The Telegraph Road
Roger Highfield has been the science editor for the Daily Telegraph for over ten years. He’s also one of the judges on this year’s FameLab. The Null gets the scoop.
NH - Roger, what got you interested in the media?
RH - For the first year of my doctorate all I did was prepare samples (Langmuir Blodgett films - which makes me a nanotechnologist) and write software. For the sake of my sanity I started to work on student radio and the university paper, Cherwell.
What was your background before you got into journalism?
I went straight from university to journalism. When I finished my doctorate I managed to get a job on a magazine called Pulse - nothing to do with vegetarians or soft porn but aimed at general practitioners.
If you were not a journalist what other profession would you have chosen?
Hedge fund manager. Then I might have enough money to do what I want to do.
What were your favourite subjects at school?
Both chemistry and English literature - which is probably why I ended up where I am.
You then went to university and did a PhD there - what did you do that in?
Neutron scattering. I was the first person to bounce a neutron off a soap bubble (made of heavy, deuterated, soap).
Who is your inspiration?
I have been lucky to meet many inspiring people through my job. David Attenborough, Barry Blumberg, Tom Stoppard and Jim Watson to name a few.
What do you think is the most important invention ever made and why?
The car. Because it has had a pernicious effect on cities, childhood, social life and the environment that we still don’t fully appreciate.
If you could have invented something what would you like it to have been?
Something really useful and fundamental, like a wheel, light bulb or a ball bearing.
What do you think is the most important current issue facing the world?
Overpopulation, the underlying driver of climate change.
So, what do you think the world will be like in 50 or 100 years time?
Warmer, degraded and depleted.
What country would you most like to visit and why?
Iceland. Something alien and dramatic about its landscape- well at least the pretty pictures that I have seen of it.
Who do you most admire in the world of science?
Anyone from the harder physical sciences, such as physics and chemistry... there is a wonderful rigour and clarity that is sadly lacking in fields such as sociology, psychology and medicine. Although maybe not the cosmologists - there’s speculation, wild speculation and, of course, cosmology, as the old joke goes.
Talking of the cosmos, if you had the opportunity to be a space tourist, would you?
Fly me to the moon. Or better still, to Mars so I can find a few bacteria and end speculation about Martians once and for all.
And time travel? Where would you go to if you could borrow the TARDIS for the day?
I once did a biography of Albert Einstein with an old friend and I would love to visit the 26-year old Albert in 1905 and see him at work during his annus mirabilis. I think he would be quite interested in the TARDIS too. I would take my wife, since we never seen to find enough time together.
Do you think that science gets enough column inches in the press?
No. Particularly my stories.
You've written about diverse subjects such as Carol Vorderman's brain, boy’s DNA put into rabbit eggs and living computers - what ranks as your most bizarre story?
I must have written thousands of stories over the years and I have reached the point where I just can’t remember them all, though mind control parasites, studies with severed feet to find the spring in our step must be among them. So far as researching stories goes, using magnetic fields to tinker with my brain was pretty odd, particularly since it did seem to boost my ability to remember. I did once have to chase a gene therapist on a university campus, albeit for a rather non bizarre story. There is also something about penguin stories that I find daft - all I said to the news editor once was ‘penguin prostitution’ and that was enough to sell him the story. I also liked crashing the new Airbus A380 passenger plane not once but several times in a simulator.
Do you think there a place for humour in science?
I can remember a lot of good natured banter in the lab when I was a boffin and I think humour is part and parcel of science. Science is done by people, after all.
If you could have a special power for a day, what would it be and why?
Mind reading, because I am curious. Not sure I would like what I would learn, though.
We’ve heard you say your book ‘Can Reindeer Fly?: The Science of Christmas’ is one of your favourites, do you ever get bored of people asking you about if Father Christmas exists?
The annual interviews about the book, Santa and all that have tailed off a bit now. But I really can’t complain about having to deal with the fallout of a book that has been published in a lot of countries, including four or five editions over here. And it did get the world’s shortest book review as well (No. Loaded).
What do you get up to in your free time - do you think scientists ever really switch off?
I try to write books and try to control my own mad genetic experiment (two small children) to ensure it does not go horribly wrong. I think scientists are as varied a bunch as anyone else and I am sure some of them do switch off, even if it is with the help of copious amounts of ethanol.
What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?
Surviving in Fleet Street for 20 years. I still expect I will find my belongings in a bin liner outside the office one of these days.
Roger Highfield’s new book: After Dolly. The Uses and Misuses of Cloning came out in July 2006 published by Little Brown. Order your copy by clicking here: