Interview for Venue Magazine, December 2000
1. A bit of background stuff; where and when born, parents’ occupations. Where d’you live? Any kids?
I was born in Sydney, and moved to England in 1989. My father was an engineer who died when I was fourteen. Even so, he taught me as much about practical physics as I ever learned at University.
I love science, but I tried to discourage my children from following in my footsteps because of the terrible job prospects these days. I failed miserably – my son is now a computer scientist and my daughter is a zoologist.
2. What are the biggest differences between Australian and British academic life?
When I moved to England twelve years ago I expected that senior figures might be treated with more deference than in Australia. That certainly doesn’t hold true in the coffee room, where people with different backgrounds swap ideas and offer criticisms just as freely as they do in Australia. One difference, though, is that the refrigerators in British academic coffee rooms generally hold milk and fruit juice, while it is not unknown for their Australian equivalents to be full of beer.
3. When you won the Ig Nobel, did you receive any kind of trophy/trinket? If so, where is it kept?
People in previous years were given a little green frog, but my sole memento is a certificate signed by a number of genuine Nobel prize winners who were present at the ceremony. They were very supportive of my efforts to spark public interest in science, and came up with some nice ideas for the future.
4. Have you ever been accused of trivialising science rather than popularising it? How do you respond?
Not since I wrote an article in the scientific journal “Nature“, explaining to my fellow scientists the reasons behind my promotion of the science of the familiar. I received letters from some very senior figures after that, expressing their support. Journalists have also been very supportive, but their agendas are often different from mine, and there’s certainly a danger of trivialisation there. It’s partly for this reason that I am now writing a book on my activities.
5. Academics are notoriously jealous of their peers who achieve any kind of public profile. Have you experienced any of this?
I can honestly say that I have never experienced any of this. It surprises me that I haven’t, because I think that the tall poppy syndrome is pretty universal. Possibly it’s because I’m not really making a play for fame. I have something to say that I think needs to be said, and if I could do it anonymously, I would. People like to know who is doing the talking, however, and where they are coming from, partly so that they can challenge them in interviews like this.
6. Is your biscuit-dunking research subject to peer review? If so, do you have dunking conferences and debates? Can we come?
The research itself wasn’t subject to peer review because it wasn’t intended as ongoing mainstream research. It was a deliberately light-hearted attempt to show that science doesn’t have to be high-tech to be interesting, and to help people to feel comfortable with science. Interestingly, though, some of the ideas have proved useful in the more serious work that I do with my colleague Peter Barham and a group of top class chefs on the science of cooking, which is also the title of Peter’s recent book.
I’m afraid that we don’t have biscuit dunking conferences, but if I ever get an offer to work on champagne, I’ll let you know.
7. What’s the single most important thing government could do to improve regular folks’ understanding of science?
The most cost-efficient Government investment that I can think of would be a massive training programme for primary school teachers, many of whom seem to feel rather uncomfortable with science. I believe that science is best understood, not for its technicalities or its usefulness, but because it is mind-expanding, and gives us an enhanced and often beautiful view of the world and how it works. This is an approach that could be introduced to people at a very young age, provided that their teachers were given the resources and training to appreciate it for themselves.
8. Robin, the office hippy (and a vegan) wants to know why asparagus makes his urine smell funny?
I have the same problem! It’s genetic. Some of us have the body chemistry to break the mercaptan compounds in asparagus down into smelly by-products; some don’t. According to a recent survey, 46% of British people produce the smell, and so did 100% of French people in the same size sample group (around a hundred). Unfortunately, there’s no truth in the rumour that ability to produce (or detect) the smell correlates with higher intelligence.
9. Who will live longest; the person with a healthy diet and no sex life, or the person with a very active sex-life and a crap diet? Please come down on one side or another, as there are a lot of people here need to know the answer to this.
One of my Bristol colleagues has shown that an active sex life correlates with a longer life, but I regret to say that the correlation with a healthy diet is even stronger. Pity.
10. Who are your scientific heroes and why?
There are many, including students who have struggled through grave illness to lay their personal brick in the wall. From the past, my favourite is the Victorian scientist Charles Vernon Boys, a technical genius with a sense of humour, who managed to get his popular lectures on soap bubbles published by the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge, and also developed a way of making giant smoke rings that he dropped over passers-by from a first floor window at the Royal Institution.
11. Which food company/companies would you not accept sponsorship of your work from, and why?
By “work” I take it that you mean my work in promoting science through the science of the familiar. I certainly wouldn’t allow this to be used as a vehicle for any company where I doubted the ethics of the product or the advertising, or which attempted to veto or to distort the results of the work.
12. Do you really burn up more calories eating celery than you gain from it? If so, is it theoretically possible to disappear altogether if you eat enough of it?
This story appears on a lot of ‘trivia’ web pages, but I haven’t been able to trace the source. It’s probably true, because celery consists mainly of cellulose (roughage) that our bodies can’t break down, and water. The bacteria in our gut do break the cellulose down, though, to produce some digestible material (which would provide us with a bit of energy) and a whole lot of methane gas. If you really did live on celery, you might disappear, but the smell would remain.
13. Given all the recent food scares, what’s the safest grub to eat? …
Just about any food is safer than getting into your car and driving up the motorway. If you really want to use diet as a key to a longer life, the secret is to eat a balanced diet with as low a calorie intake as you can comfortably manage.
14. … Is there any food out there which you personally are avoiding on health grounds?
15. Our publisher asked us to ask you this one for some reason; how long could a person survive on a diet of rain-water and old copies of Venue magazine?
Probably slightly longer than on rain-water and celery.
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