Saturday, March 01, 2008

The Retiring Richard Dawkins

So, it’s official. Professor Richard Dawkins, the Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding at Oxford University is to retire in September. I would not counsel breathing a sigh of relief. He is now likely to have even more time for his forays into subjects of which he knows nothing. Actually, any academic duties he had do not seem to have unduly occupied him over the last decade and so I doubt whether we will see much difference in his output.

Oxford is already advertising for a successor so we can happily speculate about who the new occupant of the chair will be. Actually, this is a waste of time and I will reveal at the end of this post who will definitely be getting the job. First, the happy speculation.

Of course, I’d love it if they could tempt Steven Pinker over from Harvard. But they can’t. The trouble is that any big-name American will be being paid way over the paltry £50,000 or so that Oxford can offer. All those dreaming spires do count for something to our American friends, but I fear that Pinker would expect a salary beyond the means of the impoverished UK higher education sector.

Many of the other big names in popular science are now too old to move to a new chair. This rules out Paul Davies of the pompous popular physics books that don’t make any sense, while Peter (Poisonous) Atkins who has just retired himself. Stephen Hawking is both too old and probably wouldn’t be interested anyway. Evolutionary biologist Steve Jones is 63 but would have been an admirable choice otherwise. Oxford may feel that they don’t want another biologist, but the field is a bit too narrow for them to be choosy. Of course, the greatest popularisers of science are not just old, but dead. Sagan, Feynman and Gould stand in a pantheon quite separate from today’s breed. Admittedly, Sagan was wrong about almost everything, but he made astronomy sexy and launched thousands of scientific careers.

Science writer Matt Ridley has a relevant PhD and some books to his name. He is also looking for a new job as he has just been ousted as chairman of Northern Rock after leading that bank to ruin. It is unlikely that Oxford would want anyone so rightwing, though. Being a failure in business is unlikely to count against him. The trouble is that most science writers, like Matt Ridley before he took up banking, are journalists. The biggest selling popular science writer is Bill Bryson who, we can only hope, is not academic enough for the post.

So, enough of who won’t be appointed. Who will get the job? At 58, she’s getting on a bit too, but you would never know it from measuring the length of her skirt. The new Professor will be Susan Greenfield the neurologist, baroness and director of the Royal Institution in London. Oxford born and bred, she is telegenic, clever, has no embarrassing religious beliefs and has a very high public profile. Perfect.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.


unkle e said...


I've just returned to your blog after a long absence, and am enjoying it. But I had a few problems with this one.

First, I enjoy Paul Davies, think he's taught me a bit, and don't think "pompous popular physics books that don’t make any sense" is fair. Yes, his latest book on the apparent fine-tuning of the universe is considered by most people to be speculative, even silly, but at least he has an open mind. And he has this in the credit balance with me - reading "The Mind of God" on my recommendation assisted someone dear to me to move from agnosticism to theism (even though that isn't Davies' conclusion).

Re Richard Dawkins and "his forays into subjects of which he knows nothing", I agree that many thoughtful reviewers, both atheist and theist, have assessed his understanding of philosophy, theology and history to be rudimentary and embarrassing, but I wonder whether your dismissal is aimed at being accurate or provocative?

I don't follow the machinations of academic appointments, but I will be interested to see if you are a prophet!

Best wishes.

James said...

Hi there unkle e,

I was being a bit waspish in this article. Dawkins's professorship is what used to called a sinecure (being paid not to do much).

That said, I don't really rate Paul Davis. He knows the physics but can leave his readers unsure where the science ends and the speculation begins.

Jesper petersen said...

I don't follow the machinations of academic appointments, but I will be interested to see if you are a prophet!
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