The Most Precious Thing

All our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike – and yet it is the most precious thing we have.

Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

As I got off the plane, he was waiting for me, holding up a scrap of cardboard with my name scribbled on it. I was on my way to a conference of scientists and TV broadcasters devoted to the seemingly hopeless prospect of improving the presentation of science on commercial television. The organizers had kindly sent a driver.

‘Do you mind if I ask you a question?’ he said as we waited for my bag.

No, I didn’t mind.

‘Isn’t it confusing to have the same name as that scientist guy?’

It took me a moment to understand. Was he pulling my leg? Finally, it dawned on me.

‘I am that scientist guy,’ I answered.

He paused and then smiled. ‘Sorry. That’s my problem. I thought it was yours too.’

He put out his hand. ‘My name is William F. Buckley.’ (Well, he wasn’t exactly William F. Buckley, but he did bear the name of a contentious and well-known TV interviewer, for which he doubtless took a lot of good-natured ribbing.)

As we settled into the car for the long drive, the windshield

wipers rhythmically thwacking, he told me he was glad I was ‘that scientist guy’ – he had so many questions to ask about science. Would I mind?

No, I didn’t mind.

And so we got to talking. But not, as it turned out, about science. He wanted to talk about frozen extraterrestrials languishing in an Air Force base near San Antonio, ‘channelling’ (a way to hear what’s on the minds of dead people – not much, it turns out), crystals, the prophecies of Nostradamus, astrology, the shroud of Turin . . . He introduced each portentous subject with buoyant enthusiasm. Each time I had to disappoint him:

‘The evidence is crummy,’ I kept saying. ‘There’s a much simpler explanation.’

He was, in a way, widely read. He knew the various speculative 


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