Celebrity scientist

August 7, 1998

Paul Davies, one of the world's great communicators of science, talks to Harriet Swain about religion and fame, and (right) explains why the origin of life remains such a mystery

Paul Davies is anxious to explain why he is here, being interviewed, in a bare but exclusive temporary apartment just off Sloane Square in London. He is in enormous demand, he says. He gets invited to appear on television, give lectures, and address companies as diverse as the Australian RAF and the tax office, several times a day, all over the world. Hundreds of people come to see him.

While he is fairly famous here in Britain, both as a popular science writer and as a physicist with some rather spiritual views about the nature of the universe, in Australia, where he now lives, he gets recognised in the street and stopped in supermarkets. He finds it "very gratifying to think they are so enthusiastic about a scientist". He has met the Pope a couple of times and the Dalai Lama. "A lot of my working time is spent scheduling my activities, sitting staring at a diary trying to work out how I can fit everything in," he says.

Davies is visiting Europe this summer to attend Italy's Spoleto festival, where he recently took part in a three-hour panel discussion with other top international scientists. His contribution focused on the origin of life - one of the great unsolved mysteries of science. In his forthcoming book, The Fifth Miracle, he argues, unusually, that the key to life is information. While most writing on the subject examines life as a bizarre chemical accident, he suggests, rather, that it was sparked by information being organised in some way, almost like a computer process. (See box right) Davies has always been interested in the big issues - the beginning of life, the nature of time, the (as the title of one of his books puts it) mind of God. "As a teenager, I used to lie in bed wondering where do I come from, what will happen when I die and so on," he says. "I used to worry a lot about free will. Anything that was hidden interested me." The young Davies spent hours lying on his back in the garden with his home-made telescope, looking up at the stars and wondering. And in some ways, except for the moustache, there is still something about him of the bright child who has never stopped asking his weary parents "But why?" All of which might explain his controversial interest in religion, a subject some of his colleagues feel is scarcely proper for a scientist. Davies's belief that the universe is rational, that there is "some sort of deep meaning to physical existence" has made him a leading member of what he calls an "alternative academy" of scientists. This academy, he revealed, a few years ago, is "trying to construct a view of the world which is not religious in the conventional sense - but is more comforting than the bleak reductionism of most science over the past 300 years". Fellows in this alternative academy include the independent scientist James Lovelock, and the Oxford professor of mathematics, Roger Penrose.

Yet his is not a conventional religious understanding. Despite being brought up in a moderately religious family, as a teenager he soon realised he was learning more about life's bigger mysteries from science than from the church. For 20 years he had almost nothing to do with organised religion and he has kept his four children well away from it. But as he started on the popular science trail he found most of the questions at the end of his lectures were quasi-religious.

On further investigation he discovered that most theologians were perfectly happy with scientific accounts of the origin of life and the universe and that "the perceived conflict between science and religion doesn't exist".

His own view has changed little since he was 16, he says. "It has always been that the universe isn't ultimately absurd, that it is about something, that it is rational." Opposed to the idea of a God as a supreme cosmic being, he believes the structure of the physical world and the existence of minds able to comprehend it are bound up together. But there is no magic about this. Science has already revealed many of the mysteries explained away in religious terms by previous generations and there is no reason, he says, why it should not eventually explain the rest.

Relaxed and fluent, he could be explaining the workings of a dishwasher rather than of the universe. Except that one reason Davies is so anxious to explain complicated ideas as clearly as possible is because of a belief in opening the eyes of others to the world's beauty. He has written: "Nature, as revealed by science and mathematics, is altogether richer, more inspiring and more astonishing than our finest poets can portray."

Life outside the womb began for Davies 52 years ago in Charing Cross Hospital, north London. He was brought up in Hampstead Garden Suburb and Finchley and still retains a Hampstead accent, with just a trace of Oz. The family was not well off. His father worked as a clerk for the London borough of Camden and his mother temped. By the time he was 14 he knew he wanted to do physics, theoretical physics with a specialism in cosmology, to be precise. He asked his chemistry teacher how to become an astronomer. "He gave me a booklet," says Davies. "But he said he didn't know anyone who had done it and didn't think it would pay very well."

His inspiration therefore was books, particularly those of Fred Hoyle, best known for his support of the steady state theory describing an eternal, infinite universe. Another influence was former prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who, as his local MP, presented him with a school science prize of a star atlas. Many years later, in 1995, she was also a judge of the Pounds 175,000 Templeton Prize for progress in religion. This allowed Davies to give up his job as a professor at the University of Adelaide and go freelance. When Davies picked up his prize, he took along the atlas and asked Thatcher to sign it. But he hated Thatcher and her government's cuts in funding to universities and left for Australia in 1990 to become professor of mathematical physics at Adelaide raging against "privatisation of the universities by stealth".

It was at Cambridge in the 1970s, where he worked at the Institute of Theoretical Astronomy, that Davies discovered something which came easily and which turned him from being a moderately successful physicist into a celebrity - he could write. He just scraped through English at school and never thought of himself as a writer. But he was asked by Physics Bulletin to write about the nature of time. Interest from a publisher turned the article into a book, New Scientist asked him for regular pieces and Nature gave him a news and views column. He was then asked to write a student text. "With each step the level came down," says Davies. "By the end of the seventies I was writing unashamedly popular books."

Popular they may have been, but not necessarily with other scientists. Former colleagues recall the feeling that he could not be serious about academic work while writing for the general reader. Others may have been jealous that Davies, no more brilliant than many in his day, was becoming more famous than they were. Even Davies thought of his writing as "parasitic on my research" and "a bit of an embarrassment".

All this changed when he arrived in Newcastle at the age of 34 to take up a chair in theoretical physics. Physics as an academic subject had started its decline and universities were beginning to acknowledge that it was a good idea to communicate with the public. Davies began to receive pats on the back for what he was doing. John Gribbin, a science writer and broadcaster who has known him more than 20 years, says Davies was ahead of his time in realising that the more the public knew about science the more public money was likely to be available for it.

But, by now, Davies, a man with a social conscience, also feels a duty to satisfy public demand. As well as the books - more than 25 at the last count - he averages one television or radio appearance per day. And for him it is so easy. He could write a book on black holes in two or three weeks, at the rate of a chapter a day, "because it's all at my fingertips".

"The point about popularising science is that ideas have their time," says Davies, after ranting about journalists' failure to pick up on big science stories quickly enough. He gets irritated about this kind of thing because he believes science offers people answers to life's big questions.

He has never supported the idea of revelling in mystery.

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