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profile: Richard Corfield - the polymath's polymath
Tim Hughes talks to geologist, palaeontologist, oceanographer, chemist, astronomer and historian, Richard Corfield
The unimaginative often claim that a tidy desk is the sign of a tidy mind. Science writer Richard Corfield is living proof that such assertions are nonsense.
His den, in a cosy cottage on the edge of Long Hanborough, is testament to his wide-ranging interests.
Geological maps are stacked on hefty tomes on physics and military history, a starglobe sits on his desk next to a replica Smith and Wesson pistol, cat magazines and tins of snuff, while on the wall is a collection of American railwayman pocket watches.
It’s an intellectual treasure trove; a physical manifestation of the mind of a polymath.
Geologist, palaeontologist, glaciologist, geographer, oceanographer, chemist, astronomer and historian; Richard is a hard man to pin down. But to those who have read his books, listened to his lectures, seen his pieces in the Guardian, Washington Post, and, indeed, The Oxford Times, or have caught one of his regular appearances on TV and radio (most recently telling Melvyn Bragg about ice ages on Radio 4’s In Our Time), he is an engaging intellectual on a mission to make science accessible.
“I’m just interested in stuff,” he tells me over a glass of Calvados in the lounge of the house he shares with his wife Julie and daughters Jessica, 18, and Susannah, 13. Though immaculately tidy, reminders of Richard’s interests are reflected in the books, pictures and framed snapshots of exotic expeditions that decorate the walls.
“I regard myself as a person who makes sciences accessible by making it fun.”
I first heard of the 51-year-old Oxford University research fellow, when he was organising an event based around another of his interests — the science behind the sinking of the Titanic. Rather than simply presenting a worthy lecture on marine engineering and ocean currents, he held court, resplendent in period costume, at a lavish dinner based on the ship’s final menu, at the Boot Inn, Barnard Gate.
Such an approach is typical. If only school science lessons were as much fun.
Richard’s love of science began early — in the grounds of his childhood home in Highgate, North London.
His father was a Presbyterian church minister, and the family lived in a large rambling Edwardian manse. His boyhood was spent exploring nearby Highgate Woods and doing the kind of things all boys did in the 1960s — building go-karts, cycling, annoying his older brother, and, following the 1969 moon landings, building wooden Apollo space capsules.
But unlike other boys, his inquisitiveness had a habit of getting him into trouble — such as the time he blew up the garden.
“I was into explosions,” he smiles. “I wanted to recreate the atomic detonation at Bikini Atoll, so I mixed weedkiller and sugar, put it in a can with wires and placed it in a bucket of water.
“There was a terrific orange flash, all the water came out of the bucket and I jumped like a startled gazelle! But I did have a mushroom cloud.
“Unfortunately, my neighbours were having a garden party next door. There was silence — before one of them put his head over the fence and asked if everything was all right. Now they’d call the bomb squad.
“The irony is now I am involved in the Felix Fund, which supports bomb disposal experts and their families.”
He added: “When I look back at what I did as a kid, it scared the life out of me. I’m the sort of man I don’t want my daughters to meet. Ever.”
His parents separated, when he was 14, Richard moving to East Finchley with his mother (some years later his mother and father would rekindle their relationship and spend the rest of their lives together).
Educated at William Ellis School in Highgate, where he admits he had a crush on his biology teacher, Richard shone at science and took a place at Bristol University.
“I left home three hours after my last A-level,” he says. “My dad wanted me to go to Oxford but I knew I had a reasonable chance of being turned down, and I was too fragile for that.”
At Bristol he studied botany, changed to zoology and eventually specialised in palaeontology. It was there that he struck up a friendship with the academic who would go on to act as his mentor, Prof Bob Savage.
“Bob changed my life,” he says. “Bristol wanted me to study for a Ph.D but I decided to take up my father’s challenge and apply to Cambridge, where I met the other guy who changed my life, the paeleontologist Stephen Jay Gould. He was my hero.”
While studying the relationship between the evolution of oceanic microplankton and climate change, Richard met his wife-to-be, Julie Cartlidge.
The pair worked together and, in 1988, moved to Oxford, setting up a lab devoted to studying climate change in the geological record, at the Department of Earth Sciences next to the University Museum of Natural History.
“I knew I wanted to be an academic and Oxford called,” he says. “Moving to Oxford with Julie was one of the best things I ever did.”
He became a junior research fellow at Jesus College.
“Oxford is a much nicer city, and I was on the inside track. Though many nights we were there with spanners, working on the machinery until 9pm. Each mass spectrometer cost £150,000, which was a lot of money to give a 23-year-old bloke and his girlfriend. It was a steep learning curve and mistakes were expensive.”
Becoming disillusioned with academic life at Oxford he tried something new — writing. His debut, Architects of Eternity, a history of the development of palaeontology and the science behind the film Jurassic Park, was published in 2001. It was followed, in 2004, by The Silent Landscape, about the voyage of HMS Challenger.
The same year he left Oxford, teaching at the Open University for two years, before becoming a full-time writer, based at his West Oxfordshire cottage.
Later books include Lives of the Planets: A Natural history of the Solar System, which he is currently re-writing; and a biography of climatologist Nicholas Shackleton. Between writing, he provides scientific consultancy and lectures to schools. And he loves it.
“The ‘me’ you have now is more and more like that little boy exploding bombs in his back garden than the ‘me’ trying to be a professional at Oxford University,” he says.
“This is what I want to be. There is so much great science out there to tell people about.
“My job is to make it all as interesting as possible.”