The Monkey and the Aye-Aye: A Tribute to Douglas Adams
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11th May 2001: an author dies during a rest from a workout in California. Some say it was his smoking habit that caused the heart attack, others simply the strenuous exercise he was putting himself through. It was likely both. The author’s name was Douglas Adams and he was a sprightly 49.
Image credit: brenkee via PixabayTo his many admirers the untimely death of such an ingenious and polymathic man came as a horrible shock. That sadness has not abated: 25th May is still celebrated as Towel Day in honour of his most famous work, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Fans inaugurated this celebration in 2001, two weeks after Adams’s death, during which they simply carry a towel on their person for the day in honour of the advice given in the Hitchhiker series that a towel ‘is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have.’ Why? Well, among other things, strags (non-hitchhikers) who see one has travelled the galaxy and been able to hold on to one’s towel through it all are likely to be impressed- the strag will most certainly view you as ‘clearly a man to be reckoned with’. Douglas Noel Adams was certainly such a man. Born on 11th March 1952 in Cambridge, he was immensely proud of two facts: that his initials spelled DNA and that he was born in the city where Watson and Crick discovered DNA’s double helical molecular structure just a year later. This auspicious start foreshadowed his lifelong love affair with science, which shone through in all his works, from the Hitchhiker series to Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency. Adams fit so much into a such a short life: writing, travelling, computer programming, and TV presenting to name a few. Some of his earliest work was done on Doctor Who: during Tom Baker’s golden tenure on the show Adams wrote several stories and script edited a season. One of his stories, Shada, was left uncompleted due to industry disputes, but has had a long afterlife having been completed by others in book form and in animation, among other media. The Snowmen, the 2012 Christmas special of the show, was based on an unused Adams storyline. Adams’s work was known for its wit and whimsy, its scientific and philosophical underpinning, and its sheer delightfulness. As I said, he loved science, epitomising the ideal of the intellectual on the border between the sciences and the humanities. In an interview with his great friend Richard Dawkins (who helped convert Adams into a ‘radical atheist’ who insisted on the ‘radical’ so as not to be confused with an agnostic) Adams gave a beautiful paean to the beauty of a scientific worldview which epitomised the view of the life scientific and atheistic as something far more glorious than the religious one: ‘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 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 seventy or eighty years of your life in such a universe is time well spent as far as I am concerned.’ Dawkins quotes the above in his introduction to the 2009 edition of one of Adams’s lesser known works (and adds a sad ‘Seventy or eighty? If only.’ afterwards), and the one I want to focus most on here. This is his account of his travels with the naturalist Mark Carwardine to visit some of the world’s most endangered species, the book Last Chance to See. Like so many of his other works this book is just one iteration of a project expressed in multiple media. The project started after Adams and Carwardine teamed up for a newspaper article featuring the aye-aye of Madagascar in 1985. They then decided to make a radio series of their travels around the world encountering other endangered species, broadcast in 1989, which was then turned into a 1990 book. In 2009 Stephen Fry, another friend of Adams’s, accompanied Carwardine on a follow-up TV series to the original radio series. Phew! The work of Douglas Adams never seems to die, and hopefully never will. The book is wonderful - hilarious all the way through while keenly impressing upon the reader a sense of pessimism at the plight of these species, merely a selection of the many animals endangered by human activity. Mark Carwardine wrote the last chapter, and the statistics he presents are gloomy. The extinction rate, he says, has accelerated massively because of humans:
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