Jemima Lewis: Passion, not prize money, will save the world

The best scientists - like the best artists - are strikingly impervious to material greed

Saturday 10 February 2007 01:00 GMT

When you think about it, £10m isn't much for saving the planet. It's a City bonus sort of sum - enough to keep Prince Harry in cocktails for a year, or for a deposit on a Knightsbridge flat. Still, one mustn't be churlish: it is public-spirited of Sir Richard Branson to offer his spare change as a reward to whoever invents a convincing way to remove thousands of tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

The Virgin supremo launched his Earth Challenge Prize yesterday, flying Al Gore into London for a photoshoot of the two men holding a small plastic globe. You might say that taking a long-haul flight in order to campaign for the environment with an airline boss who plans to send tourists into space on rockets that burn thousands of gallons of rocket fuel is somewhat inconsistent. But then, aren't we all?

I try to be virtuous - recycling, composting, bicycling to the local shops to buy organic, seasonal veg - but I have my limits. Where my parents, products of a hardier generation, see out the winter in layers of goosef at, longjohns and Scottish jumpers seemingly knitted from wire wool, I reach for the thermostat as soon it gets nippy.

It is because of people like me - the well-meaning but weak-willed majority - that the survival of the planet now rests with scientists and engineers. They got us into this mess, with their pesky combustion engines and methods of mass production, and they are the only people clever enough to get us out of it.

I wonder, though, whether it was really necessary to bribe them. The best scientists - like the best artists - are strikingly impervious to material greed. They work because they have to, because they are compelled by that rare and mysterious force known as the Vocation.

I should perhaps mention here that my ignorance of science is total. I have never mastered my times tables, let alone the periodic table. At school, I found anything involving numbers, graphs or diagrams a form of mental torture: I would watch in bafflement and dismay as my classmates demonstrated wave patterns in trays of water, or deftly mingled the contents of their test tubes to create explosions of purple foam.

Once I had scraped through the obligatory science O-level - scoring a triumphant E in biology, despite having whiled away the exam doodling false eyelashes and a bow tie on to a cross-section of a haddock - I rejoiced in a future free of nuclei or isotopes, cytoplasm or photosynthesis.

Recently, however, when my husband and I ran out of conversation during a long drive up north, he ran into a service station and bought an audiobook of Bill Bryson's Short History of Nearly Everything. Now every car journey is a lesson in popular science. We have covered everything from particle physics to quantum theory. I am, despite Mr Bryson's heroic efforts, still stumped as to how the universe works - but for the first time, I'm beginning to understand how scientists work.

Consider, for example, the sad fate of Gideon Algernon Mantell, the man who discovered dinosaurs. The son of a shoemaker from Lewes, Mantell trained as an obstetrician but had a passion for palaeontology. In 1822, he discovered several very large fossilised teeth, which he felt sure belonged to an unknown reptile from the Mesozoic era. He showed them to other scientists but they scoffed at his flights of fancy.

It took Mantell a long time to convince his peers that he was on to something - at which point Sir Richard Owen, the Machiavellian head of the Natural History Museum, appropriated his findings and published his own paper, Dinosauria, which gave the reptiles their name and elbowed Mantell out of the history books.

Yet Mantell ploughed on, building up one of the world's biggest fossil collections and turning his house into a museum. His reluctance to charge an entrance fee, however, rendered him destitute, and in 1838 he sold the entire collection for £4,000. His wife left him; his son emigrated to New Zealand and his daughter died.

In 1841 he was hit by a carriage on Clapham Common, suffering a crippling spinal injury. He continued to work, numbing the pain with doses of opium, until he died of an overdose in 1852. After the post-mortem his nemesis, Sir Richard Owen, had a section of Mantell's twisted spine removed and pickled in a jar.

Though few scientists meet such a ghastly end, Mantell's single-minded - almost deranged - pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is common to anyone who achieves great things. More recent examples include Tim Berners-Lee, the British computer scientist who invented the worldwide Web and refused to profit from it, insisting that it should be free and accessible to everyone; or Grigory Perelman, the Russian mathematical genius who declined to accept the prestigious Field Medal because he just wanted to get on with his work in peace.

The saviour of the universe, if he or she exists, will be someone of the Mantell persuasion. It is passion, not prize money, that drives human invention.

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