One of the zany Men in White
17:09 04 October 2006
So is former Ipswich School boy and genetics boff Dr Adam Rutherford a crusty, boring, young scientist? Absolutely no way. Just watch him, Bas and Jem on the telly. They are the cool, good looking dudes AKA the maverick Men In White
Dr Adam Rutherford is billed as the genetics genius, Dr Basil Singer as a specialist on chaos theory and Jem Stansfield as a mad inventor. Together they are the Men In White, a new hour-long cult TV show, which has hit our screens on Sunday evenings for the past few weeks.
It may be mad, maverick and occasionally bordering on mayhem but while at first sight MIW might seem like a daft mix of Jackass japes meets Top Gear crazy meets Heath-Robinson invention, it's actually a programme with a serious underlying message. Science is fun.
More akin to Tomorrow's World on speed, its lynchpin presenter is Dr R, a tattooed, navel-pierced, 31-year-old former Ipswich School pupil and new dad, who is, let's face it, rather sexy looking as well as being a genuine boffin. For Adam, happens to have a degree in Evolutionary Genetics and a PhD, gained from his work in a highly specialised area of retinal genetics, tucked in the pocket of his white coat.
He also has a full-time job with Nature, THE international scientific journal, which has launched some of the major scientific discoveries of the 20th century to the world - and we're talking Dolly the Sheep, the human genome and the discovery of Pluto here, plus, probably the most famous breakthrough of all, Crick and Watson's discovery of the structure of DNA.
Adam, who was Nature's web editor for several years is now the journal's podcast manager, which is all very cutting edge and now type stuff. However his technical contribution on MIW has been a tad more low-key. He's the one they sent to Longleat to collect lions and tigers wee to make a potential dog repellent for joggers. A challenge they ultimately failed when they made the hapless jogger, who was afraid of dogs, stand clad in a suit covered in Bonios, in a ring of lion's wee (working on the premise that a dog would naturally be terrified by the smell of a big cat). Anyway their 'ring of fire' - scary pee - failed and the dog ran straight up to him.
In another episode we've seen Adam perform live in a rock band (having chucked up in the loo beforehand), clad in a fetching white Spandex catsuit, doing a mean Darkness impersonation, when they were challenged to invent some new-fangled musical instruments - his being a kind of strap on Cybersuit, whole upper torso-operated, guitar.
And he was also filmed jumping in a freezing Scottish loch - completely starkers - as a forfeit after the combined brains of the Men In White failed come up with a machine that could beat a human champion stone-skimmer's prowess. It's 60 minutes of zany, off-the-wall scientific inventions and humour.
“If I am being honest I am a bit fingers and thumbs when it comes to light engineering,” says Adam. “Bas is extremely good at electronics and Jem is very good when it comes to power tools, so I was a bit more talkie and going out and about doing ridiculous things like boxing with the British welterweight contender and doing that sort of thing.”
On screen their persona is more skateboarding dudes wearing trainers, jeans and hoodies under their white coats - the antithesis of boring old scientists. “Channel 4 had been wanting to do a credible science programme for ages,” said Adam, “and they have come up with it in a different, fun format.
“Science is quite hard to put well on television. Traditionally, you have got classic programmes like Horizon and Equinox, which tend to do it very straight. The idea was to fall in with the current trend of doing interactive things with the population - like make them lose weight, make them over or do up their house.
“We spent ages thinking about how we could do something where people came to us with a problem and we could demonstrate how fun science is and dispel that ancient myth about scientists all being middle class, white geezers.”
He's 31 and has been a scientist for years. “And I hang out with people who are research scientists and research writers and none of us fit that stereotype of being Enstein-looking oldies. I wrote about it once in Nature, I thought one of the best examples in current pop culture is Ross from Friends. Everyone forgets that he is a palaeontologist working in a museum in New York, I know he's fictional but he's young and fashionable, even if he is a bit wet.
“How can you persuade people that science is not all boring and hard but it's creative and can be fun and that was where the idea came from. Then the production company began a nationwide search to find people like us - people with credible science backgrounds - that was another crucial thing.”
On programmes like Brainiac, he says, they use presenters, who though thoroughly professional have never actually been scientists. “But I am. I have a PhD in Genetics, Basil has a PhD in a branch of physics called Quantum Chaos (and I don't actually know that that means) and Jem is really the engineering brain of the series - his first degree is in aeronautical engineering or something.
“So we all come together and come up with lots of creative, albeit not always that practical, solutions to the difficulties of 20th century life. I think what best describes Men In White is that it's Tomorrow's World meets Jackass with a bit of Trinny and Suzannah thrown in.”
Slightly thrown by his Trinny line, he explained that's because people come to them and say, look I've got a problem and they set about solving it hands on, only in a scientific rather than beautific way.
Some problems they were faced with were completely off the wall or required other brains he said. “We had to say to some people we can't help you, you need professional help, or go and see NASA about it but with other problems we did attempt to solve them using the power of science. The Evening Standard kind of described us as Brainiac crossed which The Goodies, which I quite liked!
“I don't think we are super whackoes. I would be quite disappointed if people though we were that.
