Life on Air - David Attenborough

Posted on May 14, 2013

The Life on Earth series starring Sir David Attenborough and broadcast on PBS was for many their first real exposure to a comprehensive natural history of Earth and its vast plant and animal life. Attenborough’s infectious curiosity for nature, his clear explanations of geology, botany, and zoology, and his ability to rapidly take you to the most exotic corners of the globe did more to help many of us understand humanity’s place in the universe than any textbook or lecture.

It was with many fond childhood memories that I recently sat down to read the autobiography of this khaki-wearing British scientist first published by BBC Books in 2002. The story begins with several vignettes demonstrating Attenborough’s early curiosity for the natural world. He relates stories of fossil hunting in rural England with the same indomitable positive outlook and curiosity that characterizes his global adventures. This drive to explore and explain the world was eventually too strong to keep him a behind a desk in his early bureaucratic role as controller of BBC2. Attenborough came across as a rare leader possessing not only an incredible dedication to scientific and natural exploration but also the ability to motivate people on a grand scale.

While it appears Attenborough could have continued in a comfortable management role as a television executive, he followed his passion to be outdoors and to write and narrate. It was there he could exercise his greatest gift, the ability to synthesize the essence of animals, plants, and natural phenomenon into engaging accessible narratives. Attenborough is a deeply moral person who cares about the subjects in front and behind the camera. His presentation is genuine, honest, and intensely positive. Clearly uncomfortable situations that easily could have been described as woeful personal suffering — the imagery of a damp night spent by Attenborough in a South American mud hut where he slept mere inches from a moving wall of cockroaches comes to mind — are instead transformed into positive scenes of scientific endeavor. It is, oh so British.

The book is one of immense positive energy and I very much enjoyed the light narrative style and antidotes Attenborough shares from a lifetime of travel. It provides a unique window into the early years of television programming and stories of adventure from before the days of globalization. This is not a tale of overcoming a disadvantaged background; Attenborough grew up relatively privileged and clearly benefited from his education at Cambridge University. However, there is no doubting the impact Attenborough has made on the world through his nature programs and tireless advocacy for environmental efforts such as global warming awareness. This is a story of how one person can change the world with genuine passion, honesty, and ceaseless energy.

Sir Attenborough has been a personal hero of mine since childhood. His approach to public scientific discourse that manages to both entertain and inform is unfortunately a rarity these days. The productions from big media and even PBS lack the same inspirational personas and content. Fortunately, social media is surfacing new heroes such as Chris Hadfield, the International Space Station astronaut and scientist whose enthusiastic science experiments (and rendition of the David Bowie song Space Oddity) is now inspiring millions. Here’s to Sir Attenborough and the next generation of inspirational science heroes like Commander Hadfield.