Dr Yan Wong
Dr Yan Wong is probably best known as one of the presenters on popular BBC science show ‘Bang Goes the Theory’. Yan is also an evolutionary biologist specialising in mathematical modelling of evolutionary genetics. Yan was a contributor to Richard Dawkins’ bestselling book ‘The Ancestor’s Tale’.
When you talk about and demonstrate science you’re trying to activate curiosity in people’s minds.
On getting interested in science
I think we’re all interested in the world around us from when we’re born. That’s really, really important to us all the time and some people seem to lose that natural curiosity and I guess I kept it. And I’m trying to make sure that everyone else keeps it too.
The first thing that got me really interested in science, though, I would find very difficult to…I’ve got a bad memory, I would find it difficult to pin point. I mean I did do things like watch Tomorrow’s World and stuff like that when I was little, um, I had some very good biology teachers. I think it was the intellectual delight at pursuing an idea and I think I probably got that from school, actually. Although I look back at my bookshelves from when I was I was eight and I had books on space and dinosaurs and that sort of thing that quite often children do have, so maybe that planted some seeds.
So the reason I picked evolutionary biology, well, biology in general, was because of my teachers at school who are very good and showed me that it was one of the sciences where there is still a lot to be found out, that is not explained, but where there are theories and ideas that are beautiful and have the capacity to explain what’s going on in a way that I find difficult with something like physics. You have to get to a very high level before you understand where the holes in our knowledge are and how you might fill them. That’s not true in biology. There’s a huge amount. The world is our oyster if you like. And evolutionary biology…I picked up The Selfish Gene when I was at school and I read it, and I think lots of evolutionary biologists get into it through that route. And then I was lucky to enough to have Richard Dawkins as a tutor and I wrote a book with him so, you know, there you go!
On the beauty and the power of evolution
The beauty and the power of evolution is, I think, the world around us. Anywhere you go you can look at the structure of a tree or the psychology of the people around you or the amazingly small insects that can do the most incredible sensing and moving around the world and interacting with it, that we couldn’t dream of designing. And I think there’s a great intellectual delight as well in realising that all these things are effectively biological computer programs that we can go…and nowadays, we can go into the genome and we can look at what is making these organisms. And there’s this connection between the information that is contained that generates an organism and the way it interacts with the extremely complicated world around us. I think that spans from the almost theoretical information science, computer programming side of science, all the way through to the sort of David Attenborough natural history end. And indeed the psychology end and our very own bodies and our own brains and that’s an amazing range to be able to take in and I think that’s what really turns me on about biology.
On becoming a science presenter
So I was a lecturer in a university and I got into science on the TV, and I guess on the radio as well, completely by accident. Someone who was looking, was in the BBC, was making a big long list of people who might like to have a go at presenting and another friend of mine suggested, ‘Oh well, maybe Yan would quite like to give that a go’, and she came to me and said, ‘Do you wanna put your name on this list’, and I said, ‘Well, I’ve got nothing to lose’, and then I did and was screen-tested and all that sort of thing and popped out the end to my surprise on a BBC TV programme.
I try not to talk to children specifically. I want to talk to everyone. Now, it might seem that some of that is appealing to children but I think it appeals to adults as well. I think when you talk about and demonstrate science you’re trying to activate curiosity in people’s minds. And maybe sometime’s that’s easier to do with children – because they’re naturally curious about things – than it is with adults and maybe you need to dig a bit harder with adults to do that. But I think I try not to distinguish between the people I’m talking to. The levels, or even the scientific expertise of the people you talk to, I guess…I think you can start at a sort of slightly more complicated level if people know a lot about what we’re talking about but generally everyone…the demos and the explanations of science appeal to most people and I think they can be pretty general.
On the future in biology
So something in my field that I would really love to see done, I think, is personal genome sequencing and sequencing entire genomes of anything that’s around us and that will give us a vast amount of data to construct hypotheses around. There will be a lot of work working out how to pull information out of that, but really the flood of information that comes into our realm when you are able to pull DNA out of things is extraordinary and I think we’re not far off that in our lifetimes.
Now there is a problem, isn’t there, where people think that science works by revolution and someone sort of in their ivory tower or wherever it is, or in their lab, suddenly going, ‘Eureka! I’ve got it!’ But it doesn’t work like that, really, any more, it works by progressive understanding of the world around us and something like the Human Genome Project; it’s not obvious to a member of the public what has come out of it. But, on the other hand, to anyone who’s interested in biology, suddenly it’s like an entire new world’s opened up to us. How do you assess that? How do you say what that’s going to bring about? I mean, you might point to one particular thing or another little thing and people think it’s not terribly interesting but when they realise it’s the discovery of the new world…it’s Cortés on the peak in Darian if you like. It’s this amazing way of connecting the real theoretical processes that are going on when people inherit DNA and they pass information down across generations. Connecting that to grizzly bears and to, well, I should be saying humans but actually Mantis shrimps I’ve been talking about today, vampire bats, amazing plants, and the whole thing is extraordinary and we couldn’t understand it, or we can’t understand it properly unless we have the tools that genome projects are giving us.