BRIAN J FORD is an interviewer's dream. He strolls in, dressed in dapper white jacket, bird's egg blue shirt and cream tie. He shakes hands with a smile and then he's off and talking. Anecdotes pepper his conversation. Funny, revealing, occasionally shocking. And non-stop. After a hugely entertaining two-hour lunch, during which time we cover science, education, books, films, radio and life with Mensa luminaries such as Victor Serebriakoff, Clive Sinclair and Jack Cohen, I feel exhausted with the effort of merely keeping up with the sparkling conversation. Brian Ford, on the other hand, is bouncing with boundless energy. He leads me up the garden path as we seek the best spots for the pictures. He chatters constantly while the camera snaps away.
It's this zest for life that keeps not only his body spry and but his mind meticulous and mercurial. Such inexhaustible energy. Listing his 'hobbies' though I doubt he himself would dismiss them in so casual a term is tiring in itself. Pilot, deep sea diver, musician, photographer... and that's before we get to thinking about work. He once wrote a book (on the BSE crisis) in less than a week. "I told the publishers I would deliver in a month but when I looked at the diary, there was only one week without any other commitments. So I just settled down to working. I worked till late at night, got up in the morning, had coffee, kicked the cat and shouted at the wife or was that kicked the wife and shouted at the cat and got back to work."
The book was rattled out chapter by chapter. The publishers had asked for 50,000 words. When it was collated and word-counted it came to... 50,068 words. (That very morning I had been chortling at gossip that Carole Caplin, former lifestyle guru to the Blairs, had overwritten her manuscript by 80,000 words, much to the disgruntlement of her publishing editors). But then Brian Ford knows the game. He has written books by the shelf-load.
In his early 20s he wrote a major textbook revolutionising the way the relationship between micro-organisms and human foodstuffs is taught and he has been a pathfinder ever since. Most notable have been two cutting satires, Nonscience and Cult of the Expert both debunking the mystification of science by socalled experts. And it is this subject which is still occupying his thoughts.
He is horrified at the way science is presented to the public. "In my view the public are getting a raw deal," he says. "There is so much nonsense talked when it comes to science.
"Science is more propoganda than popularisation. We have just had a case in the papers. In some hospital department, they had a test of some 13,000 samples of appendix and tonsil and deduced from that there might be thousands of cases of BSE.
"You cannot do that. You couldn't possibly go round to 13,000 hotels and say that you've found what you thought were cockroach droppings in three of them and deduce from that how many cockroaches there are infesting hotels around the world. You'd be laughed out of court if you did that. And yet this became the lead story in the Times. It's sheer exaggeration."
"I wrote a book, Cult of the Expert, 20 years ago, which warned us against the way in which experts would take slight research and try to make huge theories out of them without any real justification and today it is happening everywhere.
"I will give you another example. Hormone replacement therapy for women. There has been a colossal amount of negative publicity about HRT. Can that be because most women who take HRT are above the age at which they pay for prescriptions, so it is costing the NHS a great deal of money? I don't know but there has been a great deal of propoganda saying that HRT is a danger to women even though HRT seems to banish osteoparosis and possibly Alzheimers and a number of degenerative diseases, too.
"Take the MMR vaccine, everyone knows, everyone has been propogandised into believing, that the MMR is nothing but good news. But no-one has ever been given in a newspaper article the exact facts and figures and proportions and risk factors.
"People are just told in this nanny state of ours what they should do and they are told by the experts, in my satirical sense. What they should be given is an analysis of the facts which everybody could understand and then they would be much happier to make their own minds up rather than being dictated to by the establishment."
According to Brian Ford it's partly the scientists themselves and partly a system which allows them little scope for genuinely engaging the public.
"It's because they have a sodding great mortgage and children in private school and they need their grant, they want their money. These days scientists are on short term contracts and you don't get the grant next time if you can't convince the committee that your work is worthwhile. That doesn't mean published papers in journals which most people can't understand that means headlines in the Daily Mail.
