Some of you may have noticed that I haven’t been around much this last week and by way of explanation for my absence I thought I’d write this blog post. I’m also hoping it might give some insight into the sort of things I do in part of my role as a Professor of Science Communication.
The story starts about 9 months ago when BBC Radio Science Unit producer Rami Tzabar and I got chatting about freedom. The commissioners at the BBC (the people that decide whether or not a programme gets made) were looking for documentaries based around that word – Freedom. No further guidelines were given. You can see now why we are always banging on about making you into independent people that have the ability to use your intelligence to interpret a brief! There’s no guidelines here – just the single word – and only a few weeks to get on with it. Rami had the idea of exploring free will and freedom to behave in animals and from that initial point we came up with some ideas and examples that might work in a 28 minute documentary. The idea was rejected…
Then, about 4 weeks ago Rami emailed me to say that the commissioners now wanted the programme – and as soon as possible!
A couple of weeks ago, after much wrangling of diaries and studio bookings I managed to interview the great primatologist Frans de Waals in Atlanta, USA via a studio line in Gloucester. We talked at length about bonobos, chimps, elephants, morality, cheating, honesty and whether or not animals are free to act in ways not governed by simple instinct. We talked for more an hour but of course we will end up using 5 minutes at most, which is always a bit annoying when interviews work well and you cover so much ground. I also spent a day in London interviewing Buzz Baum, a developmental cell biologist working at University College London. For those of you that came on the London trip, the interview took place just across the road from the Zoology museum we visited. The one with the jar of moles…
Typically, a documentary of this length has five contributors so we were still three short. To make up the shortfall I set off on Tuesday for a whistlestop tour of Europe to get some interviews and content for the programme. The itinerary was pretty hectic. I left Cheltenham on a coach for Gatwick Airport where I spent the night. I had a pretty nice view from my hotel and it’s not a bad temporary office – if you got an email from me on Tuesday then that’s probably where I was sitting when I wrote it.
A shockingly early 4.45am alarm call on Wednesday saw me get from fast asleep to meeting Rami, checking in for a flight via breakfast in less than 30 minutes. Pretty soon we were on our way to Munich. At Munich airport we had just enough time for a quick espresso before taking a hire car and driving to Regensburg on the rather quick German autobahns.
After a couple of hours we got to Regensburg University to interview Professor Bjorn Brems, who works on the behaviour of fruit flies. After a few hours of talk and sound recording we rushed back to the car and drove to Wurzburg, about two hours away, to meet with Professor Martin Heisenberg, a neurobiologist and son of the father of quantum physics Werner Heisenberg (he of the uncertainty principle).
Martin is retired now but still runs an important research programme as an emeritus professor. We spent a very pleasant couple of hours talking with him before getting lost driving back out of the campus.
A 1.5 hour drive back down the autobahn, with some cars driving well above 150mph, found us in the city Nuremburg. Maybe some parts of the city are nice but the industrial estate where our Ibis Budget hotel was located was not one of them! However, a few well deserved beers, some chianti and a giant plate of Weiner schnitzels seemed to put a better spin on things.
Another early start for us and a hectic rainy drive to the airport to catch the Ryan Air flight to Stansted, where a massive queue to pass through the border checks meant we missed our ideal train to Cambridge. Luckily, our next interviewee, Professor Nicky Clayton, had a pretty relaxed schedule that afternoon so we caught a later train and then a taxi to the secret location where she works on the complex and fascinating behaviour of the cleverest of all birds, the corvids.
Nicky and I appeared in the same episode of the TV programme Inside the Animal Mind but we hadn’t met before. We had a great chat and a really interesting interview that finished off the trip nicely.
Afterwards, we crammed into Nicky’s Audi TT (not a lot of room in there!) and headed back to the station. A delayed train meant I finally got home at 8pm after 56 hours, 2 flights, 400km of driving, a coach ride, three train rides, 2 taxi rides, three interviews, two ridiculously early starts and about 6 gallons of coffee!