Saturday, October 10, 2015

"Brief Candle in the Dark: My Life in Science" by Richard Dawkins

Oxford Zoology Professor Richard Dawkins is finishing up a whirlwind book tour through the U.S., addressing sold-out venues of free-thinking fans who flock to him as much for his sermons on Reason and Science as they do for a signature on his memoirs.

One of Richard's favorite stops is always Kepler's Bookstore in Menlo Park, where I had the pleasure of interviewing Richard about his memoirs before a crowd that sold out four weeks in advance. Richard graceed his audience by reading several excerpts I selected -- chosen to give a sense for his writing but, like any good trailer, not to reveal crucial plot lines.

So rather than write a review of the book (which the NY Times and Guardian have already done quite well) I'm here to share a little preview of the story, which covers the second half of Richard's illustrious life so far. With this taste of the book, you can relish how Richard crafts every message with subtle detail and humor that, in Silicon Valley parlance, delights the user.

The first excerpt gives a glimpse into life at the hallowed institution of Oxford University, featuring brilliant but eccentric personalities who mix profound wisdom with the backseat bickering of children.  As Richard recounts his unwelcome rotation as Sub-Warden, the setting seems less like Oxford and more like Hogwart's.
Although the Sub-Warden doesn’t have to seat people and their guests (as the presiding fellow does in some other colleges), he is expected to beam the role of genial host at dessert. I did my best, but there was one awkward evening. As I was helping people to find their seats I became aware, from a sort of ominous rumbling, that all was not well. Sir Michael Dummett, immensely distinguished philosopher, Wykeham Professor of Logic in succession to Freddie Ayer, stickler for grammar, conscientious and passionate campaigner against racism, world authority on card games and voting theory, was also famously choleric. When angered he would go even more than usually white, which somehow seemed – though this may be my fevered imagination – to make his eyes glow a menacing red. Pretty terrifying . . . and it was my duty as Sub-Warden to try to sort out whatever this problem was. 
The rumble grew to a roar. ‘I have never been so insulted in my life. You have the most atrocious manners. You obviously must be an Etonian.’ The target of this damning sally was not me, thank goodness, but our quirkily brilliant classical historian, Robin Lane Fox. Robin was hopping with anxiety and bewildered apology: ‘But what have I done? What have I done?’ I didn’t immediately succeed in discovering what the problem was, but in my hostly role I saw to it that the two of them were seated as far from each other as possible. I later learned the full story. It had begun at lunchtime that day. Lunch is an informal, self-service meal and fellows sit where they like, although it is conventional to fill up the tables in order. Robin noticed that a new fellow was hesitantly looking for a place. He courteously motioned her to sit, but unfortunately the chair he indicated was the very chair for which Sir Michael was heading himself. The perceived slight rankled, simmered up through the afternoon and finally boiled over after dinner at dessert. The story had a happier ending, as Robin told me when I asked him recently. A couple of days after that distressing incident, he was approached by Professor Dummett who offered the most gracious apology, saying that there was nobody in the college whom he would less wish to insult than Robin. Thank goodness I was never the target of his ire, although I might have been vulnerable as he was a devout Roman Catholic with the zeal of the convert.
Here is a memory of Richard's biogeographic expedition to Barro Colorado Island in Panama with John Maynard Smith:
This party was also memorable because of the firework display on a huge ship passing through the canal just beyond the trees. Actually falsely memorable, because for years I have been utterly convinced that we saw in not just a new year but a new decade: 1 January 1980. So detailed and full were my recollections of ‘seeing the new decade in’, it took multiple documentary evidence, kindly sent me by Ira Rubinoff, Ragavendra Gadagkar and Nancy Garwood, to finally convince me that what I had thought to be a crystal clear memory was faulty. It was actually 1 January 1981, not 1980. I was quite shaken to discover this, because it made me worry how many other clear memories actually never happened (and the reader of my memoir is, I suppose, duly warned). 
The dreamlike presence of large tankers deep in the jungle was one of the most vivid memories I took away from the place. On several afternoons I had joined the resident scientists swimming off a raft, and it was a surreal experience to see those gigantic vessels gliding calmly, and surprisingly quietly, through the still, clear water, just a few yards away behind the trees. Some of the women scientists liked to sunbathe, and I couldn’t help wondering what the tanker crews thought about the undraped feminine pulchritude diving off the raft deep in the jungle. If those mariners were Greek, did they think Sirens; or if German, Lorelei? Or – peering through the lush tropical vegetation – did they see a vision of Eve’s innocence before the Fall? They had no way of knowing that these tropic nymphs had PhDs in science from some of the top universities in America.
Among my favorite passages is RIchard's recollection of the BBC-televised Christmas Lectures, an annual lecture series for children replete with physical demonstrations. Michael Faraday had launched the London tradition and the honor on has since passed on to the greatest science educators like Carl Sagan, Sir David Attenborough, and Richard.
