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Helen Pye has published 14 articles

Take a walk on the wild side

Helen Pye talks to childhood crush and animal expert Nick Baker about science on television
Helen Pye on Friday 10th February 2012
Photograph: Mike Alsford

In joint first place for my first crush were Ritchie Neville from 5ive and Nick Baker (although Ben from A1 was a close third).  While Neville had that dashing boy-band thing going on, Baker was pure bad boy – if you count bad boy as knee deep in bugs, scrabbling through mud and flirting with Michaela Strachan in her yellow cagoule as  well as you could on early afternoon CBBC. Even today, Baker’s probably got the only face that would make me sit through an hour of the creepiest, and most shuddersome, crawlies in the world.

Baker’s interest in nature started young; as a boy he was often found ‘crawling around the patio’ stuffing jam jars with all the bugs and spiders and frogs he could lay his hands on. Fortunately, for the 10 year old me, his parents didn’t stamp out his curiosity, although ‘they didn’t actively encourage it. But, they did move out of an estate where I spent the first couple of years of my life, and moved into the countryside to give me the kind of upbringing that they didn’t have.'

After finishing a degree at Exeter, Baker smiled his way onto our TV screens in The Really Wild Show. But hasn’t he completely gone against the traditional adage of avoiding working with children and animals? ‘That saying was definitely a saying dreamt up by someone who had worked with children and animals and realised it’s the best job in the world! They want to create a false sense that it’s a terrible way to work and keep it all for themselves.   Working with children and animals is one of the most exciting things you can do: if you want a nice, stable existence then don’t do it. Young people are inspiring because they’ve not been tainted and suppressed and fed with all the pressures of the adult world, and as a consequence they keep you young, they fire you up, they see the world as it really is. For me that’s really exciting, and the natural world is exciting in a different way. It is so fundamental to our everyday being; we cannot live without it even though we think we can. We are just another species on this planet.’

Baker’s gained his credentials at university, but with a successful career as a presenter scouring the globe to bring more maligned creatures to our TV screens, does Baker still see himself foremost as an academic? ‘I work as a field biologist, that’s how I started and the TV stuff was an accident. I’m not a Bear Grylls type explorer, not at all. I can’t stand the bloke. Actually, as a bloke he’s probably alright, but I hate the kind of TV that represents. Even though it’s controversial and freaks people out, I find anybody who can make so-called “educational television” by biting the heads off snakes is playing a cheap trick. It’s nasty and as broadcaster you have a massive responsibility for what you put out.

‘I’m sort of between the two. I’m a failed academic in the sense that I got bored during my finals and wandered off the path a little. I’m back with the university I started with and I’m an honorary research fellow with Exeter university and also a lecturer in the public understanding of science so I’ve kind of gone full circle. I am academic in the sense that I love my subject and I’m an absolute nerd because it’s the details. I’m very much into science and I speak that language, but I’m also part of the real world and I can translate that language.  Joe Public doesn’t engage with a lot of research that is going on and I guess I like looking into that; I like translating science language into a language people can understand and it just increase the outreach of scientific research. Without scientific popularists whether on radio or the internet or TV, that stuff would just remain stuck in journals where it doesn’t have a great lot of use except to other scientists so really, I’m getting it out there. It just increases the chance of someone having another great idea.’

Baker’s next big passion and an idea he’d love to see on the telly soon is bio-mimicry. ‘I believe nature is the salvation of human kind in the sense that if we’re clever and steal our ideas from it, that will be the answer. I’m talking about biomimetics really, the science of bio-mimicry. Applying a lot of principles from nature to our business and manufacturing industries. At the moment I’m just a great believer in what bio-mimicry has for us as a species. I’m really pushing for a TV series on the subject, unfortunately the word bio-mimicry leaves commissioners cold and it’s a really difficult one to get across because as a subject it’s very diverse. Bio-mimicry is basically taking human problems, like generating energy or self-cleaning windows or the exhaust of a car, it’s taking all those sorts of issues and looking at how nature might deal with it or does deal with those sorts of problems.  

‘Ultimately, we are humans, governed by the laws of nature, and other species are able to come up with solutions from nature that are practically 100% efficient whereas humans use a very old way of dealing with their manufacturing which is a process called heat-beat–treat. As in, we heat up materials, we then bend and beat them and contort them into various kinds of shape, and then we treat them with chemicals to keep them that way. It’s 97% inefficient, so if we can change our manufacturing processes in line with how nature does it we’re on a winner, and all the other issues we have will get solved.’

Conservation has been a large part of Baker’s life since his university days. After finishing his degree he returned to set up the ‘Bug Club’, a society which promotes the study of entomology among the younger generation; a support group, if you will, for the kids and teenagers who spend their days traipsing the countryside for insects to the disdain of their wearisome parents.

While Baker spends his spare time at the moment working with the RSPB looking for the Ring Ouzel on Dartmoor, he’s acutely aware that conservation is not top of everyone’s list, but he argues that it should be. ‘Without doubt humans are the biggest threat to our planet. We are facing the sixth great extinction phase; species are vanishing from this planet faster than they have ever done before. We’ve had extinction phases in the past but this is the quickest one that’s occurring. It’s us. It’s our fault. The biggest issue we have that even technology can’t solve however, is overpopulation.  We need to wise up and look at the bigger picture and use our collective intelligence. We’ve got to break out this human condition that we are selfish, short-sighted monkeys who want to survive. We need to stop ourselves doing the inevitable and somehow take control of the situation.’

Baker’s been working hard, then, to bring the secrets of the natural world to the country. With his current Weird Creatures tour (‘I’m sticking up for the evolutionary underdogs. I’m telling people the back stories, all the ones I never got to talk about on telly, all the trials and tribulations of making the Weird Creatures programme’) and a TV show on biomimetics, if he can convince commissioners to make it. Baker’s continuing on his mission to make people look twice at nature, something he calls his ‘life’s obsession’.

For an entomologist, does he ever find a little etymological mix-up leaves him blushing, I wonder? ‘All the flipping time! Everyone gets muddled up between naturist and naturalist! You speak to someone about David Attenbourgh and you can bet someone will call him Richard Attenbourgh, and you can bet someone will say naturist. People can’t work out which way to go. Similar words, but very different occupations. I’m definitely a naturalist though.’
Shame.

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