Dr Adam Hart-Davis

Doctor of Science


Mr Chancellor,

Some years ago there was a theory that those born at the end of the Victorian era were, by the time they reached their 70s, a generation suffering from 'future shock' for they had witnessed in the span of their lifetime greater technological change than had taken place in the whole of the preceding thousand years.  That breakneck pace of change continues today.  Time and again, science appears to outpace our capacity to understand even the basics of how new technologies work.  And when it comes to more complex matters, scientific development that is perhaps bound up with ethical issues – DNA, for example, or genetic modification – then incomprehension gives rise to fear and mistrust and the efforts of scientists to take mankind forward become severely hampered.  This is why the scientific community now sees the ability to communicate as integral to the success of scientific research. Scientists feel, and feel profoundly, that their work in seeking to understand this world is in itself a high calling, undertaken on behalf of humanity as a whole; it naturally follows that they feel a duty, an obligation, to explain their work to the most universal audience.  Communication is key, perhaps most critically, to the attraction of more students to study and take up careers in science and engineering.

The need to convey the excitement of discovery and experimental science is dear to our hearts and as urgent as ever. Today we welcome and honour Adam Hart-Davis as a 'scientific communicator supreme' who not only makes clear those problems that puzzle us today – Why did the Millennium Bridge wobble, for example – but also, by concentrating on the lives and achievements of inventors down the ages, both conveys and inspires in students of all ages, the enthusiasm and excitement that are the reward of scientific discovery and engineering achievement. 

At this University we are keen on science and engineering – not surprising seeing as we are in a city whose connections with engineering span from Brunel to Toshiba, and both subjects go back to the very earliest days of the University College 126 years ago.  A number of Nobel Laureates in the sciences have sprung from our departments over the years and, indeed, Mr Chancellor, as you will recall, the first woman Nobel Laureate in Science, Professor Dorothy Hodgkin, was a distinguished forerunner of yours in the office of Chancellor of this University. Today our science and engineering departments are among the highest-rated in the UK and their research is of international quality.  It frequently hits the headlines: in the past few weeks alone, the world's media have reported research from Earth Sciences exposing the health hazards associated with volcanic dust; from Mechanical Engineering resulting in a groundbreaking device for inspecting the inside of structures such as aircraft wings; from Biological Sciences revealing that ants seem to have the answer to traffic chaos; and from Social Medicine exposing the shortage of scientific evidence of a link between stress and ill health.

Adam Hart-Davis was born into a famous literary family where, in his words, 'as far as I am aware, no one before me had shown the slightest interest in science’.  On hearing that his younger son wished to become a scientist, his father, Sir Rupert Hart-Davis, remarked of Adam to his friend, George Lyttlelton, 'He wants to specialize, God help us, in science!'   Dr Hart-Davis himself attributes his enthusiasm for science to the words of a 'small, frog-like Canadian called Mr Turner' – a teacher at his prep school – who, as Adam was leaving the school, 'beetled up to me and said, “I've just got one thing to say – science'”.  Science it was.  During his schooldays at Eton, among other trophies for cricket, soccer and chess he also carried off various prizes for Science.  He then went to Merton College, Oxford, where he was awarded a First in Chemistry.  For his Doctorate, he moved to York and studied Organometallic Chemistry.  After three years' postdoctoral research in Canada and the UK, his literary genes took over for a while and he spent five years publishing science books for the Oxford University Press.  But it was after this that his talent for communication began to be revealed.   He spent the next seventeen years with Yorkshire Television, starting in 1977 as a researcher with one of the most memorable of scientific communicators, Magnus Pike, and others such as David Bellamy, Miriam Stoppard and Rob Buckman.  In 1985 he produced Arthur C Clarke's World of Strange Powers.  Then he created and produced Scientific Eye, the most successful school science television series, which was used in some 70 per cent of UK secondary schools and in 35 other countries.  This was followed by Mathematical Eye – an equally successful schools maths series. 

