With a freshly opened bottle of 1995 Carta Roja Gran Reserva next to me – and how long has it been since I started a blog post with the wine I was drinking when I wrote it – I happily submitted to the second episode of Brian Cox's Science Britannica. It's not only the wine. It's also been ages since I reviewed anything on the iPlayer.
Brian Cox is one of the outstanding science communicators in the UK these days. To my uneducated ears, he's the foremost singer of the English language – there's really no way you could call speaking what the the guy is doing in front of the camera – and an enthusiastic scientist to boot. Today's episode (today referring to the day I downloaded the episode) was about scientific breakthroughs and achievements. Bletchley Park was mentioned and Cavendish's laboratory (as opposed to the Cavendish laboratory), as well as the Royal Society and the Royal Institution. Never mind the language of the presenter, the show was amusing and also edifying, reinforcing and breaking public conceptions of scientists in equal measure.
Sometimes I wonder whether I can consider myself a scientist at all. If that happens on a Sunday night and I look back onto a weekend spent getting a manuscript ready for publication, the answer is unambiguous. But if it happens when I survey my professional development, I'm less sure. The true scientist, the searcher of truth, the ingenue (for which the dictionary, in its engrained sexism, does not have a male equivalent) on a quest for reason – this is not something I see in myself.
But maybe science is more than is shown on TV. I grab a bottle of Bushmills that had made its way over from Ulster a good year ago, grab a glass and get into a thinking pose. A memorable contributor to the documentary was a mathematician who said that seeing him work wasn't much different from seeing him sleep. The tinkerer, the searcher, the solver of problems – that is a scientist, and I can surely identify with that.
The BBC show I was watching ended with the presenter being credited as Professor Brian Cox. What the hell is a professor? Is that someone being paid for professing? Is it a professional professor, someone who professes for a living? What would be the point of that? Semantics, I know, but worth thinking about nevertheless.
Tomorrow, I'll go back to the little crystallography facility I run at Imperial, trying to keep things going smoothly for the few dozen of users that stop by on a regular basis, users that try to crystallize their proteins and solve the structures of the proteins thus crystallized. It doesn't sound like much, but it's all part of the scientific endeavor.