"So there is a vested interest in vulgarising, popularising, and exaggerating your research in order to get financial security for the future." The media, too, must accept its role in this "dumbing down" of science and its core issues, he says.
"I saw a programme on television the other night," Brian says, "a wonderful programme on forensic science. And who presented the programme? Zoe Wannamaker! Incredible. You can have a programme about plankton around the equatorial belt, for instance. Who will be presenting it? Sting. Or Beyonce or someone like that. I understand why television employs celebrities for this but look at it this way. If you got Damien Hirst to do commentaries on the World Cup people would be up in arms about it!" The result of such "celebrity science" , he says, is that the public rarely gets more than a superficial glimpse of what the world of real science has to offer.
"On television science is patronising, wooly and half formed. I saw a programme recently with Bill Oddie talking about dragonflies and we saw dragon fly larvae and dragon fly on the wing but there was no film, no explanation, of how the one becomes the other and the fascinating stories there are to tell.
"People controlling this kind of programme are convinced the public are too thick to understand it. It isn't true. Our fundamental concepts of what the public understand and what they don't is false.
"Science should be more open, we must agree a new approach." Such passion comes from experience. Brian was one of the first to spot the potential for popularising science in an accessible but informative way
He left Cardiff University in his second year because he was disappointed by the way in which science was being taught and was running an independent science laboratory when he realised just how valuable the media could be in giving science to the public. During the Seventies there was no science at all on BBC Radio 4. Brian offered to fill the gap with his own series Science Now and Where Are You Taking Us? He went to to introduce science news items on Radio 1's Newsbeat and later presented Food For Thought on Channel 4.
Since then he has made numerous radio and television broadcasts including hosting Computer Challenge, the first science-based television game show. He still has a Science Hour phone-in slot with LBC.
Along the way he has also broken valuable new ground in the science world including breakthroughs in microscopy (in which he is a world-renowned expert) and in the field of blood coagulation, plant physiology and cellular biology.
And, astonishingly, this huge range of work has been achieved as an independent scientist he has worked outside of the mainstream academic world since he left Cardiff University.
"I am congenitally unemployable," he laughs. "I would be a nightmare to manage. Whenever I go into places to see people, the managers love having me around because we have so much fun. But I doubt any of them would actually like to have to manage me." He then launches into another anecdote involving a blatant disregard for direct authority involving a meeting he was asked to prepare a brief for. He sent in the brief which contained nine reasons not to have the meeting. He laughs again. "What manager could put up with that?" So has this maverick spirit hindered or helped his work?
"A bit of both the academics do have access to more financial resources but in the main being independent has been an enormous asset," he says. "Academics can work away in the same place on the same procedures for years and years. I don't think I could do that. I like to move one from one project to another, from one discipline to another. I think it's important for scientists to be able to think across disciplines, to look at everything in a new way.
"Do that and then, bang, it's on to the next thing. That way it's like
having a holiday, or a break, from what you have just done. You can always then come back to it with a fresh eye. I think it's a way to maintain enthusiasm for everything that I do." And, loveable rogue that he is, no-one seems to hold it against him. He admits to being extremely proud when Cardiff University despite him jumping ship at such an early stage made him a Fellow.
"I was enormously pleased," he said. "Very honoured." There is a rare moment of silence before he grabs my arm. "Nice cuff links," he says. "Have I ever told you the story about how I was presented with a set of cuff links by..." And he's off again. Another anecdote, another entertaining story. Brian J Ford, the interviewer's dream...
WHILE Brian Ford has created something of a maverick status for himself during his career as a ground-breaking scientist, I did wonder whether his dropping out of Cardiff University during his second year might have caused some ructions in the family home. Not a bit, it would seem. He explained why he made the decision and his family's reaction or lack of it.
"It wasn't so much faith in myself, it was more a lack of faith in the way in which research was normally done. I was aware of the deficiencies of the establishment much more than I was aware of any abilities of my own.
