The background: Sir David Attenborough was asked to extend his Australian tour/visit to Perth. While it’s still being sorted out, someone started up this website where people who may never get to meet him otherwise can still say what they want to say, even if it’s just “Thanks for inspiring me.” My letter, reproduced in full below, went live on the website here a few minutes ago.
Dear Sir David,
When I was very young, I remember that one of the very first books that I started reading – we’re talking turning the pages by myself here – was the atlas. This wasn’t just any atlas, it had lovely pictures of the food chain and the food web and I could never really stomach the photographs of the snake eating the frog.
Years later, I forgot to wear gloves and stuck my bare hands into the lovely sticky, slimy, gooey innards of a cow’s digestive system. I was too excited, you see, and being as I gesticulate when I talk, the two boys in the class were the most squeamish as I attempted to explain that I was just being absent minded. It was also the same year I memorised my entire Geography textbook for my London Advanced Levels.
If we fast forward, I was soon getting too excited over granite (I still do) and the similarity between the geology between the Indian subcontinent and Western Australia, I was looking at anticlines in northern American states and surreptitiously attempting to scratch garnets loose out of the rocks in Central Park. The best thing I learnt in my eight year long attempt to get an undergraduate degree was learning to tell the difference between the skulls of different hominid species. When I went to the Museum of Natural History in New York, I didn’t go to see dinosaurs or ammonites or even rocks, I went and stood in front of Lucy, who was in a small narrow corridor, for hours. And I remember thinking how weird it was that all these vastly different things could be connected and then even more so in my brain where they registered and were tagged emotionally with a “Things I love about the world I live in” label.
Things like Lucy, the Beatles, hominid species, granite, garnets – my brain is like a giant map, ever expanding, with “Here there be dragons” scrawled on the edges and I keep scrambling, like the early privateers did, to fill in the blanks with more ideas. I love ideas – I am a fan of ideas, not necessarily of people per se though I like them well enough. It’s why I preferred to leave Lennon be in peace in Strawberry Fields while I sat on a rock not too far away wondering if I would dare break the law of taking the garnets out of the park.
But I am weird. I am a nerd for knowing these things and more and I am the weird sort of nerd because growing up in the 80s and 90s in Sri Lanka, there were definite things you could be a nerd about. I was already breaking convention being the wrong gender.
Sir David, the world is changing. These days to utter a fact either gets you the wrong sort of look where you’re apparently just stark raving mad or trying to boast. Even worse, it can get you a completely unwarranted disproportionate reaction of awe. People think you are the smartest person on the planet for merely knowing something you learnt in primary school such as that Pi is 3.14 recurring and is an irrational number. What I am trying to say, Sir David, in no doubt the most convoluted way possible (my apologies), is that the majority of people have the capacity to know all this but either don’t want to or have their heads filled willingly or otherwise with all sorts of other things such as which celebrity dyed their hair red this week.
And that leaves me in the odd position of feeling a tad insecure about my love of all things factual. Which is where you come to the rescue – yes, you Sir David. I am not the sort of person to have watched every single film or series you ever produced and I wasn’t necessarily able to growing up but I am aware of your impact. I cannot truthfully say that you inspired me because, well, you didn’t BUT what you did do for me was far more important.
You validated my obsession with facts and knowledge of all sorts. You and a handful of others were the proof that there were people like me who tended to go somewhat stir crazy over things when others didn’t. That there were people who could be very easily be doing one thing with others, only to dumbfound them by starting a sentence: “You know – there is an interesting fact about the _______”. Suddenly I wasn’t alone in my “weird nerdiness” and it was actually a reasonably normal if not always common trait. There were other people who were in fact, curious.
You made it quite clear that you were passionate about what you talked about and you believed, genuinely believed, that it was part of your duty – perhaps even social responsibility – to teach and inform others. When I see you on screen I feel like I am watching a five year old boy with a Joker like grin – someone lucky enough to do something important that he also enjoys greatly enough to seem playful. I work as a science writer now and I see the same passion and Joker grin on the faces of the scientists and researchers that I interview. And in the midst of the debate over whether the public should be educated more in order to understand the science or the scientists be taught to talk to the media and the public better, you continue to do exactly what often has been forgotten and needs to be done in the first place – the journalist’s job of explaining the science to the audience at whatever level they are at and in a way that effects a result.
I live in Perth in Western Australia, close to a place that has the zircon crystals that take us back as far as we can so far go to the beginnings of this planet. There are lots of people here who would love to see you visit us again. There are lots of people who would love to listen to what you say and learn.
Sir David, I cannot say that I am a fan per se as I am not fanatical about you (quibble, quibble) but my gratitude for what you have done to inspire and impact on others is, well, not something easy to define the outer edges of. I am just glad that in your own way, you are alive and fighting off the dragons of ignorance in the oceans on the ever expanding map of knowledge.
So thank you for being alive.