“In the beginning the universe was created. This has made a lot of people angry and has been widely regarded as a bad move.”
From The Hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy, by Douglas Adams.
A celebration of someone’s life usually involves tales of various nail-bitingly exciting adventures, in-jokes, and a few emotional tears. And sometimes the audience gets a glimpse into the secret life of someone they knew. This was a slightly different memorial talk.
Douglas Adams, author of the famous ‘trilogy’ of five Hitchhickers Guide to the Galaxy books, is the undisputed king of comic science fiction. Even 12 years after his death, no one has surpassed him. His ability to strip science bare to the point where it often looks a little ridiculous was his signature move. Basing his stories in reality gave readers a taste of the familiar whilst they were taken on a journey far away from it.
The introduction to the 11th Douglas Adams Memorial Talk at The Royal Geographical Society on March 12th told me something I didn’t know about Douglas Adams – he was an avid supporter of conservation of endangered species. He co-founded Save The Rhino, a charity that raises money to protect rhinos from being hunted for their horns, amongst other things.
The fact that comedian Stephen Mangan was the MC set the tone for what was going to be a very entertaining talk. Mangan is a great Adams fan, and starred as the title character in the series Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. Without any bitter mention (ahem) of his cancelled show, he started the night with a comical look at rhinos. What I learned from him was that the Black and White Rhino are both, in actual fact, the Grey Rhino.
But there was a more serious point he was trying to make. He was raising awareness of how humanity is on the brink of causing the next mass extinction, and if nothing is done soon, we may be losing creatures like the Grey Rhino. Adams, in his later years, became an advocate for environmentalism and conservation of endangered species, especially the rhino. And it was to these magnificent creatures that the funds for the evening were dedicated.
After this quick biology lesson, we were privileged to have a genetics/physics/history lesson on Life, the Universe, and Everything with a whistle stop tour of the 3 Grand Unified Theories of Biology with Dr Adam Rutherford.
Interspersed with memorable Adams quotes, Rutherford took the audience on a journey from primordial soup through to Genetics and Synthetic Biology, the engineering of biological systems.
With his light-hearted and down-to-earth humour, Rutherford explained some of human kinds’ great theories of how life came to exist. Spontaneous Generation (Wrong Idea #1) and Panspermia (Wrong Idea #2) were not some of them.
The good ideas we’ve had are rather profound. Grand Theory #1 was evolution by natural selection: Darwin’s life work.
Grand Theory #2 was cell theory: that all life is made of cells, and cells only come from other cells. This marked the death of the longest standing ideas of the origins of life, Spontaneous Generation.
Grand Theory #3 was genetics. Rutherford claimed that genetic engineering had basically circumvented sex for selective breeding. We no longer require procreation, scientists are now able to chose which genes they want for a specific purpose and design creatures accordingly, “It is my belief that we are on the edge of industrial revolution that will affect everyone”. This is synthetic biology, an area in which Rutherford digs a little deeper in his new book, Creation.
Douglas Adams always had something to say about life: so it was only fitting that the past, present and future of life on Earth was celebrated too. Whether Adams meant it all in a cynical, satirical way is open to interpretation. But a lot of what he said has some element of truth in it.
And it is these truths that Rutherford explored. With great ease, no notes, and some excellent scientific tangents, Rutherford entertained the entire audience. He even threw in some panto for good measure.