A Sassenach Soliloquy

Sunday, January 2

Career planning

I have a week before the new semester starts. I have some things that need doing, and hopefully T. and I will get to spend a couple of days on one of the highland islands. Perhaps the most important of those things I have to do is think, hard, about the project I’ll do in the summer, and about my PhD proposals. Funding deadlines begin to loom as soon as the 1st February.

Yet I have no idea as yet. The course that should focus my mind – The origins and subsequent evolution of language – is run during this semester, so I’ll only be a few weeks into it by the time I have to have finished my applications. And our unassessed evolution of language seminars are also this semester. Does the deadline really need to be so soon?

I don’t have to do a PhD, of course. However I’d like to; it’d be fascinating, an obviously good thing to have on the cv and would mean three more years in a great town. But, more importantly, it fits into the career plan that I’ve begun to create and shape in the past two years or so. The job I really want (not to mention giving me three more years to find/create it) is to popularise Science on TV.

Why? Well, it’d be fun for a start, and should provide a healthy income, and that’s the fundamentals taken care of. But there are many other reasons that make it The Job For Me, and they fit into two broad categories: because it’d be rewarding, and because I think it’s important. Those reasons are not, of course, unrelated. And perhaps there’s a third category of reason: I reckon I’d be bloody good at it.

Science, and what Scientists do, is grossly misunderstood by the public and often misrepresented by the media. The basics, like the Scientific Method, are little known despite their simplicity. For example, many people think that ideas somehow get promoted from theory to fact, and don’t appreciate that every idea in Science is there for the shooting; nothing is sacred.

The problem, I think, starts in the classroom. What we teach is not Science, but other people’s Science: We only replicate what has gone before and is known. Did your Science teachers ever ask you to form a hypothesis before the experiement? Probably not, and even if so, did you understand why they asked? If so, you’re either extremely lucky (to have such a rare teacher) or a natural scientist (in which case you already know all this).

And I’m sure it can be made appealing. For example, a few weeks ago I was watching the excellent new food program Full On Food (BBC2, 8pm, Wednesdays) and Heston Blumenthal was on. If you don’t know who he is, go and google his name. He’s head chef and owner of The Fat Duck, a restaurant that possesses a rare three Michelin stars. And one of the reasons he has those stars is the outstanding originality of his food. Salmon infused with liquorice, anyone? How about bacon-and-egg ice-cream? He produces these dishes after much scientific work: He forms hypotheses about what is happening when we eat, tests his hypotheses and produces dishes that exploit that understanding. He is a Scientist, and a successful one at that. Why isn’t there a Science show exploiting such a sexy – and proper – use of Science? There should be (in fact, I think that the format of Full On Food could easily be adapted for a Science show), and I have the energy, passion, knowledge, good looks and communication skills necessary to present it.

Now, do you have any friends who work for the BBC? Can you put me in touch?


  • Out of a titanic fit of boredom I have just been perusing your Amazon wish-list... What the fuck is that brain-bendingly bland bitch Norah Jones doing on there? Our friendship is temporarily suspended until it's off there. If it's not deleted within one week, the suspension will become permanent and you may have to pay a reconnection fee (i.e. buy an Iggy Pop, Brian Eno or early Genesis album) in order to resume normal service.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4 January 2005 at 15:28  

  • Liquorice has a similar flavour to fennel, which you ought to know is a traditional accompaniment to fish. Anise is also similar and is also used in the same way. I don't think it takes a Scientist to figure out that one ingredient can be replaced with another similar tasting ingredient with passable results - Blumenthal is simply marketing novelty value here. Novelty foods have been done before with some of the more idiotic fusion cooking creations of the 90s and the appearance of grubs and bugs on London menus. It's just a way of pulling in jaded diners. The test of great cooking is not novelty but longevity. I wonder how many people will remember bacon-and-egg ice-cream in ten years time. This is fashion not style and I'm surprised to see you championing it.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5 January 2005 at 10:47  

  • Hmm... Some good points made by 'Anonymous' above. Although in his defence, I've seen Blumenthal speak about his cooking and came away very impressesd. Whether he's a true 'scientist' or not I couldn't say, but he does use some interesting techniques - such as distilling herbs in a vacuum cabinet, or cooling a lime mousse with liquid nitrogen. Whether his ideas have longevity or not is unknowable but I do think he's a genuine innovator, and you have to give him credit for that at least.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5 January 2005 at 11:31  

  • Yeah, y'see, that's the thing. You're right about novelty not being all that (and some of the enthusiasm about the Fat Duck of late is because of that), but Blumenthal does much more than that, although I probably didn't make it all that clear in the entry why he is, in fact, a Scientist.

    The key thing is, he's not just trying out novelty for novelty's sake (though it does impress the punters) but (and this comes through if you read his columns) he forms hypotheses about food, forms predictions and then tests those predictions. Sometimes things work, sometimes they don't. The key thing is, this isn't trial-and-error in pursuit of novelty but rather Science in pursuit of better food.

    Well, at least that's how it seems. Guess I have to go myself to find out for sure.

    By Blogger Thom, at 5 January 2005 at 12:41  

  • There's an interesting review I read a while back, which you could argue provides some level of objectivity. In particular, Course 7 is revealing.

    The menu is less about good food than about challenging the diners' preconceptions of food and dining. It is a sort of performance art. This is a restaurant where the 'tasting menu' is £90 per head before wine and after wine and coffee you can expect to pay £200 to £300 for a table for two. Ask yourself what about the food can justify that price tag and whether the extra 'experience' factor can be worth anything close to the markup. Ask yourself why others are prepared to pay.

    For some reviews by adults, try here. Even the good reviews refer to "the experience".

    We live in a society in which new is valued over old simply because it is new. We are encouraged to be sensation seekers, kept hungry for the next quick buzz. That is the result of consumerism. The marketing men tap into our insecurities and feed our wants. We line up obediently with plastic in hand. The Fat Duck simply provides something new.

    Gimmickry is impressive at first sight but it is hardly culinary innovation. It too will pass. Sure, there may be something lasting amongst Blumenthal's flourishes but that is very much peripheral to the main event. Overall, he is just one more new experience and a shining example of the Emperor's New Clothes. Good marketing will always separate the public from their money but sooner or later the fad is over and the novelty wears off. There is far more snakeoil than Science to what Blumenthal does.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5 January 2005 at 13:44  

  • I am somewhat confused as to why 'Anonymous' is denigrating 'new experiences'. In my view genuinely original experiences are nothing less than what makes life worth living. You can arge over whether what HB does is science or snake-oil, but if he's genuinely pushing the boundaries and challenging people's expectations in an interesting and original way he should be applauded.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6 January 2005 at 12:15  

  • Shit - forgot to sign that last comment up there ^. It was from me by the way.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6 January 2005 at 12:16  

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    By Blogger Ad Blaster, at 6 September 2006 at 13:45  

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