Local Heroes began as just two series confined to Yorkshire, but in 1993 the programme went national, running to a further six series, and Dr Hart Davis, astride his fluorescent pink and yellow bicycle and clad in matching cycling gear, soon became a 'cult figure'.  These programmes took us to the towns and villages where our early scientists and inventors had lived or worked and where Doctor Hart-Davis, frequently with great ingenuity, demonstrated how their discoveries had been made.

There followed What the Tudors did for us, What the Stuarts did for us, Science Shack – very dangerous and full of flashes and bangs, What the Victorians did for us, What the Romans did for us – who can forget his demonstration of Roman signalling, the forerunner of semaphore, or his struggle with a Roman harvester, the forerunner of the combine?  He presented twelve programmes of Tomorrow's World for BBC1, 35 history programmes (Hart-Davis on History) and numerous other teaching and scientific programmes and radio broadcasts.  In the course of these we have seen Dr Hart-Davis in many perilous situations, defying gravity, descending into ghastly sewers and lighting the blue touch paper in many situations where one would have preferred to retire beforehand.  Lively demonstration of his heroes' experiments was certainly the high spot of these programmes, but they went much further than just television entertainment.  Hands-on experience is critical for young people and the programmes were therefore provided with Web links which allowed us to emulate Newton by creating a prism out of a CD case and using it to study spectroscopy; to make things, such as a telephone or electric motor; to extract DNA from kiwi fruit; and to try for ourselves many other fascinating experiments.    

Dr Hart-Davis' interests are amazingly wide and his work is not confined to television and radio – he has twenty books to his credit, among them not only those that chronicle his television series, but also a defining treatise on Thomas Crapper, inventor of the water closet, a book of Amazing Maths Puzzles and, with his partner, Dr Susan Blackmore, Psychologist and former Research Fellow and Tutor at this University, a work entitled Test your psychic powers.  In his CV as his occupation, Dr Hart-Davis lists 'freelance photographer' above writer and broadcaster and indeed his photography of scientific subjects is outstanding.  Among the honours he has collected are a medal from the Royal Academy of Engineering for the promotion of Engineering, and the 1999 Gerald Frewer memorial trophy of the Council of Engineering Designers.  He is a Companion of the Institution of Lighting Engineers, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and a member of the British Toilet Association.  His sons, Jason and Damon, have both pursued scientific careers – Damon in high-grade computer software and Jason, after studying organic chemistry, as a patent agent.

Dr Hart-Davis lives in Bristol and possesses six bicycles and no car. 

There is just one more aspect of Adam Hart-Davis that I should mention – his sartorial preferences.  When he first appeared in his fluorescent pink and yellow cycling gear he explained his garish choice as being good practice for anyone cycling on our roads today.  Perhaps!  But perhaps that is only half the story!  When I asked how he arrived at his choice he explained that back in his early days at Yorkshire Television, he had been discussing with a group of his colleagues, one Friday afternoon as one does, the merits of wearing eccentric clothes.  Everyone had agreed to come in to the office the following Monday dressed to test the effect of wearing something 'out of the ordinary'.  On Monday, Adam, until then a tweed jacket and corduroys sort of chap, duly selected a shockingly bright shirt, tennis trousers, and what are known in these parts as 'plimsolls' or 'daps'.  On arriving at the office he found he was the only one actually to have lived up to the challenge, but the effect on everyone else was so riveting that he has never looked back.  Today I am sure he is more than delighted with his truly bright – scarlet and salmon pink – Bristol doctoral robes and I see that he has, indeed, lived up to the occasion and chosen something equally vibrant to wear underneath.

In the cause of the understanding of science, Adam Hart-Davis' achievement cannot be attributed to anyone who has a mere passing relationship with science.  He is that happy, multi-talented individual – funny, fascinated by history, with great affection for people who have left a real mark on the world – and with a very solid, broad scientific knowledge.  He has the skill and the depth of understanding that enables him to make the big picture as intelligible as he does the fine detail, and to imbue every discovery and invention he presents with that sense of excitement that inspired its original inventor.  He is a true servant of the science and engineering community as well as a delightful entertainer.  Many of our students today may well have chosen science because of his work. I have no doubt that the same will be true for the students of the future.

Mr Chancellor, I present to you Adam John Hart-Davis as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Science honoris causa.

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