Adam Hart-Davis reveals his busy Devon lifestyle
PUBLISHED: 12:59 20 August 2010 | UPDATED: 15:45 20 February 2013
Devon based TV presenter Adam Hart-Davis talks about woodworking, reincarnation and the history of string.
Every child should have an Adam Hart-Davis to bring history and science alive. His energy and enthusiasm spreads like the common cold! For eight years he rode around on a mountain bike in fluorescent pink and yellow, talking about dead scientists, engineers and inventors, doing curious demonstrations for the television series Local Heroes. He presented Tomorrow's World, Secret City, Live from Dinosaur Land, Come to your Senses, and What the Romans, Victorians, Tudors, and Stuarts Did for Us. He's told us such diverse facts as why tea became a national obsession, why we take ablutions for granted, and whether there is life elsewhere in the Universe. He's a scientist, an author, a photographer, and historian and he's recently moved to Devon. But where did he get his seemingly unquenchable mind?
"Well, I don't know," he admitted. "I think it started with a Canadian maths teacher when I was around 10, Jack Turner. He was a lovely man and he was just a very, very good teacher, and when I left the school he summoned me and he said 'Hart-Davies', and I said, 'Yes, Sir'. And he said 'Hart-Davies, I've one thing to say to you', and I said 'Yes, Sir', and he said 'Science'. I had no idea what he was talking about really, but the fact is that I remember it now, and this is, what, 50-something years later. I think that started me off on an enquiring streak, and I've been doing science ever since. I absolutely love science."
So how come he tumbled down the rocky road to television, why not a career as a scientist?
"The great scientists have immense focus," he explained, "they've got to be really concentrated on what they're doing and at the same time have tremendous imagination, but I'm not an ideas person. So, the result is I would never have been a good scientist, and the immediate reason was that in 1971 I couldn't get an academic job.
"I had two children and we were living in a one-bedroom flat in Oxford and I could not find a job in science, in university, and my grant was running out and life was getting tough. So I took a job in publishing (which my dad had been doing for 30 years) editing science books, and I thought, well, if I can't do science I can edit books, and actually it was good fun.
"Five years later I got bored with that, and I looked around and applied for all sorts of jobs including Chief Executive to the Shetland Islands Council, which mercifully I didn't get, and then I remembered having lunch with two chaps - one of them was an hour late and one of them was two hours late and was wearing a full-length fur coat because he'd just got off the plane from Moscow - and I thought, well, I could work with these people, so I rang them up and I got a job as researcher in the science department at Yorkshire Television, and that was my disastrous fall from grace as it were. I've been in telly ever since and I absolutely love it."
He may lack imagination but he is by his own admission "not bad with my hands". This means that he's able to get stuck in at his new home digging a vegetable garden among other things. Apparently he learned woodworking skills seven or eight years ago.
"I went to a demonstration at Westonbirt Arboretum and I saw somebody using a pole lathe - I'd actually seen one before but I hadn't taken it in - and suddenly I realised what a beautiful instrument it was. So now every year if I can I go for a week to the woods near Hereford and I join a course, usually of about a dozen people, making chairs. This is literally in the woods. There's no building there, there's no power, it's all hand tools and I've now made two chairs, two benches, two tables, a hat stand and a bird table."
That's presumably in the morning, but what of the afternoon? Why, there's also an encyclopedia of string, Stringopedia, of course!
"It's got lots and lots of knots and how to tie them and it's also got the biggest ball of string in the world and it's got amazing tales, and it's got the origin of string. There was string found in the Lasko Caves so there was string 17,000 years ago, and string at sea, and string on the farm, and string in the kitchen, and the safe way to take an animal's temperature..."
Trust me, you don't want to know! But, if you want time travel explained in simple terms, he's your man. Apparently a few years ago Adam was filming at a Reincarnation Ball in Los Angeles.
"It was wonderful fun, and the invitation said 'Come as you Were', and we had Cleopatra, and we had James Dean (who was so high on something or other he was almost incapable of speech), and we had the Queen of Sheba there. It was a bit absurd really. But there was actually a book written by my friend, Paul Davies, who's a noted cosmologist, a couple of years ago, called How to Build a Time Machine, and theoretically it's possible to travel through time but you probably wouldn't wind up in one piece. That's the problem. I think you could conceivably get an atom or two through the time barrier as it were, or through a wormhole in space time, but it wouldn't come out quite the same the other side, and if you try and put a body through, well I think I would come out even uglier than I am already!"
I don't know about time travel but I do know that half an hour in the company of Adam Hart-Davis went in the blink of an eye. Oh, and when he left the studio he'd tied the microphone wire into a perfect sheepshank!