Let’s start by getting something out in the open – I am a geek. A nerd. An absolute gimpazoid. My preferred subject of geekdom is evolutionary biology/psychology and animal behaviour. And so although it may seem unusual for a 23-year-old woman to name an 85-year-old man as her role model, it perhaps makes sense that Sir David Attenborough should be a natural hero of mine. The man has been the face and voice of BBC nature documentaries for over five decades – I grew up watching his documentaries, and I still watch them to this day, always eagerly awaiting the next offering. However, Sir David is not one of my biggest idols because he happens to be a major player in what happens to be my field. He is one of my biggest idols because of the human being he is.
As those of you who follow me on Twitter may well know (and be sick of hearing, since I have spoken about little else) I saw David Attenborough give a talk at St Andrews University last night. He gave a lecture on Alfred Russel Wallace (the man who came up with the theory of natural selection, independent of Darwin but around about the same time) and birds of paradise. The place was packed full of people from all ages and backgrounds. When Sir David took the stage and began to speak, the whole audience inhaled; it was like every individual took a deep breath inwards, as if each and every one of us were utterly astounded and mesmerised that the voice we all know and love from our television screens was now right in front of us, talking to us through a microphone only a few meters away. It was a pretty magical moment.
Attenborough talked for 45 minutes about Wallace, Darwin, birds of paradise and the theory of natural selection. I know this is an area he has spoken about many, many times before, not least because I’ve seen hours of footage where he speaks of these very subjects. But he was far from exhausted of the topic. His enthusiasm, wonder and thoughtfulness was as evident last night as it was in documentaries he made 40-odd years ago. The whole audience was captivated, and after 45 minutes (which felt like ten) I did not want his lecture to end.
Attenborough was an absolute gentleman throughout the entire talk – never forgetting to say “please” and “thank you” to the technician every time he moved the powerpoint onto the next slide or played a video clip. He also stressed during the talk how courteous and humble Darwin and Wallace had been towards each other at a time when the two men could have fought and squabbled over who the theory of natural selection rightfully belonged to. His admiration of such a gracious attitude, especially within the field of science, was clear.
This is the real reason Attenborough is my hero, and is a fantastic role model for anyone, any gender, any age, any field. Here is a man who, at the age of 85, shows as much passion and enthusiasm for science and nature now as he did when he started out over 50 years ago. There is not an ounce of arrogance or ostentation about him, as far as I can see. Anyone who wants to make a career out of engaging the public – whether in the field of science communication or beyond – should take a few leafs out of his book and just try to be a nice, enthusiastic, engaging individual.
I said at the start of this post that I don’t just admire Attenborough because he is a big name in my field. I would go so far as to say that I am in this field because he, along with a few others, put me there. So thank you, Sir David, for being an inspiration to myself and many others like me.