I was always crap at science in school. I used to regularly be bottom of the class in Chemistry. I once came next-to-bottom and the Chemistry master wrote on my report: “A fair attempt”. Shortly afterwards, he emigrated to New Zealand. This is absolutely true.
I was almost as bad at Physics, which I found excruciatingly dull. It was all facts and no ideas. Only much later did someone point out to me that, until relatively recently across the centuries, Physics and Philosophy were much the same thing, because Physics sets out to explain how the world works. If my Physics master at school had ‘sold’ the subject to me as that, I might have been interested.
When I was a kid, I used to think science and the Arts/showbiz were totally separate because the sort of people involved in one had a mindset totally different from the sort of people involved in the other.
Now the two have overlapped at the edges, with former D Ream keyboard-player Brian Cox (who ironically received a D grade for A-Level Mathematics) presenting serious BBC TV science shows because he is a respected particle physicist with a professorship and is working on experiments at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.
I am going to the Royal Institution tonight, to see their Ghost of Christmas Lectures Past event which features not just scientific authors like Simon Singh but comedians including Robin Ince, Helen Keen and Helen Arney.
Which becomes relevant because, earlier this week, I was talking to Damian Counsell, one-time biomedical scientist who now builds websites (one of them for Helen Arney) and who, in another incarnation, is singer with sophisticated soul and blues band Covered.
He also built the website which Index on Censorship uses for its online news and commentary and has, more recently, been building a site for the International Federation of Journalists to store information which field workers have collected about “media conflicts” in Russia.
It includes a database of Russian journalists who have been threatened, attacked, or killed in “suspicious circumstances”.
Within the database, there are nearly 700 names of journalists – yup, that’s 700 journalists – whose lives have been threatened, including many whose lives have ended “prematurely” – these names go back to several years after the Soviet Union gave way to an allegedly less oppressive Russia.
“Of course,” Damian told me, “these suspicious deaths aren’t all the result of hits by offended members of the Russian mafia or thugs in the pay of corrupt officials.”
He tells me there are other, more mundane causes of violent, non-accidental, deaths among journalists. And apparently there is a season for increased deaths among Russian journalists.
“In winter,” Damian says, “when the weather gets bad and journalists – who are already keen drinkers – sit indoors too long drinking still more vodka, the drunkenness can lead to bloody and fatal pub fights.”
But the main problem, of course, is not pub fights. Ironically, the main problem is increased political freedom in Russia or, at least, the perception of increased freedom.
“When people come out from under the boot of a particularly repressive regime, as the Russians have,” Damian says, “there is often what is called a ‘crisis of impunity’.
“People think they have got immediate freedom of expression. They think that they can criticise the regime and criticise powerful people with no consequences. But, of course, they can’t. So they get threatened or attacked, and, too often, if they don’t get the message, they get killed… So 700 names in a Russian database.
“There are many ways a ‘crisis of impunity’ can emerge,” he says, “and it’s difficult to predict when such a transformation will lead to such a problem and when it won’t. Mexico does not fit this template, but is a very dangerous place to be a journalist right now. It seems likely that the ‘Arab Spring’ countries will become even more dangerous for journalists, but, oddly – despite relatively high crime rates in general – South Africa is nowhere near being one of the worst places to be a reporter.”
When I was young, scientists were scientists. Comedians were comedians. Boy band singers were boy band singers. And journalists, by and large, did not get shot.
Or it seemed that way.