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Adam Rutherford - Four Way Interview

Dr Adam Rutherford is a science writer and broadcaster. He studied genetics at University College London, and during his PhD on the developing eye, he was part of a team that identified the first genetic cause of a form of childhood blindness. He has written and presented many award-winning series and programmes for the BBC, including the flagship BBC Radio 4 programme Inside Science, The Cell for BBC Four, and Playing God on the rise of synthetic biology for the leading science strand Horizon, as well as writing for the science pages of the Observer. His most recent book is A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived


Why science?

It's the best way I know of for answering questions about how stuff works. It's not the only way of course, and doesn't always provide the most interesting answers. Science might have a way of telling us why Bruce Springsteen and Bach makes my cry with joy, but I'm not sure that it'll be very informative. But in general, this self correcting process is an ever-rewarding, ever-refining way knowing. Historically, the scientific method has had limited value to the study of history, but I think that the advent of the techniques to get DNA out of the long dead has meant that the lines between history and science are becoming blurred, and that has to be a good thing. 

Why this book?

Because only in the last few years have we been able to apply a new scientific field to older academic pursuits, to know our past. DNA has been added to history, archeology, paleoanthropology and genealogy as a new text, a primary source that is helping unveil the question of how we came to be what we are. It's complementary to those older and equally valid pursuits, and has some advantages, for example it is the record of everyone, not just the very rare few who through luck, conquest or regal birthright have been retained through history. Our genomes are a record of sex and death, disease, warfare, farming, culture, invasion, migration, and is not limited to the lucky few.They're the stories of humankind, told with DNA in the armory. 

What’s next?

Ancient DNA is a relatively new field, and genetics itself only a century old. So there's a long way to go. We don't really understand our genomes, and how the complexity and sophistication of a human being emerges from this code. Geneticists, statisticians, medics, patients and historians all have plenty still to do in piecing together the past, and how DNA fits into the bigger picture of a life, and a species. As long as we keep reproducing, new, unique genomes are being made, and our infintie variation still needs to be understood. 

What’s exciting you at the moment?

The field of ancient DNA is changing so quickly that results are being turned over or revised almost every month. That makes it unbearably exciting. But also it was a pain in the arse to write a book about a field that is evolving so quickly, and my friends in genomics labs simply refused my request that they all take a year off so we can all catch up. Nevertheless, one review has already suggested that I do a revised edition of A Brief History every three years to keep it up-to-date. I think I've got some work to do...




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I fell in love with physics when I was 13 or 14, when I realised not only that I was pretty good at it at school – basically common sense and puzzle solving – but because it was the subject that answered the big questions I had started contemplating, like whether the stars in the night sky went on for ever, what they were ma…