#SciComm Science Communication

Beauty, horror and hope: Dave Pepler tells all

DAVE WITH AUDIENCERenowned and beloved South African naturalist Dave Pepler shared his life story and views on sharing science in “a divided, but connected” world with a warm and appreciative audience at a recent “Science Fridays @Stellenbosch” series hosted at by the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology (CREST) at Stellenbosch University.

He suggested that we use the arrows of beauty, horror and hope in our communication quivers. “I believe that there are universal concepts that break through the fog of ignorance and lack of understanding”, he said.

Below is the text of this captivating talk, with kind permission from Dave Pepler. Theo-Chark Kieck took the photos.


Let me tell you a story. This is a real story simply because it has a beginning, a middle and an end, and the subject, is my life. The strange town of Robertson is where I was born on the 2nd of February 1950, Doctor Mac McGregor at the delivery, and as far as I could gather, no stars in the heavens. Strange town? Oh yes, it was strange indeed, very strange, where people still died at home, where everybody had real gardens with chickens and a milk cow, where the Salvation Army played Redemption Songs in front of the bioscope, where the social apogee was the daily arrival of the Port Elizabeth Mail train, where Simon Swindell (From the Bell Tower) read impenetrable poetry to a near empty library hall, and where ladies of a certain social stratum, were invited by a notorious odalisque to witness race horses mating – their icy eyes hidden behind very dark glasses, the gloved hands clamped to a gin highball. This is where my life had its beginning, raised by Maria Klink, a woman of rampant madness.

On weekends, as a young child, I was sent to my grandparents, Oupa Boy and Ouma Lilly le Roux. The lived in a house without light, the red velvet curtain continuously drawn against the neighbors, lightning and dust. On Saturday mornings, Oupa would fire up the copper bathroom geyser, shave with a Wilkinson cut throat, and have his weekly bath. Then he would place a hessian sack in his wheelbarrow for me to sit on, bring cold, sweet coffee in a wine bottle, wrapped in brown paper, and wheel me out of town. Always the same route, down Hopley Lane, turning right at the Droërivier (known as the Kakrivier), past the cemetery with the unmarked graves of the great flu of 1918, over the Willemnelsrivier, to the foothills of the Langeberge, on the farm of Olaf Viljoen. This is where I became a boy, with Oupa gently guiding my search image of the world, where scrub hares lay silently under noem-noem bushes, where we would look for the perfumed blue flowers of naeltjies, and where I discovered the natural historian in me.

School to me was torture of the highest order because I was the fattest child in town, because home life was dark, and because I felt utterly alienated from the seething undertow of religion, politics and sport. My friends were the social cripples, the weird insomniac girl in my class, the tubby Englishman – we would get together after dark, on a narrow footbridge and listen to Lorenzo Marques Radio – Chubby Checker, early Rolling Stones, and my favorite, Buffy Saint-Marie, keening her ancient Cree odes and legends. After midnight, in my unkept rondawel, I would listen to Richard Tauber, Annelize Rothenberger and to Glen Gould. I was too fat to play sport, too socially inept and too aware of my strangeness. Only two teachers understood my loneliness; my Afrikaans teacher, Dirk Bothma, who would silently place Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice on my desk while we were supposed to read Elsa Joubert’s Suid van die wind, and George Latsky, who taught me oblique laughter and irony – we would act out characters from Oscar Wilde’s hilarious The importance of being earnest, while the rest of the class would stare mutely at Hamlet.

After school I went to Saasveld Forestry Collage, one of the first major mistakes of my life – I pride myself for never, ever, making small mistakes, all of them were catastrophic, and it reminds me of La Guardia, when asked about his mistakes, said: “Boy, when I make a mistake, it’s a beaut!”. Saasveld simply made me an alcoholic and established a devastating technique that has served me ever since; that of throwing up very complex constructions, studded with jingo and cliché, that has the appearance of depth but which is utterly meaningless. Later, in my academic life, I got away for decades quoting entirely fictitious authors like Glutz von Blotzheim, and Blots von Glutzheim – you see, Oscar Wilde’s Mr Bunberry, has served me to this day.

Only one positive came out of these years. Listening to Malcolm Gooding on Saturday nights, I discovered new genres of popular music that has sustained me to this day. The glam rock he played was missed by the all-pervasive Censor Board simply because the program was pitched for 10 0’clock on a Saturday evening, when they were presumably in a mutton and alcohol induced stupor.

From: Beauty Queen:

Your swimming-pool eyes

In sea breezes they flutter

The coconut tears

Heavy-lidded they shed

Swaying palms at your feet

You’re the pride of your street

Or, even worse, from: In every dream home a heartache

I bought you mail order

My plain wrapper baby

Your skin is like vinyl

The perfect companion

You float my new pool

De luxe and delightful

Inflatable doll

This is where I discovered David Bowie, John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, Egberto Gismonti, BB King, and in particular, Ry Cooder.

From Saasveld I moved to a succession of mind numbing plantations and later to Stellenbosch, where I whiled away the years as a technician in the erstwhile Department of Nature Conservation. Behind the laboratory façade and stifling faculty tearoom I met one of the great life-giving friends of my life, Rob Martin. In Rob I found the ideal friend. Utterly disconnected from mainstream interests, immersed in the universal, not the international, deeply read in useless esoterica, and loyal. To mind comes the words of EM Forster: “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country” and “With this type of person knocking about, and constantly crossing one’s path if one has eyes to see or hands to feel, the experiment of earthly life cannot be dismissed as a failure.” Rob taught me the value of true friendship, loyalty, discretion and tolerance. He also launched my scientific career by patiently opening my eyes to true observation and plain writing. This led, some years later to me being accepted for a master’s at Cambridge University.

