Degree Speeches
Sum mer 2001

Dr Adam Hart-Davis

Public Orator, Professor Jim Miller, presented the Honorary Graduand at the Degree Congregation held on the afternoon of Friday 13 July 2001

Chancellor -

In a University with a history of excellence in engineering and science subjects a significant problem confronts us. The UK may soon be faced with serious shortages of scientists and engineers of all types, with very serious consequences for every activity in our society. From 1996 to 2000 the number of applicants for undergraduate courses in all subjects nation-wide rose by six and a half per cent. But over that same 4-year period the number of applicants for chemical engineering undergraduate courses, for example, fell by 20%, even though the chemical industry is a major and very successful part of the UK’s manufacturing base. Several factors contribute to this problem. Young people may feel that science and engineering are negative not positive in their outcomes for society; there is much fear and ignorance of mathematics, a price of our neglect of the teaching profession; and there is a lack of resources for school labs. Students get fewer opportunities for hands-on experiments, so the excitement of producing colours, lights, smells, even perhaps small bangs, has been lost, and many potential science students are lost also.

There is therefore an urgent need for the innate enthusiasm for the experimental and mathematical sciences to be rekindled. Modern technology provides ample means, and today we honour one of our most dynamic and imaginative communicators in this crucial area. Adam Hart-Davis comes from an internationally known family of authors and publishers, and in the family tradition he was educated at Eton and Oxford. Perhaps tradition ended there, because his first class degree was in chemistry and he went on to do a D. Phil. at York University and post-doctoral research in Canada and back in Oxford. His research involved the study of metal carbonyl compounds, interesting materials with properties varying from the pleasantly stable to the unpredictably dangerous.

But the lure of publishing was irresistible after all and Dr. Hart-Davis spent five years as an editor of scientific textbooks before joining Yorkshire Television as a researcher and later a producer. In recent years he has become a household name because of his very popular series of programmes such as “Local Heroes” and “What the Romans did for us.” On his boldly fluorescent specially built bicycles he explores every part of the country, bringing us the excitement of science and engineering by exploiting our natural interest in our history. This welcome and timely fusion of the arts and sciences is striking in its impact and very entertaining too. In a recent “Local Heroes” programme centred on the East Midlands the chosen heroes were Richard Arkwright, one of the fathers of the industrial revolution, whose major work was done in Nottingham; George Green, a largely self-taught mathematician, also from Nottingham and the father of Green’s functions and Green’s theorem – not understood by most people when they were published, and probably not now! – and of course Sir Isaac Newton, who was the father of large swathes of modern mathematics and physical science - and also, we are assured, the father of the cat-flap!

Lively demonstrations of some intriguing experiments are among the highlights of these programmes. But hands-on experience really is critical for young people, and simply watching a Hart-Davis TV show is only the start. Using Web links, we can emulate Newton by making a prism out of a CD case, and use it to study spectroscopy. We can make more complex tools such as a telephone or electric motor. We can extract the DNA from kiwi fruit. And we are challenged to tackle new problems for ourselves: for example, how to separate a mixture of salted and dry-roasted peanuts – not so easy! Again, a series of programmes on “What the Romans did for us” might seem to be far removed from science and technology. But to see Dr. Hart-Davis explain how the Romans first surveyed and then built the major road system that is still at the core of our own communications, or to see him demonstrate how the Romans signalled to each other from fort to fort on Hadrian's Wall, is a memorable education in science and technology.

The range of topics Dr. Hart-Davis covers is astonishing. Dinosaurs inevitably, sanitary hardware, mathematical puzzles, extra sensory perception, and astronomy are all highlighted in stimulating books as well as TV programmes. In one characteristic demonstration for York University, Adam inaugurated a cycle path by cycling from a globe 8 feet in diameter in York, representing the sun, to a particle 5.9 mm in diameter 6 miles away, representing Pluto, thus bringing to life the true scale of the solar system. Amongst many other activities he is an outstanding photographer, some stunning images being accessible via the Web site maintained by his son Damon.

Popularising and encouraging science and technology is far from easy, as numerous initiatives over recent years show. The watcher or reader must be enthralled and encouraged, but not overwhelmed or patronised, by concepts that might range from the simple to the truly abstruse. It is this difficult balance that Dr. Hart-Davis has perfected, so he is a true servant of the science and engineering community as well as a delightful entertainer. Many of our students, both now and in the future, may well be here because of his work.

Therefore, Chancellor, it is my honour and delight to present to you and to the whole University Dr. Adam Hart-Davis, scientist, author, photographer and ground-breaking broadcaster, for the degree of Doctor of Technology, honoris causa.

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