Sunday was the birthday of broadcaster and naturalist and voiceover-artiste Sir David Attenborough. He is ninety years old.
Attenborough studied natural sciences at Clare College, Cambridge in the 1940s before joining the BBC in 1952, where he rapidly rose to be controller of the new channel BBC2 in 1964. From this lofty vantage he was able to commission, first Sir Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, and then Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man; at which point it became clear that there was a need for a similarly broad-brush, multi-part documentary on the life sciences. This became Life on Earth (1979), which Attenborough wrote and presented himself.
Given his background in broadcasting it is perhaps unsurprising that he approaches his subjects with a broad and interdisciplinary brush (as Bronowski did in the earlier Ascent of Man); and therefore appropriate that last year he gave his name to an interdisciplinary faculty of conservation at Cambridge University, designed to bring relevant specialists together to solve the various pressing problems of biodiversity and conservation, from conservationists themselves to sociologists and political theorists, land economists and notables from the Judge Business School.
No complex problem, Attenborough argues, is susceptible of a simple solution; scientists, ever more burrowed into their competing specialisms, need to collaborate, and a university – ironically, the paradigm of fine-grained and isolated specialism – is perhaps the only sort of institution where that can happen. Universities are collegial by design; they draw together scholars from diverse backgrounds.
The University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute is now based at the new Conservation Campus on the New Museums Site, in a building which also houses the Museum of Zoology.