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Coffee House

Patrick Moore’s great contemporaries

9 December 2012

5:50 PM

9 December 2012

5:50 PM

Sir Patrick Moore, the astronomer, died this morning aged 89. He featured on The Spectator’s power list of over-80s, published last year. Here are the other scientists listed in the category.

Bernard Lovell, by Martin Rees

Bernard Lovell ranks as one of the great visionary leaders of science. Along with others of his generation, the war gave him responsibility and opportunity at an early age. He was thereby encouraged to ‘think big’ when he returned to academic science. He had the boldness to conceive a giant radio telescope, and the persistence to see it through to completion, despite the risk of bankruptcy. It was a huge project by the standards of the 1950s. What is even more remarkable is that, more than 50 years later, this instrument (after several upgradings) is still doing ‘frontier’ science: for instance, it is helping to test Einstein’s theory to a precision 10,000 times better than was possible when it was built. Jodrell Bank is one of the world’s leading observatories. As its centrepiece, the ‘Lovell Telescope’, as it is now rightly called, continues to probe the cosmic frontiers, while becoming as familiar a part of our heritage as Stonehenge. Bernard Lovell, now aged 97, can take immense pride in this lasting monument — he remains an inspiration to younger generations.

James Lovelock, William Waldegrave

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Britain’s two superstar scientists, Newton and Darwin, had two things in common: relentless energy and independence. Newton’s freedom came courtesy of the benefactors of Trinity College, Cambridge; Darwin’s from the Wedgwood pottery fortune. James Lovelock shares both attributes. At 91 he has far more intellectual and physical energy than most people half his age. And he chose to step off the scientific/bureaucratic gravy train in the 1950s and make himself a truly independent scientist. This enables him, as he freely says, to take risks and make mistakes that would be punished by research assessments; to ignore the normal boundaries between technology, pure research, and social science. It means he need kowtow to no one. He can tell greens to build nuclear power stations, and conventional climate scientists that he admires Nigel Lawson; and count people as diverse as William Golding and Victor Rothschild among his influences. He is pessimistic about the future of our species, but if some of our descendants survive, it will be because there are enough genes of the Lovelockian type in the pool to see us through. He is one of the greatest men I have had the privilege to meet.

David Attenborough, by Matt Ridley

One day it will sink in what David Attenborough has done. Before him natural history was limited by one’s own experience. Now it is shared culture. We have been there, thanks to him, when corals spawn under a full moon, when killer whales snatch sea lions off a beach, or when New Guinean tribes first meet westerners. He has given wildlife celebrity status. After thousands of hours of narration and presentation, and despite affectionate parodies, he is yet to grate upon our ears.

He is a scientist who brings insights, a technician who has helped pioneer new filming techniques, a lyricist whose scripts are masterpieces of concise poetry. Don’t forget he was also a producer who commissioned both Civilisation and The Ascent of Man, and then resigned to present the best of the three great documentary blockbusters of the 1970s: Life on Earth. He was an accomplished television executive, called back from an anthropology doctorate to rescue BBC2 as controller, then groomed for director general of the BBC, a job that — thank goodness — he did not want. That he has remained throughout transparently unspoiled by fame, his settings on receive as well as transmit, is remarkable.

Frederick Sanger, 92. Twice winner of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. His ‘Sanger method’ allowed for the sequencing of the human genome.

Desmond Morris, 83. Changed the way people think about human behaviour.

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