Upon my return from Cambridge, overnight, I became “one of them” – one of the academics that form the ocean of learning in which we wallow. It was also during this time that I got married, had children and got divorced. Another beaut. I adored teaching, and still do, for the simple fact that I truly tried to teach comparatively. My lectures were, and still are, a heady mix of fact, music, art and science, constantly reminded by my friend Berty van Hensbergen’s dictum: “A lecture should be a performance”. This is one of the reasons I left the university: there was, and might still be resistance to alternative teaching – I constantly had to hear that my students liked my teaching because it was easy, there was too much laughter, and that I diluted the scientific rote with trivia. I utterly refused to budge. Let me give you an example:

Whilst fighting to survive the highly inbred academic miasma, I managed to travel, and to do research, which led to a number of long-term studies published in refereed journals.

After leaving academia, I launched into a career of television documentary production, which continues to this day. Parallel to this I started writing for magazines, particularly for Insig, possibly the finest intellectual literary forum the Afrikaans language has ever had, and for Visie, a rather larney fashion and style tome. This collective effort led to a book which, I am proud to say, established a new literary genre in Afrikaans now known as documentary lyricism.

To this day write stories and articles, mainly on science, but for a much wider audience. I also take part in two radio programs, “Hoe verklaar jy dit?” a Sunday morning nature and science program mainly populated by widows with constipated lap dogs, and on Wednesdays, a slot on a drive home program, which has a captive audience for my warped wisdom. To boot, I consult all over the world in sustainable resource management, with the added dictum that I will only become involved in projects that will effect fundamental change in the lives of people.

But, enough of my little world and on to the true purpose of this lecture, which is knowledge transfer of science in a connected, but divided world. My entire life has been in the service of nature conservation, something I can say with true conviction. This service took on new meaning when my friend and mentor, Berty van Hensbergen, formulated our field of expertise as follows: “Nature conservation is not a science, but a complex multi-disciplinary management system: but above all, it’s about people”. In my line of business it is imperative to cage language in structures and forms that can be assimilated by a largely invisible and undefined reader. Reading is always personal, as Alberto Miguel so eloquently states: “following the text, the reader utters its meaning through a vastly entangled method of learned significances, social conventions, previous readings, personal experience and private taste”. The role of the reader is thus to render visible, in al Haytam’s phrase, “that which writing suggests in hints and shadows”.

As a journalist, I do not have the luxury of a learned readership, neither can I, with any accuracy, predict any level of understanding of my deeply connected utterances. In order to bypass this uncertainty, I believe that there are universal concepts that break through the fog of ignorance and lack of understanding. Shall we start with beauty?

Beauty, like art, is nearly impossible to define, but if we talk science, it becomes somewhat easier. Look at this spectacular photograph of the Deep Field of space by the Hubble Telescope. I can stare at it for hours on end, drifting through my limited understanding of physics, but still realizing the staggering significance of being marooned on a green and blue speck in this divine banquet of the heavens. Equally, the sheer beauty of the human form can project such deep meaning. Beauty also includes the mystical and wondrous interaction between man and nature and the mysterious symbiosis between life and art. So, dear listener (reader), make beauty the fastest arrow in your quiver.

And what about horror? Horror narrows the pupil and pulls the mind into sharp focus, diametrically the opposite to the effect of beauty, which dilates the pupil and softens the mind. It is therefore a most powerful arrow in our journalistic arsenal. Used with integrity, horror opens the door to hope, as Bronowski so beautifully states: “Science is a very human form of knowledge, we are always at the brink of the known, we always feel forward for what is to be hoped”. So, in our writing, if we can balance beauty and horror, we stand a chance to both enlighten and to educate. My favourite journalist HL Mencken, writing in the 1930s knew the pitfalls of penetrating journalism only too well when he said:

“The inferior man’s reasons for hating knowledge are not hard to discern. He hates it because it is complex — because it puts an unbearable burden upon his meagre capacity for taking in ideas.” And even more profoundly: “The cosmogonies that educated men toy with are all inordinately complex. To comprehend their veriest outlines requires an immense stock of knowledge, and a habit of thought. It would be as vain to try to teach to peasants or to the city proletariat as it would be to try to teach them to streptococci”. The trick for us is to make the streptococci believe that there is hope for them.

Lastly, we come to hope. I simply cannot produce a better statement on science and hope than that of Jacob Bronowski, who, in his unforgettable series for the BBC, The ascent of man, produced perhaps the greatest utterance on the glory of science. In Chapter 11, Knowledge and Certainty, he was at Auschwitz concentration camp. David Attenborough was in attendance as producer, and knowing fair well that Bronowski was dying of terminal cancer, knew that each take was precious. What happened spontaneously has had me in tears many a time, knowing that the supremacy of the human spirit can rise above anything.

Bronowski video – text: “It’s said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That’s false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance, it was done by dogma, it was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.

Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known; we always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science stands on the edge of error and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible. In the end, the words were said by Oliver Cromwell: “I beseech you in the bowels of Christ: Think it possible you may be mistaken.”

I owe it as a scientist to my friend Leo Szilard, I owe it as a human being to the many members of my family who died here, to stand here as a survivor and a witness. We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people.” ― Jacob Bronowski

I thank you.

Dave Pepler
Stellenbosch, 22 May 2015

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