DOUGLAS ADAMS (1952 - 2001)
"The Digital Planet":
Douglas Adams at the Muffathalle in Munich, November, 1998
Dawkins: Eulogy for Douglas Adams, Church of Saint
Martin in the Fields, London, 17th September 2001
I believe it falls to me to say something about Douglas's love of
science. He once asked my advice. He was contemplating going back
to university to read science, I think specifically my own subject
of Zoology. I advised against it. He already knew plenty of science.
It rings through almost every line he wrote and through the best
jokes he made. As a single example, think of the Infinite Improbability
Drive. Douglas's ear for science was finely tuned. He thought like
a scientist, but was much funnier. It is fair to say that he was
a hero to scientists. And technologists, especially in the computer
unjustified humility in the presence of scientists came out touchingly
in a magnificent impromptu speech at Cambridge conference which
I attended in 1998.
He was invited as a kind of honorary scientist a thing
that happened to him quite often. Thank goodness somebody switched
on a tape recorder, and so we have the whole of this splendid extempore
tour de force. It
certainly ought to be published somewhere. I'm going to read a few
disconnected paragraphs. He
was a wonderful comedian as well as a brilliant comic writer, and
you can hear his voice in every line:-
was originally billed as a debate only because I was a bit anxious
coming here. . . . in a room full of such luminaries, I thought
'what could I, as an amateur, possibly have to say'? So I thought
I would settle for a debate. But after having been here for a
couple of days, I realised you're just a bunch of guys! . . .
I thought that what I'd do is stand up and have a debate
with myself . . . and hope sufficiently to provoke and inflame
opinion that there'll be an outburst of chair- throwing at the
I embark on what I want to try and tackle, may I warn you that things
may get a little bit lost from time to time, because there's a lot
of stuff that's just come in from what we've been hearing today, so
if I occasionally sort of go...
I have a four-year-old daughter and was very, very interested
watching her face when she was in her first 2 or 3 weeks of life and
suddenly realising what nobody would have realised in previous agesshe
just want to mention one thing, which is completely meaningless, but
I am terribly proud ofI was born in Cambridge in 1952 and my
initials are D N A!
inspired switches of subject are so characteristic of his style and so endearing.
remember once, a long time ago, needing a definition of life for
a speech I was giving. Assuming there was a simple one and looking
around the Internet, I was astonished at how diverse the definitions
were and how very, very detailed each one had to be in order to
include 'this' but not include 'that'. If you think about it,
a collection that includes a fruit fly and Richard Dawkins and
the Great Barrier Reef is an awkward set of objects to try and
laughed at himself, and at his own jokes. It was one of many ingredients
of his charm:
are some oddities in the perspective with which we see the world.
The fact that we live at the bottom of a deep gravity well, on
the surface of a gas-covered planet going around a nuclear fireball
90 million miles away and think this to be normal is obviously
some indication of how skewed our perspective tends to be, but
we have done various things over intellectual history to slowly
correct some of our misapprehensions.
next paragraph is one of Douglas's set-pieces which will be familiar
to some people here. I heard it more than once, and I thought it
was more brilliant every time.
. . imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, 'This
is an interesting world I find myself in'an interesting hole I
find myself in'fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits
me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!' This
is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the
air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller,
it's still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything's
going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him
in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears
catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something
we need to be on the watch out for.
introduced me to Lalla. They had worked together, years ago, on
Dr Who, and it was she who pointed out to me that he had a wonderful
childlike capacity to go straight for the wood, and never mind the
you try and take a cat apart to see how it works, the first thing
you have on your hands is a non-working cat. Life is a level of
complexity that almost lies outside our vision; it is so far beyond
anything we have any means of understanding that we just think
of it as a different class of object, a different class of matter;
'life', something that had a mysterious essence about it, was
god given'and that's the only explanation we had. The bombshell
comes in 1859 when Darwin publishes 'On the Origin of Species'.
It takes a long time before we really get to grips with this and
begin to understand it, because not only does it seem incredible
and thoroughly demeaning to us, but it's yet another shock to
our system to discover that not only are we not the centre of
the Universe and we're not made of anything, but we started out
as some kind of slime and got to where we are via being a monkey.
It just doesn't read well.
. . .
am happy to say that Douglas's acquaintance with a particular modern
book on evolution, which he chanced upon in his early thirties,
seems to have been something of a Damascus experience for him:-
all fell into place. It was a concept of such stunning simplicity,
but it gave rise, naturally, to all of the infinite and baffling
complexity of life. The awe it inspired in me made the awe that
people talk about in respect of religious experience seem, frankly,
silly beside it. I'd take the awe of understanding over the awe
of ignorance any day.
once interviewed Douglas on television, for a programme I was making
on my own love affair with science. I ended up by asking him, 'What is it about science that really gets your blood running?'
And here is what he said, again impromptu, and all the more passionate
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
absolutely 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 70 or
80 years of your life in such a universe is time well spent as
far as I am concerned.
last sentence of course has a tragic ring for us now. It has been
our privilege to know a man whose capacity to make the best of a
full lifespan was as great as was his charm and his humour and his
sheer intelligence. If ever a man understood what a magnificent
place the world is, it was Douglas. And if ever a man left it a
better place for his existence, it was Douglas. It would have been
nice if he'd given us the full 70 or 80 years. But by God we got
our moneysworth from the forty nine!
This is not an obituary, therell be time enough for them. It
is not a tribute, not a considered assessment of a brilliant life,
not a eulogy. It is a keening lament, written too soon to be balanced,
too soon to be carefully thought through. Douglas, you cannot be dead.
