophysics. I do this because I love doing science, and want other people to love it  too.

Scientists are wont to play the utilitarian card when asked about why the public should fund fundamental research. Lord Rees did this in his Reith Lectures, in fact. Physics has given us countless spin-offs – TV sets, digital computers,  the internet, you name it – that have created wealth for UK plc out of all proportion to the modest investment it has received. If you think the British government spends too much on science, then perhaps you could try to find the excessive sum on this picture.

Yes, the LHC is expensive but the cost was shared by a large number of countries and was spread over a long time. The financial burden to the UK now amounts to the cost of a cup of coffee per year for each taxpayer in the country. I’d compare this wonderful exercise in friendly international cooperation with the billions we’re about to waste on the Trident nuclear weapons programme which is being built on the assumption that international relations must involve mutual hatred.

This is the sort of argument that gets politicians interested, but scientists must be wary of it. If particle physics is good because it has spin-offs that can be applied in, e.g. medicine, then why not just give the money to medical research?

I’m not often put in situations where I have to answer questions like why we should spend money on astronomy or particle physics but, when I am, I always feel uncomfortable wheeling out the economic impact argument. Not because I don’t believe it’s true, but because I don’t think it’s the real reason for doing science. I know the following argument won’t cut any ice in the Treasury, but it’s what I really think as a scientist (and a human being).

What makes humans different from other animals? What defines us? I don’t know what the full answer to that is, or even if it has a single answer, but I’d say one of the things that we do is ask questions and try to answer them. Science isn’t the only way we do this. There are many complementary modes of enquiry of which the scientific method is just one. Generally speaking, though, we’re curious creatures.

I think the state should support science but I also think it should support the fine arts, literature, humanities and the rest, for their own sake. Because they’re things we do. They  make us human. Without them we’re just like any other animal that consumes and reproduces.

So the real reason why the government should support science is the song of the Lyre Bird.  No, I don’t mean as an elaborate mating ritual. I don’t think physics will help you pull the birds. What I mean is that even in this materialistic, money-obsessed world we still haven’t lost the  need to wonder, for the joy it brings and for the way it stimulates our minds; science doesn’t inhibit wonder, as Jenkins argues,  it sparks it.

Now, anyone want to see my plumes?

14 Responses to “Sir David Attenborough at 90, Boaty McBoatface, and the Song of the Lyre Bird”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    “This is the sort of argument that gets politicians interested, but scientists must be wary of it.”

    Yes, absolutely. If you play the whore you get treated like one.

    Could we not compromise and call the ship the Sir David McAttenboroughface?

    • Chris Brunt Says:

      David Attenborough should change his name to Boaty McBoatface. We could then name the ship after him and everyone would be satisfied. Why is this simple solution being ignored?

    • Brendan Says:

      “Yes, absolutely. If you play the whore you get treated like one.”

      That’s a great way of putting it, Anton.

      There’s also the danger that other people are better at playing this game than scientists, and have better wares of this ilk to peddle. Much better.

  2. Classic video there – to me it David has been a consistent demonstrator of the beauty of creation (though we may disagree about the creator I deeply admire his work in showing its beauty).

  3. “The financial burden to the UK now amounts to the cost of a cup of coffee per year for each taxpayer in the country.”

    As Carl Sagan said when talking about one of the 1970s space-probe missions, “a penny a world for each person on Earth”.

  4. “I don’t think physics will help you pull the birds.”

    It worked fine for Einstein, who indulged the groupies long before the term was coined.

  5. “What makes humans different from other animals? What defines us?”

    I’ve posted this quote before, but it is good enough to post it again:

    ´We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, “O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?” Answer. That you are here – that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play *goes on* and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?

    • telescoper Says:

      From “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman:

      To me the converging objects of the universe perpetually flow,
      All are written to me, and I must get what the writing means.

  6. ” But yesterday’s article was just puerile.”

    That’s putting it mildly. Read it and weep. Even in a barn one can’t find that much bullshit in one pile.

  7. Zilcho Pilcho Says:

    Agree with everything you say, but the Simon Jenkins article you link to is from 2010; couldn’t find a relevant one from yesterday. (p.s. Shortly after the 2010 piece Jon Butterworth proposed having fun with Jenkins’ stance and style. See here for a spot the difference list:
    https://www.theguardian.com/science/blog/2010/jun/28/simon-jenkins-spoof-science)
    Also, Happy Birthday – Sir David McDavidface

  8. […] In the Dark: Sir David Attenborough at 90, Boaty McBoatface, and the song of the Lyre Bird […]

  9. Rebecca Says:

    Peter, if it hadn’t been for Sir David Attenborough, your number 13 PhD student would not have been born. It’s not what you think, let me explain! His wonderful ‘Life on Earth’ series left me with a burning desire to make a career out of biological sciences. This resulted in me meeting the aforementioned student’s father, and if you’ve watched any of Sir Attenborough ‘s programs you will know what happened next! As for my taxes paying for scientific research, I agree that being human means wanting to know exactly what is going on around us, and I am more than happy to contribute to those of you clever enough to do this task for me. So thank you David, and thank you Peter.

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