Whether he’s gathering knowledge, educating or revelling in moving moments, the veteran ABC science journalist Robyn Williams and broadcaster knows the value of travel.
2003 | Tuscany, Italy
The Abbey of Sant’Antimo, south of Montalcino, is made of pink stone, like marble. My wife [Jonica Newby] and I got there as the sun was beginning to set and the abbey shone. A bus full of rowdy tourists pulled up but we thought we’d still have a look inside. As we went in, we saw an organ being fixed by what looked like a technical person and a carpenter. All of a sudden, the carpenter took out an oboe and began to play the theme from The Mission. The hubbub immediately stopped. He played it with such perfection that I began to cry, as I am now. This rough- looking guy stuck an instrument in his mouth in that wonderful building with the sun going down and everyone was beguiled by the magic of the moment. When he finished, he packed up the oboe and left. It was astonishing; I’ll never forget it. If a place sounds promising, go there, even if something might be off-putting, because the rewards can be immeasurable.
2014 | Quito, Ecuador
I was leading a tour group and when we got to Quito, the capital of Ecuador, I was to talk to my travellers over dinner about our next stop, the Galápagos Islands. Before my speech, I found a young waiter and asked him how old he was. He said he was 23. “Exactly what I want,” I told him. “Now, when I start my speech, I’ll refer to you – don’t be embarrassed.” The Galápagos, of course, is where Charles Darwin went, having set sail on the HMS Beagle in 1831 for a trip that ended in 1836. When he started that voyage, he was almost 23. “You think of Darwin as this old git with a long beard and big eyebrows,” I told the tour group. “Now, think of a 23-year- old such as that young man over there. That’s what 23 is like.” What Darwin saw changed the way the world thought about the natural processes and evolution. Evolution was still an idea but natural selection – which he worked out through his observations in places like Ecuador and the Galápagos – was quite fantastic.
2017 | Oxford, England
It’s my second-favourite city on earth. I had two fellowships there and I go back every year. I land in the morning, catch the coach to Oxford and do seven or eight [radio] interviews – all before I’ve had a sleep. Last year, I thought, “Is this really worth it? What’s the point?” I could go to the University of Technology across the road in Sydney; they have all sorts of scientists there. The first person I saw last year in Oxford was Vanessa Restrepo- Schild. This amazing young woman from Colombia was 24 and had just published a paper on how to make artificial retinas to allow people with macular degeneration to see again. As I finished my interview with her, I thought, “That’s the point. You travel, you come across amazing things.” Here was a young woman showing me what the future is made of.
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