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Eulogy For Douglas Adams

Church of Saint Martin in the Fields, London, 17th September 2001

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Eulogy For Douglas Adams
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I believe it falls to me to say something about Douglas's love of science. He once asked my advice. He was contemplating going back to university to read science, I think specifically my own subject of Zoology. I advised against it. He already knew plenty of science. It rings through almost every line he wrote and through the best jokes he made. As a single example, think of the Infinite Improbability Drive. Douglas's ear for science was finely tuned. He thought like a scientist, but was much funnier. It is fair to say that he was a hero to scientists. And technologists, especially in the computer industry.

His unjustified humility in the presence of scientists came out touchingly in a magnificent impromptu speech at Cambridge conference which I attended in 1998. He was invited as a kind of honorary scientist a thing that happened to him quite often. Thank goodness somebody switched on a tape recorder, and so we have the whole of this splendid extempore tour de force.It certainly ought to be published somewhere. I'm going to read a few disconnected paragraphs. He was a wonderful comedian as well as a brilliant comic writer, and you can hear his voice in every line:-

This was originally billed as a debate only because I was a bit anxious coming here. . . . in a room full of such luminaries, I thought 'what could I, as an amateur, possibly have to say'? So I thought I would settle for a debate. But after having been here for a couple of days, I realised you're just a bunch of guys! . . .I thought that what I'd do is stand up and have a debate with myself . . . and hope sufficiently to provoke and inflame opinion that there'll be an outburst of chair- throwing at the end.

Before I embark on what I want to try and tackle, may I warn you that things may get a little bit lost from time to time, because there's a lot of stuff that's just come in from what we've been hearing today, so if I occasionally sort of go...I have a four-year-old daughter and was very, very interested watching her face when she was in her first 2 or 3 weeks of life and suddenly realising what nobody would have realised in previous ages—she was rebooting!

I just want to mention one thing, which is completely meaningless, but I am terribly proud of—I was born in Cambridge in 1952 and my initials are D N A!

These inspired switches of subject are so characteristic of his style and so endearing.

I remember once, a long time ago, needing a definition of life for a speech I was giving. Assuming there was a simple one and looking around the Internet, I was astonished at how diverse the definitions were and how very, very detailed each one had to be in order to include 'this' but not include 'that'. If you think about it, a collection that includes a fruit fly and Richard Dawkins and the Great Barrier Reef is an awkward set of objects to try and compare.

Douglas laughed at himself, and at his own jokes. It was one of many ingredients of his charm:

There are some oddities in the perspective with which we see the world. The fact that we live at the bottom of a deep gravity well, on the surface of a gas-covered planet going around a nuclear fireball 90 million miles away and think this to be normal is obviously some indication of how skewed our perspective tends to be, but we have done various things over intellectual history to slowly correct some of our misapprehensions.

This next paragraph is one of Douglas's set-pieces which will be familiar to some people here. I heard it more than once, and I thought it was more brilliant every time

. . . imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, 'This is an interesting world I find myself in'an interesting hole I find myself in'fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!' This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it's still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything's going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for.

Douglas introduced me to Lalla. They had worked together, years ago, on Dr Who, and it was she who pointed out to me that he had a wonderful childlike capacity to go straight for the wood, and never mind the trees:

If you try and take a cat apart to see how it works, the first thing you have on your hands is a non-working cat. Life is a level of complexity that almost lies outside our vision; it is so far beyond anything we have any means of understanding that we just think of it as a different class of object, a different class of matter; 'life', something that had a mysterious essence about it, was god given'and that's the only explanation we had. The bombshell comes in 1859 when Darwin publishes 'On the Origin of Species'. It takes a long time before we really get to grips with this and begin to understand it, because not only does it seem incredible and thoroughly demeaning to us, but it's yet another shock to our system to discover that not only are we not the centre of the Universe and we're not made of anything, but we started out as some kind of slime and got to where we are via being a monkey. It just doesn't read well.

.....

I am happy to say that Douglas's acquaintance with a particular modern book on evolution, which he chanced upon in his early thirties, seems to have been something of a Damascus experience for him :-

It all fell into place. It was a concept of such stunning simplicity, but it gave rise, naturally, to all of the infinite and baffling complexity of life. The awe it inspired in me made the awe that people talk about in respect of religious experience seem, frankly, silly beside it. I'd take the awe of understanding over the awe of ignorance any day

I once interviewed Douglas on television, for a programme I was making on my own love affair with science. I ended up by asking him,'What is it about science that really gets your blood running?' And here is what he said, again impromptu, and all the more passionate for that.

The world is a thing of utter inordinate complexity and richness and strangeness that is absolutely awesome. I mean the idea that such complexity can arise not only out of such simplicity, but probably absolutely out of nothing, is the most fabulous extraordinary idea. And once you get some kind of inkling of how that might have happened ' it's just wonderful. And . . . the opportunity to spend 70 or 80 years of your life in such a universe is time well spent as far as I am concerned. ['Break the Science Barrier with Richard Dawkins', Channel 4, Equinox Series, 1996]

That last sentence of course has a tragic ring for us now. It has been our privilege to know a man whose capacity to make the best of a full lifespan was as great as was his charm and his humour and his sheer intelligence. If ever a man understood what a magnificent place the world is, it was Douglas. And if ever a man left it a better place for his existence, it was Douglas. It would have been nice if he'd given us the full 70 or 80 years. But by God we got our money's worth from the forty nine!


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