Interview: Tim Radford

by Anthony Doesburg / 11 January, 2013
Expatriate Kiwi journalist Tim Radford has spent a good part of his career trying to interest the public in science.
Tim Radford
Tim Radford, photo/supplied


On June 25, 1988, the lead story in Britain’s Guardian newspaper reported an American scientist’s assertion that record temperatures in the first five months of that year could almost certainly be blamed on human-caused pollution. The scientist was James Hansen, and sharing the byline for the story was the newspaper’s science editor, Tim Radford. “The story was a gift. It was James Hansen, a hotshot from Nasa, telling a Senate committee he was 99% sure the greenhouse effect had already started.”

It was a lucky break in another way for Radford, a Kiwi who left a job at the New Zealand Herald in 1961 for a short spell overseas and ended up spending more than 30 years at the Guardian. The story helped to get him to a climate change conference in Toronto a couple of days later. The Toronto Conference on the Changing Atmosphere was the first of numerous environmental summits, and gave birth to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

“I had an immediate sense of being in on a story from the beginning, which is always great fun, because this is a long game and it gets more interesting if you know the story so far.”

He shrugs at just how long a game. Dire climate predictions – last August, Hansen produced statistics showing extreme temperatures now affect 10% of global land area – continue to be greeted with indifference. “People, one cannot help noticing, attach levels of importance to information, when they attach any importance at all. So it would be quite possible for lots of people to shake their heads sadly, deplore the spendthrift prodigality of the human race and then book a flight to Venice or buy a new car or dream of a second home.”

COMPETITION


Radford, now retired but at 73 still contributing reviews and editorials to the Guardian, is not necessarily claiming the moral high ground. “As a young reporter, I probably read in my newspaper that smoking was dangerous to health. As an older reporter, I certainly wrote about the dangers of smoking in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. I didn’t actually extinguish my last unfiltered Gauloise or Gitane until 1995.”

Nor is he afflicted with over-earnestness about his subject. “As a science correspondent, you are competing with someone who can wander up to the newsdesk with a story about the captain of the England team in bed with two tarts and a vicar. It’s no good ructions on the arts page and the editor was walking past, so I said, ‘Can I be arts editor?’, and he said, ‘All right.’”

The science job was assigned to him. “The editor wanted someone to run the science page, and partly because I was never part of the Oxbridge mafia – who were defined by knowing nothing about science and thinking it was toys for boys and all rather boring – he thought I might do it. I could see that it wasn’t boring; there were amazing things going on. But I had no training in science.”

He got a good grounding by sitting in on meetings of the “loquacious, articulate, entertaining” scientists of the British Association. He also sought out events such as a “teach-in” on Egyptology, where he got one of his most memorable scoops.

“A guy turned up named Kent Weeks, who was going to talk about one of the tombs of the pharaohs in the Valley of the Kings.” Weeks, an American archaeologist, began describing how two years earlier he was exploring an unpromising opening that was about to be blocked by roadworks.

“It was full of rubble and seemed entirely uninteresting – the kind of place an Egyptian might have put his lawnmower had he had one,” Radford says. But Weeks revealed he and his colleagues had found four bodies, which subsequent DNA testing would confirm were sons of pharaoh Ramses II, who ruled in the time of Moses.

“If you were brought up, as everyone of my generation was, with a religious education, you thought, ‘Hang on, so these could have been slain by the Angel of Death.’ Suddenly, you had an Egyptology story that intersected with popular history.”

Turning it into a story for the Guardian was easy. Again, it ran on the front page, in May 1997, and spilt onto the back page, which Radford says was always a “tiny triumph”.

“It wrote itself. It turned into an enormously entertaining story into which you could put all the science – accounts of why a tomb would fill with debris 3000 years after it had first been sealed; the difficulty of surveying in conditions like that. And it was illuminated by a mythic narrative that informed all of European history, which the Moses story does.” And it was a genuine scoop.

SIX QUESTIONS


These days, Radford, who was born in Hokianga and joined the NZ Herald at 16, conducts science-writing master classes in which he points out the similarities between science and journalism. “A journalist asks six questions repeatedly and is never quite happy with the answers, and so does a scientist. Both of them have to do literature searches and both have to submit their work to peer review.”

He is struck by the generally low level of education and interest in science of a public that is “quite capable of encompassing werewolves and Newtonian physics at the same time”. But he isn’t despondent. “I just tell people there is nothing frightening about science.”
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