The founder of science communication company ‘Ready, Steady, Science’, Simon Watt is an evolutionary biologist, science communicator and writer. He is also the president of the Ugly Animals Preservation Society and a writer for a number of newspapers and sites, but is perhaps best known as the evolutionary biologist on the BAFTA-winning TV series ‘Inside Nature’s Giants’.
You look at these beautiful scenes of these amazing creatures and you just see how vast and complex and mind achingly beautiful life is.
On becoming interested in science
I think that I’ve always been into science. Science is just a natural outlet for anybody who’s curious and I was definitely one of those kids who plagued my mother with why, why, why, why, endlessly. I love information in all forms. I’ve got a real interest in history and philosophy and anything. I love reading and learning about all these things and I think maybe the thing that made biology really the one that I focused on and that I loved, a lot of it was down to an amazing teacher at school and a lot of it was down to David Attenborough. We all went through that phase of, you know, Sunday nights having your eyes glaze over as you look at these beautiful scenes of these amazing creatures and you just see how vast and complex and mind-achingly beautiful life is. And then, ah, my biology teacher was a real influence I think because he did this wonderful thing, I’d ask him a question and he would write down on the blackboard all the things that you had to know to answer that question in an exam. And then he’d tell you how it really was. And I loved that complexity, that every single thing you thought you knew, you didn’t. It was so much more. That every single answer gave you another question.
On communicating science
I don’t have a day-to-day routine. So, I write about science, I read about science, I talk about science, so I do everything from talking on the radio, doing a little bit of broadcasting, stuff on TV. I do a little bit of theatre, I’ve designed games. I suppose I wouldn’t have the audacity to call myself any form of artist or anything but I try to work with the information that inspires me and I can’t help it. I find this stuff so interesting, it’s only natural that you want to share it. And it is so interesting, it’s only natural that people want to hear about it. The universe is a beautiful place, it’s only right that we shout out from the rooftops about how wonderful it is.
On Inside Nature’s Giants
I’ve been very fortunate to work on a documentary called ‘Inside Nature’s Giants’ and in that we try and focus on the anatomy and the evolution of some of nature’s biggest creatures. We’ve done, I think, now over 19 big animals and there’s lots and lots of little insects. They’re the ‘big for the insects’, but we’ve even had to look at a tree.
The reason is, if you look at most natural history film making, 90% plus of the stuff out there, we look at behaviour. We know what animals do. We know about their beautiful dances, their songs, their tooth and claw, hunting things down, but there’s a whole set of questions we’ve been ignoring in regards to their evolution and their physiology and their anatomy. And just like a car, if you want to see how a car really works, yes, you can run it on the track, you can watch it as it goes round the bend but you also have to have a look under the hood. And that’s just what we wanted to try and do in the show.
I think one of the most exciting things we did in ‘Inside Nature’s Giants’ was made a…we made a genuine live discovery. It was wonderful. It was when we were doing a dissection of a lion and a tiger, which are remarkably similar. So as you get the skin off, it’s amazing how alike their anatomy is. And one of the guys, he was just leaning over and pointing at this little bit of the lion’s chest. And we were looking at its larynx, a bit of its voice box and where it was attached with muscles so it can move around, to make it mobile, to make its kind of vocalisations, the roar that is famous with the lion. And he just looked at it and said, ‘Wait a minute, this lion’s wrong’. And we thought, really? And you could see suddenly, everybody in the room, all the dissectionists all the scientists went quiet and leaned in. And sure enough, all the text books at this point had assumed that it was the same as a domestic cat, that all felines have more or less the same kind of larynx. And in the case of the lion, it’s just anchored much, much deeper. And this allows it to slide and move its voice box. I think it’s a bit like a trombone, um, so the more you can move it, the deeper the voice you can get. So this is fundamental to the secret of the lion’s roar. And we’ve never known about it. Nobody just ever noticed until we’d had a good, hard look at it!
On designing science games
I’ve been designing some games lately, I’ve been really enjoying this, I’ve made some of Hide and Seek for the Natural History Museum last year. Um, I made two and I suppose the thing is, I’ve got a background in museums. I used to work at Jorvik, I worked at the National Railway Museum, I’ve worked at a great many through the times and I do a lot of events at the Science Museum and Lates and things at these other ones. I love museums. I think they’re gorgeous, beautiful places. And the way that we can try and engage people with the collection, with the things that have been there…um, we’re lucky now, we’ve got documentaries and we’ve got holidays off to see these places but this how, in the past, people accessed this information.
I live in London, I’ve just recently moved, and every time I walk into a museum now I feel so lucky. It feels like Britain just nicked all the best stuff from the across the world.
So when it comes to game design, I wanted to try and get a different emotion. We’re good at science talks, we’re getting better at this, we’re better at communicating to the public but we tend to have maybe one sort of set of emotions. Like, I do comedy and things because it’s nice to make people laugh, but it’d be nice to make people feel other things about science as well. So one of my games was spread across two different floors in the Natural History Museum. It was inside the Cocoon, this new big pod where they keep lots and lots of seeds, and that’s what got me thinking. And I got, you know, parents and adults, kids, all to come along, and they’d make a kind of origami little helicopter seed, a bit like what you get in a sycamore, and drop it over the edge of this building and it would descend going down. And on the bottom I projected a forest scene with leaf litter and then just a little patch of soil. And if that seed would land in a patch of soil I can make a projection of a tree grow. And it was deeply satisfying, um, because I wanted it to be beautiful because nature’s beautiful and I wanted to be playful and it meant that kids would come and play it for hours. And it’s just a new different take. We have to do this.
You know, we’ve been doing so badly for so long. If people think, if people could even concede that science is dull and irrelevant then we have made some massive mistakes. How can discovering the secrets of the universe, of life, of everything, to quote Douglas Adams accidentally, how can that ever be dull? We have to change.
Evolution’s really neat and the thing I found most amazing about it is it’s just a small, eloquent, tiny theory that you can sum up by saying things are the way they are because they’re better at being alive that way. The bit of evolution that I focused my studies on, and my favourite bit, was what we call sexual selection. It’s kind of Darwin’s other theory. Everyone knows about natural selection which is, ah, you survive by being better than all your competitors but Darwin realised that wasn’t just about survival of the fittest it was also survival of the sexiest.
So if we’re going to think about it like this, I just want you to think every time you see a flower, or you eat a fruit or the beautiful songs of birds and the dances and so many of the complex, beautiful parts of nature, so many of the horrid, nasty bits of nature like wasps laying their eggs and having them hatch out alive and eat their prey alive, all that, is just for sex. And, well, look at a flower. We give them at Valentine’s Day and that’s just the fleshy, flamboyant gonads of a…it’s the sex organs of a plant. You’re not being subtle when you give that are you?
So sexual selection is the thing I think that’s most mind boggling. To look at things which are counter intuitive, at things which look like the completely wrong, like a peacock’s tail, and know that’s also a result of evolution.