On the other hand The Times tore us to pieces but I think it's because they got the demo tape not the real thing. The Telegraph, Observer and TV Times, in particular, were very kind. But I was really gutted that we weren't in Heat, though. Not even Zoo or Nuts... ”
But with their good looks and outgoing personalities you couldn't rule that out in the future.
The programme has been about three years in the making. First came finding the right scientists. Basil - only his real name is Harry (on his first day at university he tried to annoy someone by giving them the wrong name and it's stuck so hard that even his parents call him it now) - was doing a PhD at UCL (University College London) at the time, which is coincidentally the same uni Adam went to. Bas had already got involved with Noise, a kind of media outlet for making science more available.
“They find people like Basil who are bright and do stuff, so he got picked up like that and Jem had already got a bit of a TV background. He'd done a lot of engineering programmes like Scrapheap Challenge only behind the scenes, so he hadn't appeared in front of the camera before.
“We thought it was really, really important that it look like we were having fun and we were! Filming it was a real laugh, lots of mucking around - but I think that's really, really obvious.”
Adam says he wasn't terribly clever at school, but he did get three Bs for his Maths, Physics and Chemistry A-levels - “It's what I needed to get into UCL and I decided any more work was a waste of effort!”
He went to medical school initially but knew he didn't really want to be a doctor, so he transferred to studying evolutionary genetics. “Which was initially either an error in judgement or a piece of genius by me!” he says. After getting his degree he went straight on to do his PhD, which was funded by a blind charity, and found himself based at Great Ormond Street Hospital studying one particular gene that caused a form of blindness in children.
“An interesting point,” he said, “is the fact that I spent three or four years studying something so precise and so specialised that you become very introspective about it. At the time it would be fair to say you become one of the three or four world experts on a single human gene but there are 30,000 genes, so that makes you a very small player in a very, very large pool.”
He was totally zoned into his tiny area of retinal science until the penny dropped that he'd be more interested in being able to communicate about science rather than do it. He said he didn't want to end up in a lab in a highly competitive environment, surrounded by egos and brains.
“You can guarantee there will be people around you who are much cleverer than you. I am a good talker and I can write, so I figured that communicating would be better.” So he went to work for a small journal with a big publisher and then moved to Nature, which has a huge global profile.
To work on Men in White was given a four month sabbatical from his proper job which was a bit unprecedented. Filming mostly took place in a warehouse in a West London in a really grotty industrial area and it was all a bit touch and go for Adam towards the end as his partner, Georgia, was expecting their first baby on the very day they were scheduled to finish filming! “So that was a bit tight!”
Fortunately Beatrice was born 10 days late - on April 4th - and he got to take two weeks paternity leave before going straight back to work. Georgia is a books editor who has worked on the last two Harry Potter books and their house in Hackney now has a brand new kitchen thanks to the money he got from the series!
So is Dr Rutherford's home a mad professor's den crossed with high-tech heaven? “No. I am very old school when it comes to home. I haven't even got an ipod, I have a record player instead. It's a year old, it's beautiful - I love vinyl!” And his musical tastes run the gamut from Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Dylan, to The Pixies, Public Enemy, Radiohead, Morrissey and JS Bach.
But, of course, he is totally into everything computer. “So I have got a brand new Powerbook and that type of stuff but it's not the kind of a high-tech den that you expect from Men in White. It's more covered in cots and highchairs”
In fact the only gizmo he's bought recently is a baby bouncer for Bea (who was born in the same week as Tom Cruise's kid, says Adam, but hasn't got quite so much hiar) and that's the old fashioned type you hang in a doorway,
“I think the interesting thing about Men in White is that when the A-level results came out they were saying how difficult it is to get children to take up science. That's what this show is all about. I think what we want to do is show that science is creative and it's about doing stuff, which is mostly fun and interesting and very dynamic. We are doing things that happen to be science and engineering based as almost a by-product of the fact we are thinking about stuff.
“The fact that I work for Nature is the validation of what I do. It doesn't get much more serious than the publishing of scientific publications and that's us.”
And from time to time the Men in White team will have a dig at what scientists such as themselves believe not to be areas of true science at all. Adam lists astrology, homeopathy and even religion among those.
“The haunted house one was a good exercise in making a mockery of people who believe in the paranormal,” he says of the episode when the MIW managed to 'haunt' a house in a very feely-touchy way - using scientific gadgetry and cunning. But what about homeopathy? Practitioners of that would surely want to take him to task. “They can bring it on!” he says tauntingly. “It's fine but it's the foolish being seduced by the unscrupulous and endorsed by the ill-informed.”
As ever in the world of high science and its proponents, there will always be healthy debate and blinding disagreement.
Now according to the blurb on the Channel 4 website, it says: 'Dr Adam has his finger on the pulse, feeling out for signs of life in emerging technologies and all breaking news stories in the broad field of science. He has expert contacts around the world and knows all there is to know about science, from the straight and serious kind to the truly bizarre.
'He also plays the fiddle and has a decidedly dark sense of humour.'
QED, as they say.
Men In White is screened by C4 on Sundays at 5.50pm, with another series planned they are actively encouraging people to write in with problems and suggestions. See the website at www.channel4.com and follow the links.