Douglas Adams (1952-2001)

Douglas Adams (1952-2001)

Richard Dawkins: Eulogy for Douglas Adams, Church of Saint Martin in the Fields, London, 17th September 2001
Richard Dawkins [5.14.01]

"The Digital Planet": Douglas Adams at the Muffathalle in Munich, November, 1998

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 industry.

His unjustified humility in the presence of scientists came out touchingly in a magnificent impromptu speech at a Cambridge conference which I attended in 1998 [1] . 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:

This 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 end. 

Before 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 ages—she was rebooting!

I just want to mention one thing, which is completely meaningless, but I am terribly proud of—I was born in Cambridge in 1952 and my initials are D N A!

These inspired switches of subject are so characteristic of his style—and so endearing.

I 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 compare.

Douglas laughed at himself, and at his own jokes. It was one of many ingredients of his charm:

There 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.

This 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.
Douglas introduced me to Lalla. They had worked together, years ago, on Doctor 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 trees:

If 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.

I 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:

It 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 [2] .

I 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 for that:

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 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 [3] .

That 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!

[1] The full text of his speech may be seen at

[3] 'Break the Science Barrier with Richard Dawkins', Channel 4, Equinox Series, 1996

By Richard Dawkins

This is not an obituary, there’ll 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 concludes,

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.

One 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 Doctor 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 Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Then I read Dirk Gently’s 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 didn’t know was how deeply read he was in science. I should have guessed, for you can’t understand many of the jokes in Hitchhiker if you don’t 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 world’s silicon valleys as anywhere else.

He laughed at himself with equal good humour. At, for example, his epic bouts of writer’s 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 there’s this parable, which he told with huge enjoyment, whose moral leaps out with no further explanation. A man didn’t 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, aren’t 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 wasn’t allowed to tell anyone during the weeks I have secretly known about it, and now that I am allowed to it is too late.

The 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 we’ll give it our best shot. Off to the arboretum.

• • • •

The tree is planted, and this article completed, all within 24 hours of his death. Was it cathartic? No, but it was worth a try.

It 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 ofThe Selfish Gene,The Extended Phenotype,The Blind Watchmaker, River Out Of Eden(Science Masters Series), Climbing Mount Improbable, and Unweaving The Rainbow.

[Also appearing in The Guardian and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.]