About 50 years ago, sometime after bedtime, a small blonde-haired boy was running maniacally down a street in north London. He was (bear with me here) chasing a flying Soviet dog. He sprinted to the end of the road, panting, as his quarry, hundreds of miles above him, cruised inexorably towards the horizon. Half a century later, the flying canine in question is revered as the first animal to orbit the world – and its spellbound admirer has become the preeminent scientist in Britain.
There is something engagingly innocent about Sir Paul Nurse, who is determined to tell me that, ever since his space-dog-chasing days, he’s never properly grown up. “Scientists live a prolonged childlike existence,” he enthuses. “I have a passion to know things.”
Childlike or not, I’m convinced that this man might be vaguely superhuman. Variously director of the Rockefeller University, Cancer Research UK, and Oxford’s microbiology labs, he’s been earnestly revolutionising cell biology since 1976 (coolly accepting the Nobel Prize in the process). He is a successor to Newton and Wren as President of the Royal Society, and – almost outrageously – just happens to be in charge of the largest biomedical centre this side of the States.
Small wonder, then, that when I ask which scientific luminary he feels the greatest affinity with, Nurse is particularly enthusiastic about the 19th-century polymath Erasmus Darwin, grandfather to Charles. “I just really like being close to the production of new knowledge,” he says, simply.
Under the smiling exterior, this is a man with a steely vision. And he talks like a prophet. “We’re on the precipice of a new Enlightenment,” he muses, a theme he’s increasingly warmed to in recent months. In a major lecture early this year, he spoke candidly of building a new society inspired by science. “I had just had major surgery, but it was extremely important to get out and say this. Scientists are not getting out there enough. I’m getting a bit ancient, and I have to give something back. That’s my job: providing circumstances for others to have their Eureka moments.”
As he predicts the coming scientific utopia, I wonder if he sees himself as at the frontline of a grand social project, an ongoing programme of cultural awakening to the wonders of black holes and ethidium bromide. He certainly knows who the enemy are. “Some would say we’re suffering a little bit of a Romantic backlash. There’s been some loss of optimism since the ’60s.” He mentions the opposition to genetic modification, with a bewildered grimace. “But,” he says diplomatically, “the Romantics always have something to contribute too.”
This isn’t the narrow scientism of a test tube fanatic. When I ask whether the fashionable emphasis on the so-called STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and maths) is a little one-dimensional, he lights up spiritedly. “It would be a great mistake to crowd out the humanities,” he says, visibly concerned. “They tell us what it is to be human. The humanities need to be intertwined with science. I believe that science is the art of the soluble, and the solutions to the big questions” – consciousness gets a mention – “must take account of the humanities. Science is impinging more and more on areas that have traditionally been theological.”
But is any knowledge sacrosanct – or too explosive to touch? “The acquisition of knowledge has got to be a good thing,” he remarks, bluntly. “It’s naïve to think you can stop it. Trying to impede it smells to me of tokenism and pandering. I’m of the liberal view that the way it’s used is what matters.
”For a high-profile scientist, Nurse is surprisingly direct about politics. American healthcare, he declares unexpectedly, “is a disgrace to civilisation”, while, on the other side of the globe, Chinese scientists are stymied by the overbearing state: “For science to prosper, it has to be a free society.” Closer to home, he laments the fact that the grim “realities of power” seem to have guillotined the Coalition’s lofty green ambitions.
But he reserves a bit of rare venom for those that seek to contaminate science with ideology, especially on environmental issues: “Because climate change requires global action, this naturally removes power and responsibility from individuals and the nation-state. There are some decisions that are counter to a more radical free-market approach. The sceptics don’t like that sort of supra-government action, so they don’t let the science speak for itself.
”I ask what a President Romney would mean for the world (election day was yet to strike). “Yeah,” he says incredibly slowly, gazing grimly out of the window. I get a faint suspicion he isn’t a fan. “The man just seems to want power. He’s got no vision. It’s just a big question mark.”Science, for Paul Nurse, represents a sort of chaotic purity. “I think anarchy is pretty important in science, because what comes of anarchy is a sort of scepticism. We should encourage anarchy – but that must go along with consensus. You need both. I believe in the power of rationality and critical debate. We are a very creative species. I am fundamentally optimistic about the power of human will combined with curiosity.”
What about the life of Sir Paul, I ask? What’s it like being an oracle? “Terrible.” He looks somewhere between amused and exasperated. “The Nobel title gives you an aura of infallibility. It’s a pretty heavy responsibility. Actually, it’s quite papal.”
The Sun recently described this nonchalantly modest Nobel laureate as “the David Beckham of science”. So who comes off best in the comparison? He laughs disarmingly, and fishes for a suitably self-deprecating remark. “I do. Beckham’s definitely got a better hairdo.”
As I walk back down the vast marble stairs, I hear a call from somewhere above me. The President of the Royal Society has bounced illustriously back into view. “There’s something I forgot to mention,” he says, peering down from an ornate stone balcony. “There’s one thing I really loved about Oxford.” He pauses theatrically. “The students.” What’s not to like about this man?