Article 50 is set to be triggered tomorrow, taking the UK out of the EU. Are you worried about the UK’s contribution to science after Brexit?
Yes. Because science is an international endeavor. We have said many times that we would like to make Britain the best place in the world to do science, it’s become kind of a slogan. And it requires that your country appears to be a welcoming cosmopolitan place. And so anything that you do as a country that even begins to give a sense that you’re retreating, that you’re inward looking, that you’re not as welcome as you were to people from outside your country, is bad for science and bad for the education industry in general.
If you had five minutes to give Donald Trump a lecture on anything, what would you pick?
I would have him read the essay by Richard Feynman called The Value of Science, in which Feynman points out that the beginning of the road to understanding is humility. It’s the very simple idea that we just spoke about, that your opinion is irrelevant in the face of nature. And you start from there.
Do you think he would understand that essay?
Well I don’t know. I don’t know if anybody’s ever sat down and told him that the beginning of the road to wisdom is humility. Maybe no one’s ever told him.
Time to brush up on your Feynman, Trump. Evan El-Amin/Shutterstock
What’s the best way for a non-scientist to get involved in science?
It think it’s actually astronomy, the science you can do with your eyes. You don’t need anything else to start observing the motions of planets.
The other thing, the big citizen science projects now, really enable you to do real science from your home. There’s this website, Zooniverse, which is a superb place you can go do science, not only astronomy actually, but where we need people to look at big data sets. So I think there’s plenty of scope these days. But I’d start with astronomy because you can do it from your back garden.