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Nicholas Hitchon: the ‘Seven Up’ scientist known to millions

Written by: Jack Grove
Published on: 22 Feb 2021

Nicholas Hitchon, aged 7, in Michael Apted’s ‘Seven Up!’ documentary

Source: Britbox

“When I grow up I want to learn about the Moon and all that”: Nick Hitchon’s career is close to what he predicted aged 7.

With a professorship at one of America’s top research-intensive universities, Nicholas Hitchon should really be known as one of the more successful British physicists working in the US.

But Professor Hitchon, who has worked at the University of Wisconsin-Madison since 1982, admits he is generally not defined by his professional accomplishments; instead he is more likely to be remembered as “Nick", one of the stars of the Up documentaries.

Directed by Michael Apted, a Granada TV producer turned Hollywood director who died last month, the landmark series has followed a handful of British people from childhood, visiting them every seven years since 1964 to explore some of life’s most fundamental themes and, in the latest instalment, 63 Up, released in 2019, the legacy of ordinary people and their impact on the world around them.

Most famously, however, the show explored the extent to which social class defines life chances in Britain, having been inspired by the Jesuit maxim “Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man”.

Of all the children interviewed for Seven Up in 1964, Professor Hitchon seemed to travel furthest in social terms, defying the show’s otherwise melancholic view of Britain’s entrenched class system; he was the farmer’s son from a tiny school in the Yorkshire Dales who went to the University of Oxford, then the US. “From watching the show, you’d say the Jesuits had it right – there wasn’t a lot of social mobility in it,” Professor Hitchon told Times Higher Education.

Professor Hitchon’s portrayal did not, however, give an entirely accurate sense of his upbringing, he said. “My family was very well educated, which the films didn’t capture – my father went to university in Leeds and my mother could have gone to university, while my brother went to Oxford,” he said. “I was picked because they wanted someone from a rural school and it helped that I was a chatterbox.”

While many viewers have marvelled at the show’s unique portrait of the twists and turns of life, those in academia have also recognised themselves in the often unsparing portrayal of Professor Hitchon’s life as a scientist. This depiction includes his painful decision to abandon years of research into nuclear fusion energy. “In the late 1970s I’d read a book which said we were going to pollute ourselves into oblivion unless we could invent really cheap and clean electricity – that’s why I went into nuclear fusion,” he said.

Although he was advised by an Oxford colleague that fusion “was never going to work”, he persisted for many years until eventually admitting defeat. “When I started working on fusion energy in the 1970s, I was told it was 20 years away – today they are saying it is 30 years away,” he reflected.

As governments are still spending “vast amounts” on this research, having already poured in billions of pounds, this “raises an ethical issue”, he said. “I was able to move sideways into other research, although not as much as I would have done had I not spent years on fusion – I got quite disillusioned.”

Mr Apted covered these tribulations only briefly. “He had directed Coronation Street, so he was never going to dwell on this – it was described as a ‘stumbling block’,” Professor Hitchon reflected.

Professor Hitchon’s depiction as a scholar abroad – separated from his family in England and after his divorce even more isolated – was what struck a more powerful chord with viewers, particularly for international scholars facing similar strains working thousands of miles from home.

“There is no safety net – if I was in England, I would have had professional contacts, as well as friends and family closer, so it was hard. If I’d done my PhD in the US, it would have been different as you would be plugged into a professional network, but I wasn’t,” he added.

Returning home to see his parents was also immensely difficult, he said. “Some people do a better job of it than I did – and the show actually helped with that – but Americans believe that things should be competitive so I was overwhelmed with things to do.”

Professor Hitchon’s return in 63 Up revealed he had throat cancer, with Mr Apted suggesting he had “weeks to live”. More than a year on, his health remains perilous, though he has continued to teach online during the pandemic. He would be keen to make a 70 Up if he is still around, he said.

“As academics we live in a world of ideas and novel ideas are what we try to find – Up is a truly creative and unique idea that examines the human condition. As academics we have to value these creative ideas, which is why I’ve been so committed to the series,” he said, despite having struggled with a process that required him to bare himself emotionally to the world.

“I don’t think of it as my story any longer – it’s everyone’s story; it shows the human condition.”