Ball Busted

Growing up is a long process. For most of us it starts in late teens, and finishes in early forties. A few lucky (some would say unlucky) souls begin before they're out of puberty, and a very few excellent individuals don't stop till they die.

I think it happens in distinct moments - when things happen to make you you realise something, understand something, understand it more deeply...or see that everything you've been told for years is not just false, and not just obviously false, but obviously impossible.

And a lot of the time, these are moments of disappointment, as when some public figure you admired as a child turns out to be a pillock. Or a fraud, a sellout, a nutcase, a hypocrite or a bastard.

David Bellamy, for instance. He was an infectiously enthusiastic, Kris-Kringle-like TV scientist. A botanist who presented documentaries on biology for kids, and never once patronised his audience. I remember sitting around the family early-evening meal, with Bellamy on TV explaining the digestive system of a transparent worm, or the reproductive cycle of the whelk.

Like a lot of naturalists, he was also an ecologist, joining campaigns to save forests years before the media started treating such causes sympathetically.

So what does he do now? He's a climate change denialist. Read that again to let it sink in.

His ecological "campaigning" now is funded by oil companies, so he now writes articles on how glaciers aren't shrinking, CO2 isn't "really" a greenhouse gas, and windfarms can't possibly work.

Then there was Richard Feynmann, who may indeed have been "the best mind since Einstein", but spent vast amounts of time and energy trying to give the impression that he was "the best mind since Einstein". As well as being something of a sexual predator - the kind who wants women but doesn't really like them.

Incidentally, Einstein himself took care to preserve his image as the endlessly compassionate, lovably eccentric and humble-but-infallible grandpappy you never had.

James Burke turns out to be a sometimes shoddy researcher as well as purveyor of strained "Connections".

Even Stephen Jay Gould (who I still read and admire greatly) went off the rails towards the end of his life. As he realised he wasn't going to beat cancer a second time, he started turning out blurry, wordy essays trying to reintegrate religion into his scientific worldview. I suppose a lot of people start hoping for an afterlife when they see the end of the current one in view.

Well, today I reckon I grew up just a little bit more, beacuse I've found out what happened to Johnny Ball. He was a TV science populariser in the 70s and 80s, like Bellamy. Now he tours the UK, presenting fun science to schoolchildren. And he's turned into a climate change denialist like Bellamy too.

Oh, and he's a religious nutcase. From his blog:

One thing that really annoys me is the idea that the Pope and Galileo had a row. They didn’t. With his telescope everyone could see that the moon had mountains like the earth and was not a perfect sphere as suggested by the bible. Galileo knew the church couldn’t accept a theory that conflicted with the bible. So he went out of his way to find a middle ground, writing explanations that gave both points of view. However, someone suggested that Galileo was mocking the Pope and brought a charge of heresy. This set a problem. If Galileo was found “Not Guilty”, then the church, (i.e. the Pope himself) would be guilty of heresy. So Galileo had to admit the charge. His punishment was as light as could possibly be. He was placed under house arrest, but could choose where and which house he lived in - he moved three times before he died. Could it have been more lenient?

Okay. The bible doesn't "suggest" the moon is smooth, or not. It says the moon makes its own light (Genesis 10) and doesn't move (Isiah 182) but if I recall correctly, the notion of a smooth moon comes from Aristotle.

Galileo didn't try to find a "middle ground". He wrote a treatise in debate form, in which the representative of the church was completely defeated by the evidence.

"Someone" "suggested" Galileo was "mocking" the pope? Who is this "someone", and why did this "suggestion" lead unavoidably to a trial?

Galileo recanted under threat of torture, not to save the pope the bizarre inconvenience of being a heretic in his own church - which he wouldn't have been anyway.

And lifelong imprisonment is lenient?

Ah well, another childhood memory bites the dust.


  1. It is a jarring experience to find out that people aren't always who they seem to be.

    I've always found it fascinating how people will change their tunes if it paid for a better lifestyle. Hypocrites indeed. It makes prostitution a higher profession, simply by the honest nature of its work and simple transaction.

    I guess sometimes we forget that scientists are human, too, liable to make mistakes and are total idiots. It's quite a disconcerting thought to realize that Nazi rocket scientists help develop NASA and land man on the moon.

  2. Ah, the re-writing of history. Galileo and the Pope were buddies. The American Civil War was solely about slavery. And Hitler was simply a misunderstood decorator.