Cox interviews Attenborough on Darwin (and other interviews)

February 19, 2018 • 7:45 am

by Matthew Cobb

My friend and colleague Professor Brian Cox is not only a Professor of Physics at the University of Manchester, he is also Professor for Public Engagement in Science at the Royal Society in London. As part of this, he decided to interview a number of Fellows of the Royal Society about their scientific heroes, in a series called People of Science. These brief interviews are informal,  insightful and fascinating. The one that will probably interest readers most is the one with David Attenborough, on Darwin. Here it is, it’s only 5 minutes long:


[Gratuitous comment by JAC: I have one beef with what Sir David says about The Origin at 3:50:

“What is marvelous about it is that anybody can read any page and it makes absolute sense. It’s not full of jargon; it’s full of argument and observation.”

True, it’s full of argument and observation, and Darwin generally avoids jargon. But it’s simply not true that anybody can read any page and make sense of it. Sometimes it’s hard going, even for a biologist. For those who believe Sir David’s words, I challenge you to read the chapter on “Hybridism”. My students often objected to my requiring them to read it because they weren’t used to the dense Victorian prose. (Eventually I gave up and went to the “abridged” Origin. That, too, was a failure.)  I should know, because I’ve read the book a gazillion times and the margins are full of question marks. Here’s my copy of the first edition, dog-eared, taped together, and covered with scrawls. Now that the pages have started falling out, I’ll have to retire it.  If you haven’t read this book, you can’t consider yourself educated!]

Back to Matthew:

Readers might also like this interview with Sir David Spiegelhalter about the work of amateur mathematician Thomas Bayes and of statistician Ronald Fisher (includes some practical experimentation!):

This one is about Alexander Fleming, and is with Brian’s fellow Manchester graduate, Dame Sally Davies, England’s Chief Medical Officer (to do with public health):

The other three interviews are developmental psychologist Uta Frith discussing Alice Lee (no, you haven’t heard of Lee), author Bill Bryson (yes, he is an FRS, or an honorary one, anyway) on Benjamin Franklin and President of the Institute of Physics Professor Julia Higgins on Michael Faraday.

The interviews all take place in the library in the Royal Society’s home on Carlton House Terrace in London (you’ll notice a bust of Darwin in the background). Until 1939, the building was the German Embassy, before being closed for obvious reasons. In a nice twist, when General de Gaulle came to London in June 1940 following the fall of France, the Free French, as they became known, had their headquarters at the other end of the terrace. The Royal Society moved in there after the end of the war.

28 thoughts on “Cox interviews Attenborough on Darwin (and other interviews)

  1. Very interesting interviews. I had to view the one on Franklin since he was everywhere in our American history. His science does get overlooked by many as do the years he spent in England and later in France.

  2. Truly enjoyable series.
    I can’t help but hear Ms Cunk’s “Science Man” each time I see one has been posted 🙂

    1. *Bayes* is fine, and the theorem which bears his name is fine (by most of us, anyway). Bayesian interpretation of probability is dubious to some of us and there’s the slightly distinct matter of Bayesian statistics, too.

  3. Nice: As a student you read penguin books and now you are one of their authors. I am curious as to when you purchased your well worn paperback. Was it for an undergraduate biology course? Philosophy or english lit course? High school? When and why did your serious interest in biology begin? I like to help k12 students understand examples of educational pathways.

    1. Sorry my aged eyes just noticed your old book was a pelican..not penguin. Still interested in when your bio interest started.

      1. You were right first time in a way Penguin, Pelican, Puffin & Ladybird are all part of Penguin Books. And Penguin Books is part of the global monster Penguin Random House.

      1. Interesting that as a biology major with an interest in genetics, you were not directed toward origin. Interestingly, your libeal arts college did at least in theory cover darwin in the norton anthology of english literature section on victorian literature: evolution: excerpt from descent of man in sophomore english. My experiences in undergrad physics and math did not reach beyond the narrow subject coursework either unless one took a course in philosophy or history of science.

  4. Watching the Spieglhalter interview it occurred to me that those of us who have at least a modicum of training in science understand the importance of statistics to evaluating our hypotheses. I’m not a scientist and not a statistician, but I do appreciate what a p value is and I’ve read a bit about Bayesian analysis, so I at least have a sense of the power of statistical tools in making judgments. What I am compelled to suspect though is that many who lack exposure to these concepts and to the scientific method are at an enormous disadvantage in evaluating political issues that have a scientific component, like global warming for example, or even gun control. Which is discouraging since I only have one vote and so does everyone else.

  5. I was disappointed that the really significant feature of the Bayesian approach was not mentioned: that Bayes treated the expectation of an outcome as a variable with a distribution of possible values, whereas Fisher used the expectation calculated from sample data as a constant for further predictions. The later version of Bayes’s equation using integrals over probability distributions instead of fixed values makes this clear. The two approaches give roughly the same results for sufficiently large sample numbers, but I used to have to estimate worst-case failure rates on very small samples: even samples of zero failures. This is just about impossible using the Poisson distribution with fixed expectation, but justifiable though very approximate estimations are possible using the Gamma distribution, in which the expectation is a variable.

    1. Also folks might read hans von Baeyer‘s recent physics book for general audiences, QBism: the future of quantum mechanics. It is a nice book on how bayesian statistics helped him better understand quantum mechanics…after a full academic and research career as a quantum mechanic. Nice examples.

  6. It’s very hard to find anything written in the 1850’s or 1860’s that always makes sense if you open it on a random page.

    The one exception is some essays by John Stuart Mill.

  7. I would say that the final five chapters in “Origin of Species” are by far the easiest to read, 2 on geological evidence, 2 on geographical evidence, and the conclusion.

    If there is a “defect” in the book, it is that these chapters came later. I tend to think that if Ċeorl Deorwine* wanted to argue this primarily to a laymens’ audience, then these chapters should have appeared earlier. But if he was primarily addressing biologists, then the existing order is certainly best.

    *I’m rereading Lord of the Rings, so humor me.

  8. My students often objected to my requiring them to read it because they weren’t used to the dense Victorian prose.

    What I find annoying in Darwin is the mention of a number of “laws” that we wouldn’t call laws now. There’s the law of “unity of type…,” the law of homologous variation, the law of embryonic resemblance, and a good many others.

    It’s not terrible, there aren’t too many “laws,” and one can certainly discount the various “laws” without too much trouble. It’s something that sticks out for me, though.

    Glen Davidson

  9. I read the Origin in the Everyman’s Library version, which has the 1st edition text with some later additions and a lovely introductory essay by Richard Dawkins.

    I thought it was wonderful throughout! 🙂

  10. “Antibiotic Resistance”. I wonder how many people are aware of Dr Alexander Fleming’s intellectual honesty, when he warned the medical world against the application of his own healthful discovery, without paying attention to the fatal consequences. An eye-opener for me! And the year 2050 is just around the corner…

    Thank you for posting these interesting interviews.

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