"The advice from people at university was that I must stay and get my research degree first but I said life is too short and when you are 19, 20-years-old you don't look three years ahead. I said there was no time to waste. They were all convinced I was making a dreadful mistake by leaving.
"My family did not react in that way. I came from an engineering family. My grandfather was extremely proud of the fact that his greatuncle, or great great uncle, was Sir James Watt, the steam engine pioneer.
"The whole family had this engineering tradition, down to my father who was a senior engineer and on the board of directors of a large engineering company. When I went biological the family was extremely naffed off... going into biology was extremely misguided and leaving university was just par for the course. They just thought I was misguided from the start."
But, of course, as with other decisions he was to make in future years, Brian was actually ahead of his time. If the 20th Century was the era of medicine and physics, the 21st Century seems set to become the era of great discoveries in biology.
"It is very much true that the 1700s were this great era of discovery, the 1800s the great era of chemistry and the 1900s had an awful lot of medicine and physics and the years ahead are certainly going to be the era of biology." Not that Brian is certain that we are heading in the right direction.
"I don't think it is the right biology. We have come very hung up on the notion of genetics and genetic biology, as if in some strange way genetics is the answer to our problems. In fact genetic engineering has done far, far less to change crops, farms, agricultural, ourselves, than conventional methods of science has done.
"Homing in too closely on the gene is very reductionist and simply isn't in accordance with the way organisms work. I want us to focus on the way the cell functions. I have always seen great resonances between the behaviour of single cells and the way in which organisms composed of cells, like ourselves, behave.
"I model civil war and the current levels of strife that you see in human societies, I model that through auto immune diseases in communicative cells and I find it interesting. One can so often model the behaviour of people through the behaviour of the cells of which they are composed." So closer study of our cells and how they interact could help us better understand why we behave, socially, the way we do. Now that's a line of research well worth pursuing... And the end result of pursuing this approach to biology? "In a way, this kind of approach would revolutionise the way in which the public look at themselves and the way in which science looks at biology.
"It would make us realise that we can test drugs, that we can try to look to cure psychological problems, for example, by intervening at the cellular level, not the molecular level."
"A new cell theory would allow us to look at things in a different way. I see oursleves not so much as organisms but as choreographed communities of cells which by through bunching together managed to build towns and cities and become civilised. But we are still communities of cells. In a sense, we are ambulant fruiting bodies and nothing more than that.
"We die because we are the expendable fruiting bodies but the product of us, the cells, live on indefinitely, through our children. So if you look at life in my sense then people are already immortal."
APART from how science is presented in the media, Brian Ford becomes ultra-passionate about another key subject. During our interview he lambasted the education system for failing to deliver what pupils really want. Brian, who last month raised another controversial issue when he wrote a feature for Mensa Magazine asking whether universities were irrelevant, was keen to see a new approach taken in schools throughout the country.
"We have a system in schools where no-one is ever allowed to fail. You don't have failure, everybody must pass. But they've missed an important point. As soon as you don't have failure then you can't possibly have successes.
"They say the reason they take this approach is because modern children will get demoralised if they fail. Oh yes? Then you jump on your play station and the game is not going to say you have done jolly well but not quite well enough to win. It is going to say you are dead. All your lives have gone. Surprisingly, young people seem to be able to cope with this.
"Then they say kids don't like to learn things by rote. Oh yes? What about when they get out the latest rap CD by Eminem of Fifty Cent or whatever. Everyone will learn the lyrics and they will chant them with the singer while the CD is playing. Then they say young people hate exams and they don't want to do them - but the fastest growing sector of pub machines has been for trivial pursuit machines where your learned knowledge of the world is crucially important.
"And people complaining about young people who borrow too much are there any lessons in school about financial management? People complain about obesity but are there any lessons in school about food safety?
"We have this problem with louts in the street getting drunk. Are there any lessons in school about the wise use of alcohol?
"If school was left to me, from the age of 16 on you would have wine-tasting sessions in school.
"You would teach people things they would need to know to be integrated, happy people and not have the school system as it is... some kind of State-funded babysitting service."