Stephen Fry is a comedian, actor, writer and presenter. His incredible career began at Cambridge University with the Footlights, where he would meet long-time comedic collaborator Hugh Laurie with whom he would create A Bit of Fry and Laurie and star in Jeeves and Wooster. He has gone on to become an award-winning author of multiple books and an actor in film, television and theatre. His acclaimed documentary series include the Emmy-winning The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive. In recent years, Stephen is best known to audiences worldwide as the host of QI.
I’ve endlessly been fascinated by a world beyond my grasp, a world of numbers.
On gaining an interest in science
I think I became interested in science almost in a sort of unwilling way, because my father was a physicist and was and still is my last port of call whenever I have a problem and I go, ooh, I’ve just read this thing on the internet about something or other and I didn’t understand it, something to do with, something either in astrophysics or something more fundamental, and he will reply, ah, well, you see…and then explain it. And I remember as a boy if I said things like why is the sky blue or, you know, the usual questions that children ask, his natural response – and this is a thing that I’ve always recognised separates me from a truly scientific mind – was to take a piece of paper and to draw a vector, there’s an x and a y and then he’d do a sort of sine wave or something and at the top of the sine wave he’d go x= (x-1/2) squared and say, so you see? And I’d go, no, I don’t see, I so completely don’t see how that piece of paper is related to the world, tables and chairs and love and death and anything else that we have, and yet it so clearly is.
And so I’ve endlessly been fascinated by a world beyond my grasp, a world of numbers. I know it works because I am if nothing else an empiricist, not a rationalist, and I do know that that same thing means when I press the light switch the light will go on, unless of course the bulb doesn’t work. But things work, they’re repeatable, they’re verifiable, they’re testable, and that to me is the glory of science, particularly British science, I think…well, you might say it began in Florence, but essentially the Newtonian idea that you punch a hole and let the light go through and you can completely explode a perfectly beautiful rational theory of light that hasn’t been tested, and my father is someone who believes in engineering and things as well, like…probably a minority of scientists, though some very great ones, Dirac, and obviously Newton, and Turing had a quite a mechanical turn of mind.
On helping people to become interested in science
If you were to ask me what science meant at school I could tell you the slightly sulphurous smell of the science lab and the Bunsen burners. I can remember the awful beaker of liquid with a little wooden thing and string hanging down it and having to write, a crystal was precipitated, only of course it wasn’t in my case because something had gone wrong, and that whole Nuffield thing and then moles and Avogadro’s number and the chemistry which ought to be so exciting becomes a world of dullness. But I don’t blame the teachers for that, any more, because, after all, people blame their teachers for not liking Shakespeare. No one would say, oh, I can’t find the Lake District beautiful because I had a really bad geography teacher, so they ruined it for me. That can’t be right, and yet somehow one does know that the extraordinary…well, Immanuel Kant – who is regarded by many as the father of the enlightenment which gave birth to all the free thought and enquiry that we thank the scientists of the 18th and 19th century for – he said: two things amaze me, the starry sky above me and the moral law within me. And that to me is a most beautiful statement, it excludes the need for a higher power outside and it also includes the absolutely human quality of wonder. And I think, you know, it’s a terrible cliché, you know, I inherited from my father the 1930s The Boys Book of Wonder in which there were all these, you know, statements made about the atom is the smallest thing in the universe and can never be reduced and so on…that’s what it means in Greek of course.
But how do we do it in education, I don’t know. There are marvellous popularisers on TV of whom Brian Cox is obviously one, in terms of mathematics Marcus du Sautoy and others, and they can get people going but for me I suppose it’s always show not tell, it’s somehow to get people to see that the world is up for grabs and the universe is up for grabs in terms of understanding and explaining it. But it’s not that there is no distinction between science and arts, there shouldn’t be; it’s almost 50 years ago now since C.P. Snow, who was a scientist and an author, he wrote a famous lecture called The Two Cultures, which was enormously controversial at the time, in which he complained about the fact that the world was being divided and that the outside was winning, as it were. And to this day, of course, everybody looks at University Challenge and says, oh, I’m really good at University Challenge, except of course the science ones. All you have to do is go minus one, one or zero and you’ve got more than a fifty percent chance of being right, whatever, because that’s usually the answer. But with no idea about that basic thing.
On opposition to science
The thing that most maddens me about the…if you like, the anti-science people…well, I’m not going to be paranoid and say the world is full of anti-science people but there are, you know, annoyingly anti-science type statements you hear from time to time, like “science doesn’t know everything”, as if the corollary is therefore it knows nothing, which is obviously ridiculous. And the first people to say “science doesn’t know everything” are the scientists. If there is a definition of science I find truly satisfactory, it is humility before the facts, and all great scientists have said, you know, if they have a theory or discover something or think they have, they’d beat it and beat it and beat it until it’s destroyed, and then if it isn’t destroyed, then they might tentatively suggest that a friend read it, and then tentatively put it forward for peer review and it might be published and they say, “it seems to be”, “at the moment”, “as far as we can tell”… and that’s as arrogant as I’ve ever heard a scientist be, to be honest. So it saddens me that people don’t see that, the joy of testing things, openly and honestly, but also the doubt is real. It’s not logical to say that because there is doubt that means anything is possible, therefore why should I believe in science, you know, because science doesn’t know everything, so I’m going to say that it’s this divinity or that divinity. I don’t mind if people believe in God and I’m certainly not going to attack people for doing so, why should I, it would be impertinent and wrong. But some scientists, even…Stephen Jay Gould is a famous example, said well, look, there should be two realms, or magisterial as he called them. One of which is science is business, which is the material world and cosmos, and the other is the spiritual world and the two shouldn’t overlap. He called them…they were known as noma – which is also the name of the fantastic restaurant in Copenhagen, which is a complete coincidence – non-overlapping magisteria.
Unfortunately that’s not really good enough because, you know, if people are making claims about the existence of a deity and a creation for which we just simply have no evidence base, then a scientist can’t really keep quiet about it and say, oh fine, that’s your area, you’re allowed to think that…well, of course, you’re allowed to think it but, you know, evidence is evidence and I think it’s incredibly important. We use it in law, you don’t send someone to prison over a lack of evidence and you don’t make a statement about an absolutely convinced statement of fact unless there is evidence to back it up.