A sunny Saturday morning in May, ten past seven, shuffle out of bed,
log in to e-mail as usual. The usual blue bold headings drop into
place, mostly junk, some expected, and my gaze absently follows them
down the page. The name Douglas Adams catches my eye and I smile.
That one, at least, will be good for a laugh. Then I do the classic
double-take, back up the screen. What did that heading actually
say? Douglas Adams died of a heart attack
a few hours ago. Then that other cliché, the words
swelling before my eyes. It must be part of the joke. It must be some
other Douglas Adams. This is too ridiculous to be true. I must still
be asleep. I open the message, from a well-known German software designer.
It is no joke, I am fully awake. And it is the right or rather
the wrong Douglas Adams. A sudden heart attack, in the gym
in Santa Barbara. Man, man, man, man oh man, the message
Man indeed, what a man. A giant of a man, surely nearer seven foot
than six, broad-shouldered, and he did not stoop like some very tall
men who feel uncomfortable with their height. But nor did he swagger
with the macho assertiveness that can be intimidating in a big man.
He neither apologised for his height, nor flaunted it. It was part
of the joke against himself.
of the great wits of our age, his sophisticated humour was founded
in a deep, amalgamated knowledge of literature and science, two of
my great loves. And he introduced me to my wife at his fortieth
birthday party. He was exactly her age, they had worked together on
Dr Who. Should I tell her now, or let her sleep a bit longer before
shattering her day? He initiated our togetherness and was a recurrently
important part of it. I must tell her now.
Douglas and I met because I sent him an unsolicited fan letter
I think it is the only time I have ever written one. I had adored
The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Then I read Dirk
Gentlys Holistic Detective Agency. As soon as I finished
it I turned back to page one and read it straight through again
the only I time I have ever done that, and I wrote to tell
him so. He replied that he was a fan of my books, and he invited me
to his house in London. I have seldom met a more congenial spirit.
Obviously I knew he would be funny. What I didnt know was how
deeply read he was in science. I should have guessed, for you cant
understand many of the jokes in Hitchhiker if you dont
know a lot of advanced science. And in modern electronic technology
he was a real expert. We talked science a lot, in private, and even
in public at literary festivals and on the wireless or television.
And he became my guru on all technical problems. Rather than struggle
with some ill-written and incomprehensible manual in Pacific Rim English,
I would fire off an e-mail to Douglas. He would reply, often within
minutes, whether in London or Santa Barbara, or some hotel room anywhere
in the world. Unlike most staffers of professional help lines, Douglas
understood exactly my problem, knew exactly why it was
troubling me, and always had the solution ready, lucidly and amusingly
explained. Our frequent e-mail exchanges brimmed with literary and
scientific jokes and affectionately sardonic little asides. His technophilia
shone through, but so did his rich sense of the absurd. The whole
world was one big Monty Python sketch, and the follies of humanity
are as comic in the worlds silicon valleys as anywhere else.
He laughed at himself with equal good humour. At, for example, his
epic bouts of writers block (I love deadlines. I love
the whooshing noise they make as they go by) when, according
to legend, his publisher and book agent would literally lock him in
a hotel room, with no telephone, and nothing to do but write, releasing
him only for supervised walks. If his enthusiasm ran away with him
and he advanced a biological theory too eccentric for my professional
scepticism to let pass, his mien at my dismissal of it would always
be more humorously self-mocking than genuinely crestfallen. And he
would have another go.
He laughed at his own jokes, which good comedians are supposed not
to, but he did it with such charm that the jokes became even funnier.
He was gently able to poke fun without wounding, and it would be aimed
not at individuals but at their absurd ideas. To illustrate the vain
conceit that the universe must be somehow pre-ordained for us, because
we are so well-suited to live in it, he mimed a wonderfully funny
imitation of a puddle of water, fitting itself snugly into a depression
in the ground, the depression uncannily being exactly the same
shape as the puddle. Or theres this parable, which he told
with huge enjoyment, whose moral leaps out with no further explanation.
A man didnt understand how televisions work, and was convinced
that there must be lots of little men inside the box. manipulating
images at high speed. An engineer explained to him about high frequency
modulations of the electromagnetic spectrum, about transmitters and
receivers, about amplifiers and cathode ray tubes, about scan lines
moving across and down a phosphorescent screen. The man listened to
the engineer with careful attention, nodding his head at every step
of the argument. At the end he pronounced himself satisfied. He really
did now understand how televisions work. But I expect there
are just a few little men in there, arent there?
Science has lost a friend, literature has lost a luminary, the mountain
gorilla and the black rhino have lost a gallant defender (he once
climbed Kilimanjaro in a rhino suit to raise money to fight the cretinous
trade in rhino horn), Apple Computer has lost its most eloquent apologist.
And I have lost an irreplaceable intellectual companion and one of
the kindest and funniest men I ever met. I officially received a happy
piece of news yesterday, which would have delighted him. I wasnt
allowed to tell anyone during the weeks I have secretly known about
it, and now that I am allowed to it is too late.
sun is shining, life must go on, seize the day and all those clichés.
We shall plant a tree this very day: a Douglas Fir, tall, upright,
evergreen. It is the wrong time of year, but well give it our
best shot. Off to the arboretum.
tree is planted, and this article completed, all within 24 hours of
his death. Was it cathartic? No, but it was worth a try.
was announced today that RICHARD
DAWKINS has been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.
Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist and the Charles Simonyi Professor
For The Understanding Of Science at Oxford University; Fellow of New
College; author of The Selfish Gene,The Extended Phenotype,The
Blind Watchmaker, River Out Of Eden (Science Masters Series),
Climbing Mount Improbable, and Unweaving The Rainbow.
appearing in The
Guardian and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.]