Nigel Henbest is an award-winning writer and TV producer, specialising in science and space. A founder of the leading independent television production company Pioneer Productions, his major television credits include the series Body Atlas, Universe, Edge of the Universe and The Day the Earth was Born; and the documentaries On Jupiter, Black Holes, Challenger and - most recently - Journey to the Edge of the Universe. These productions have garnered seven international awards, including Banff and the New York Festivals’ Grand Award.
As well as his work in television, Nigel has written 35 books and over 1000 articles, which have been translated into 27 languages. He is a columnist for The Independent newspaper and BBC Focus magazine. Asteroid 3795 is named “Nigel” in his honour; and he is enrolled to travel into space with Virgin Galactic in 2011.
It’s taken me some time to come round to answering this question; not because it’s difficult, but because it is too easy. After all: Why is music important? Why is breathing important?
Trying to understand the world around is, I believe, hard-wired into human nature. And “science” is just that process of understanding. Yes, you can interpret nature in terms of gods and demons. But, sooner or later, you are likely to move on. The mind is finely tuned to pick out patterns in the world around us; and once you have the leisure - as the Greek middle classes did in the first few centuries BC - you begin to see how the world is set out on rational principles.
And that rationalism is based deep inside us. When non-scientists profess to me that the scientific method is divorced from everyday life, I like to point out what I learned when acting as the foreman on a jury at the Old Bailey. What struck me then was weighing up the evidence in a law-court is, basically, the same as doing science. It’s looking for a pattern in pieces of evidence that may be, superficially, contradictory; and finding a conclusion that meshes all the lines of evidence together.
For those who find science intimidatingly complex, I’d suggest following a case of serious fraud, where juries are often flummoxed by the devious nature of the evidence and the finer points of criminal law. I think the case for the Earth orbiting the Sun, the atomic nature of matter or the evolution of life on Earth is actually easier to understand. And, to the human mind, it’s a fitting verdict on the evidence.