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Last Updated: Thursday, 27 May, 2004, 12:49 GMT 13:49 UK
In defence of the boffin
By Jennifer Quinn
BBC News Online Magazine

The Beagle has landed but no one knows quite where. Another defeat for a British boffin? Or just a small hiccup on the way to scientific greatness? That's the thing about boffins - one just never knows what they'll come up with next.

He probably prefers the lab to the pub, his own company to that of others. He thinks only Deep Thoughts about Life and Science, and he doesn't bother with mundane matters like money, or haircuts.

He - and it seems always to be a he - is committed to his work, even if it doesn't always work. It's a stereotype, yes, but one that has its genesis in fact. Boffins are an almost uniquely British creature, and are a national treasure, even if they are, well, a bit nerdy.

"They're not nimble, not quick-witted, they don't make jokes - and dress very badly, on the whole," says Francis Spufford, author of The Backroom Boys: The Secret Return Of The British Boffin.

It's not an insult

He says that affectionately, and with respect. The boffin is a person to be celebrated, rather than mocked, because they - as engineers - are responsible for imagining and then building the world all non-boffins inhabit.

Pillinger with his invention
Boffins are inventive, even when it comes to transportation

"The world is constructed by boffins and depends secretly on boffins - at least around here it does," Mr Spufford says. "The engineering they do is a kind of solid act of imagination - it's imagining the world, and we live in the world they imagine, and we need them to keep on imagining it."

Mr Spufford, whose book has been nominated for the Aventis Prize for science writing, says the image of boffin as a general scientist is misguided. He says a boffin is specifically an engineer, someone who likes to get their scientific hands dirty.

There are other characteristics that all boffins share: Intense interest in the subject at hand, often to the exclusion of everyday life; Distractedness, or "a feeling that the stuff at hand is so important that messages from the outside world kind of get lost in the static"; The ability to think laterally; A lack of interest in worldly rewards.

"These aren't entrepreneurial heroes," Mr Spufford said. "They're not in it to get rich. They're in it because they're fascinated by the possibility of making something happen."

And he says the boffin is not an amateur, despite appearances and the fact that their projects don't always work perfectly.

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Trevor Baylis, inventor of the clockwork radio
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John Scott-Scott, the Black Arrow's inventor

A boffin is defined by most dictionaries as a scientist or technician engaged in military research. In colloquial use, though, the word boffin is sometimes used interchangeably with nerd or geek, a sweeping stereotype that worries people like Dr Julia King.

Her organisation, the Institute of Physics, has campaigned to rid scientists of their nerdy image, saying it paints them with a broad brush.

And while she values the work of boffins, Dr King says the boffin stereotype doesn't do much for the wider image of scientists.

"It has the danger of putting young people off science and putting someone who goes to school into the position where they get teased," Dr King says.

Einstein - a boffin?

"On the other hand ... are those people who are able to exclude the rest of the world and think intensely about problems," she says.

"People like Einstein and Newton were of that sort of geeky stereotype, if you like. And boy, didn't they come up with some amazing ideas and concepts and things that have had a dramatic impact on us?"

Prof. Heinz Wolff
See what powers boffins like Prof. Heinz Wolff have?

Heinz Wolff is a self-confessed boffin, and the affable professor is quite proud of it. When asked to define exactly what a boffin is, he pauses, and then says, "Well, I am one.

"It isn't a negative word," he says. "It is no more negative than egghead. It describes a person of some intellectual ability, who has unconventional ideas."

Mr Spufford agrees, despairing at the thought that children are now throwing "boffin" around as an insult on playgrounds.

It's difficult to pinpoint exactly who is the biggest boffin of them all, but at the moment Colin Pillinger is considered the most famous. His project, Beagle 2 - named not after the small spotted brown dog but one of Charles Darwin's ships - put Britain on the map in terms of the exploration of space.

It's an accomplishment for a nation which is often internationally recognized for producing pop bands, but not scientists.

"This is a country which basically specialises in software of various kinds - and I mean the metaphorical type of software, too, like music or advertising or the arts," Mr Spufford says.

"Ziggy Stardust is more obviously typical of what it's been like in Britain over the past 30 years - the Spiders from Mars, not missions to Mars."


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