Alex James: The Great Escape

'Bryan Ferry has got apples coming out of his ears'
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The Independent Online

'Do you want some piglets?" I asked. "No, I've got a pig, thanks." Then he paused and said: "I can't believe we're not going to the Moon. It's ridiculous."

I was torn as to where to try to steer the conversation next. We seemed to be on my two favourite subjects. There aren't many people who can embrace the two in one utterance, with credibility. It was good to see Colin Pillinger again, Britain's greatest living scientist. It was a break during the third annual Appleton Space Conference and we were sitting in the rain. I was having a fag. He was animated, wanting to make things happen, as usual.

The professor, who is a consultant for the British National Space Centre, had asked if he could borrow one of my rams for tupping his ewes a few minutes earlier: happy to help. I was on the lookout for another guy, as well. I think his name is John. He's tremendously important and I know he's got lots of apple trees. I need to get some apples for making chutney, space chutney, but there was no sign of him. Most important people with apple trees have no idea what to do with them, I'm sure. I've got to call Bryan Ferry. He's got apples coming out of his ears. Roxy Chutney. That could work. I'm sure space pickle would fly, too, though.

Since Beagle 2 crash-landed on Mars on Christmas Day, 2003, Colin has struggled with the rest of the space-science community. All the people who would have been his best friends if he'd achieved what he'd set out to do turned their backs on him, and now mutter that Beagle 2 was never going to work. There are few scientists bold enough to step into the ring with those two great impostors, triumph and disaster. Colin is as tough as he is engaging, and I think it would take very little to get everyone back on his side.

We can't go into space by committee. We need charismatic leaders and we have one in Colin. He'd made a spectacular entrance through the fire exit, just as proceedings were getting under way. Then he'd sat down and his phone had gone off as soon as it went quiet again. He is a natural focus, a personality in a field of endeavour that lacks them.

My part in the day's proceedings was to participate in a lecture about marketing, I'd persuaded one of my friends from the world of PR to give the guys a brief heads-up on how to sell stuff. It should be easy to sell space. We are innately interested in it. Selling fizzy drinks is difficult they're just sugar and water and marketing. They're so boring that the most expensive ingredient has to be marketing. There isn't any money to spend on marketing science, but it could easily be cooler than art, which is the thing to have at the moment.

I'm sooooo bored of art. People are more interesting than anything, and scientists need to lead with their personalities, like everyone else in showbusiness. We're all in showbusiness now, all of us. Musicians never talk about music, they talk about themselves, or other people talk about them. Has Damien Hirst ever tried to explain art? Why should scientists need to talk about science? People still talk about Colin, four years after Beagle. For goodness' sake, he's right, as usual. Why aren't we going to the Moon? Everyone else is.

"And they should give Branson the space station. It was never built for doing science. It's a showpiece," said Colin. Now that's a good idea. Maybe Mr Branson should think about doing a pickle, too.

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