Professor Lord Robert Winston – Emeritus Professor of Fertility Studies, Professor of Science and Society and ‘Life Peer voted most likely to win a Groucho Marks look-a-like competition’ – was in Swindon last night. No, he wasn’t in town to witness the Lesser-Spotted Swindonian in its natural habitat. He was visiting the Wyvern as part of his latest speaking tour: “Modifying Humans: Where Does Genetics Stop?” The topic of the talk were the ethics of genetic human modification and what the ramifications, medical and social, could be of striving to create a “perfect” human being.

Yes, pretty light-hearted stuff for a murky Monday night. The turnout in the auditorium was quite heartening though. I’d estimate that there were more than a hundred people in the audience and that included quite a few young people. The talk was conducted interactively, with video, Powerpoint and interludes of classical music used to illustrate a number of his points.

Professor Winston spoke for an hour, expertly and without notes, illuminating the pros and cons as he perceived them of tinkering with the human genome. To properly ground his point in historical perspective meant revisiting some particular grim examples of medical and scientific malpractice; the human “experiments” carried out by Josef Mengele in Nazi concentration camps for one particularly queasy example.

But Winston didn’t wallow in the inhumanity. I was surprised how quickly the hour passed by. The talk was delivered with the knowing twinkle of a man who has been addressing lecture halls longer than I’ve been alive. This is a man who has, with his colleagues, invented many modern medical processes and often had to invent the instruments to carry them out. For one procedure he had to create a needle so small and slight that if you drop it, it doesn’t fall to the ground. It can’t. Instead it floats on air currents, forever twisting in the ether. That is astounding.

The night concluded with a half an hour Q & A during which he fielded a number of questions from the audience – some well-informed and some asinine – which he strove to offer and honest and thoughtful response. The encouraging tone he adopted when answering a query from one particular ten year old boy in the audience was heart-warming in the extreme.

If I’m honest I went into the talk tired, unenthused and hoping I wasn’t in for an hour of trying to keep my eyelids open. I left with my mind effervescing like champagne. It was a marvellous talk. Robert Winston is a marvel. And hearing him speak was a privilege.

 

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