One agreeable and unanticipated feature of the Christmas Lectures was that the very name was a golden key to unlock goodwill whichever way I turned. ‘You want to borrow an eagle? Well, that’s difficult, I honestly don’t see how we can realistically, I mean do you seriously expect… Oh, you’re giving the Royal institution Christmas lectures? Why didn’t you say so before. Of course. How many eagles do you need?’  
 ‘You want an MRI Scan of your brain? Well, who is your doctor, have you been referred to the MRI department on the National Health Service? Or are you going privately? Do you have health insurance? Have you any idea how expensive MRI scans are, and how long the waiting list?... Oh, you’re doing the Christmas lectures? Well, of course, that’s different. I’m sure I can slip you into a research run, no questions asked. Can you come to the radiography department on Tuesday during the lunch hour?’
 By just dropping the name of the Christmas lectures, I managed to borrow an electron microscope (big, heavy, and transported at the lender’s expense), a complete virtual reality system, an owl, an eagle, a magnified circuit diagram of a computer chip, a baby, and a jactitating Japanese robot capable of climbing walls like a much enlarged, ponderously hissing gecko.  
 I chose, as the overall title of my series of five lectures, Growing Up in the Universe. I meant ‘growing up’ in three senses: first, the evolutionary sense of lice growing up on our planet; second, the historical sense of humanity’s growing out of superstition and towards a naturalistic, scientific apprehension of reality; and third, the growing up of each individual’s understanding, from childhood to adulthood.
It was a tradition to call up volunteers from among the children, which is what Richard proposed to do in preparation for an experiment that involved injecting a human eye.
This being the Christmas Lectures, the next thing to do was to call for a volunteer . . . I produced a huge veterinary hypodermic syringe, fit to sedate a rhinoceros, and asked who would like to take part in the experiment. Normally, the children at the Royal Institution Lectures fall over themselves in their eagerness to assist in demonstrations. Surely nobody would volunteer in this case, and I was about to reassure everyone that it was only a joke when one little girl of seven, probably the youngest in the audience, hesitantly raised her hand. It was my darling daughter Juliet, sitting shyly by her mother. I still choke up a little at the memory of her uncomprehending loyalty and courage in the face of the monstrous hypodermic that I was brandishing.
When Richard does call up a volunteer, it turns out to be a plant -- his friend Douglass Adams. Later in the story he recounts how Douglass introduced Richard to his current wife, Lalla, to whom Richard dedicated the book.
This was 1992, when Douglas Adams reached his fortieth birthday, and his party was memorable for a particular reason. It was there that he introduced me to the actress Lalla Ward, whom he had known from the days when Doctor Who was at its wittiest because he was the script editor and she and Tom Baker gave added value to the wit by their inventively ironic playing of the two leading roles. At the birthday party, Lalla was talking to Stephen Fry when Douglas led me over and introduced us. Douglas and Stephen are both absurdly much taller than Lalla and me, so it was natural that we should find ourselves facing each other under a Gothic arch formed by Douglas and Stephen as they exchanged lofty witticisms high above us. Through the archway I shyly offered to refill Lalla’s glass, and when I returned we rapidly reached agreement that the party was too noisy for conversation. ‘I suppose, by any faint chance, it wouldn’t just possibly be a good idea to go out for a quick meal and – of course – return later?’ We discreetly slipped away and found an Afghan restaurant off the Marylebone Road.  
That Lalla had read The Selfish Gene and watched my Christmas Lectures was gratifying. That she had read The Extended Phenotype (and Darwin) as well was too good to be borne. I subsequently discovered that, in addition to Doctor Who’s companion, she had played a beautiful Ophelia to Derek Jacobi’s Hamlet in the BBC TV production, and was also a talented and versatile artist, published author and book illustrator. As I said, too good to be borne. We didn’t return to the party.  
I mentioned to Lalla that I was about to embark on my American journey, having added to the itinerary a visit to John Brockman. She said she was about to set off for a holiday in Barbados, with a girlfriend from the theatrical world. Impulsively she asked if I would take her to America with me, although it would mean letting down her friend in Barbados. Equally impulsively I agreed.  
Slight embarrassments then opened up. I was due to stay with Dan and Susan Dennett on first arriving in Boston, and later with the Brockmans in Connecticut. In both cases one house guest was expected, not two. How could I broach the subject? Lalla and I fretted that our hosts would ask – it is, after all a perfectly normal question to ask of a couple – ‘How long have you known each other?’ and we would have had to answer, ‘A week.’ As it turned out, they didn’t ask, and it was only years later that Lalla confessed to Dan the truth. ‘Really?’ said Dan, with possibly mock innocence. ‘I thought you’d known each other for years.’
In this excerpt, Richard recounts some of the backlash he faced from his most successful and controversial book God Delusion:
Opposition from religious apologists was predictable, and I’ve already mentioned the flea books. But attacks came, too, from fellow atheists, sometimes in outspokenly belligerent terms. One well-reputed reviewer went so far as to say that The God Delusion made him ashamed to be an atheist. His reason seemed to be that I didn’t take ‘serious’ theologians seriously. I dealt fully with those theological arguments that purport to support the existence of a deity. But I was entirely right not to bother with those that assume the existence of a deity as a starting point and go on from there. 
I have tried but consistently and failed to find anything in theology to be serious about. I certainly take professors of theology seriously when they use their expertise to do things other than theology: jigsaw the fragments of the Dead Sea scrolls, for instance; or minutely compare Hebrew and Greek texts of scriptures, or sleuth out the lost sources of the four gospels and the other gospels that didn’t make it into the canon. That’s all genuine scholarship, fascinating to read and deserving of respect. It’s even true that historians need to study theological logic-chopping in order to understand the disputes and wars that have stained European history, for example the English Civil Wars. But the vacuous deepities (Dan Dennett’s splendid word) of ‘apophatic theology’ (Karen Armstrong’s obscurantist smokescreen), or the expenditure of precious time arguing with other theologians over the precise ‘significance for us today’ of Original Sin, Transubstantiation, the Immaculate Conception, or the ‘mystery’ (sorry, ‘Mystery’) of the Trinity, none of that is scholarship in any respectable sense of the word, and it should have no place in our universities. 
Theological gymnastics over the ‘significance for us today’ of nonsensical ideas from the past like transubstantiation lend themselves to satire – positively beg for it. A gem that I recently met: ‘Of course we don’t literally believe the story of Jonah and the whale. But it is symbolic of Jesus’ death and resurrection . . .’ Suppose science worked like that. Suppose that (to take a most unlikely hypothetical) future scientists were to find that Watson and Crick were completely wrong, and the genetic molecule is not a double helix at all. ‘Ah well, of course nowadays we no longer literally believe in the double helix. But what is the significance of the double helix for us today? The way the two helices twine intimately around one another, though not literally true in the crude, materialistic sense, nevertheless symbolizes mutual love, don’t you feel? The precise, one-to-one pairing of purines with pyrimidine is not literally true, nothing so crude as that, but it stands for . . . When you contemplate the Watson–Crick model, don’t you get an overwhelming feeling – I know I do – . . . etc. etc.
The book features many wonderful cameos in by Richard Leakey, Francis Crick, Chris Hitchens, and so many other great thinkers. For the final excerpt, here are Richard's impressions of Carolyn Porco.
Carolyn came to visit us in Oxford, and has been friends with Lalla and me ever since. She is a planetary scientist, in charge of NASA’s Cassini imaging team – the team that has brought us those stunning pictures sent back from Saturn and its many moons. But she is more than just a good scientist; she is inspired by the poetry of science, especially the romance of the spheres that share our sun. She is the nearest approach I know to a female Carl Sagan, a poet of the planets and singer of the stars. Whether or not the heroine of the book Contact was actually modelled on her, it is a fact that Carl Sagan invited her to be the character consultant on the film version. The scene where Ellie first hears the unmistakable communication from far space still gives me goose bumps when I think of it. The slender, clever young woman, woken up by the mind-shattering signal, bouncing back to base in her open car, exultantly yelling the celestial coordinates into the intercom for her dozing assistants: numbers, numbers, the spine-tingling poetry of those numbers and their arc-second precision. And how poetically right that the hero of the numbers should have been a woman. A role model, just like Carolyn. 
An anecdote displays the poetry of Carolyn, and I related it in the Oxford Playhouse when introducing her Simonyi Lecture. A beloved professor from her days at Caltech was the geologist Eugene Shoemaker, co-discoverer, with his wife and David Levy, of the famous Shoemaker–Levy comet. A pioneer of astrogeology, Shoemaker was part of the Apollo space programme. He was in the running to be the first geologist on the moon, but to his sad regret had to drop out for health reasons, and he turned to training astronauts instead of being one. In 1997 Shoemaker was killed in a car crash in Australia. Carolyn, in her grief, raced into action. She knew that NASA was about to launch an unmanned craft, which was programmed to crash-land on the moon after its mission was accomplished. She managed to persuade the mission manager, as well as the head of the planetary exploration programme at NASA, to add her teacher’s ashes to the spacecraft’s payload. Gene Shoemaker’s ambition to be an astronaut was denied him in life, but his ashes now lie on the moon’s surface where no wind stirs them (it is said that Neil Armstrong’s footprints are almost certainly still intact), and with a photographic engraving bearing these words that Carolyn chose, from Romeo and Juliet: 
      . . . and, when he shall die  
      Take him and cut him out in little stars, 
      And he will make the face of heaven so fine 
      That all the world will be in love with night, 
      And pay no worship to the garish sun. 
I have dined out on that story from time to time, but I usually cannot manage to recite the Shakespeare, and turn to Lalla to rescue me. When she speaks the lines from memory in her beautiful voice, I think I am not the only one around the table to choke up. 

Richard takes a break from book signings to appear on Bill Maher with Neil dGrasse Tyson

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