29 January 2012

Travelling to broaden the mind

Today saw the 70th anniversary edition of the classic BBC radio programme Desert Island Discs. For those of you unfamiliar with the programme, each week a different celebrity is asked to nominate the eight records that they would take with them to a desert island. For those of you unfamiliar with records, they were a bit like mp3s, but were made out of atoms rather than bits and sounded a lot better.

The special guest for the 70th anniversary programme was Sir David Attenborough. It was Sir David's fourth appearance on Desert Island Discs. An mp3 of the programme is available here.

At the start of the programme, in response to presenter Kirsty Young's suggestion that it was a staggering thought to realise that he has probably seen more of the world than anybody else who has ever lived, Sir David replied:

Well, I suppose so, but then, on the other hand, it's very salutary to remember that perhaps the greatest naturalist who ever lived and had more effect on our thinking than anybody—Charles Darwin—only spent four years travelling, and the rest of the time thinking.

Darwin's voyage around the world on HMS Beagle was closer to five years than four, but Sir David is right: a few years' ship-time was enough to inspire the greatest naturalist who ever lived (there is no ‘perhaps’ about it, Sir David!).

How many future naturalists and other scientists, I wonder, might gain a lifetime's inspiration from a few months' ship-time aboard a new Beagle?

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