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Bernd Heinrich: Athlete and biologist
EO Wilson Scientist
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Evolutionary biology, which is a fancy name for scientific natural history, is... has some of the most wonderful and admirable people working in it that can be imagined. Because people come into it from very diverse backgrounds with different talents, different passions. I mean, the passion about natural history but they'll be passionate about a different group of animals or some other environment than the one you work in and so on. And certainly one of the most interesting friends that I've ever had is Bernd Heinrich. Born in Germany like so many Germans of his generation, including Bert Hölldobler, too young to have fought and died in the Second World War. They came through as children, they came through hard times. And had to help their families scrounge for food at the end of... during and after... at the end of the war, even as only children. They became very self-reliant. And this is strongly visible in the steeliness of their character as mature men.

Well, Bernd Heinrich is a great naturalist. He's one of these unsung naturalists who publishes marvellous pieces of work based on a keen eye and an experimenter's high talent. Drawing from natural history. Making conclusions from things that he sees in the field and then checking them out with experiments and repeated observations. But he's also a world class athlete. One of the great ultramarathoners of the world with many national and age group and even world records to his credit. You know, a 100 miles, the longest distance run for his age group or for all Americans or something like that, for 24 hours, I think it was 154 miles he was able to run. This kind of a person. A body looks like it's made out of wires and aluminium tubes.

And since I was an amateur runner I... dare I call myself that? I was a dedicated jogger and wannabe runner in my 40s, when I first encountered Bernd. And so this was one source of our friendship. But it was sort of like the... an all-star of the national basketball league being a friendly... a friend, you know, of the local duff in the city block. In fact, I first... was the first to encourage Bernd, an extremely shy and modest guy, who doesn't mention these things normally. People have to tell stories on him and then you can get it out of him. I take credit for having encouraged him to run in the Boston Marathon which is the most famous world marathon outside the Olympics. And he ran that marathon. He came here. You know, I told him... I said, Bernd, I'm a statistics duff on distance running. I... if I can't break records I can analyse them. And I said, I've checked your run out in Berkeley, your times and so on, you've told me about them. And jacked it up in terms of my calculations and the statistics tables, and I think you could probably run a marathon under three... under 2:20. 2:30. 2:30. And Bernd came and on that he decided to enter the Boston Marathon. And he happened to reach his 40th birthday just about on the day. I mean, it was April 19. That day or the day before. So he qualified for the masters class and he won it, which is extraordinary. But maybe not so extraordinary for a guy who was setting records in ultramarathons all around that time. It's notable that this athletic ability allowed him to, when he was studying the flight patterns and orientation of bumblebees, he's the only biologist I think I ever knew who actually did, got his data and checked it by running with the bumblebees as they flew back and forth between their home and wherever they were going.

Edward Osborne Wilson is an American biologist, researcher (sociobiology, biodiversity), theorist (consilience, biophilia), naturalist (conservationist) and author (two Pulitzer Prizes). His biological specialty is myrmecology, the study of ants.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: Boston Marathon, evolutionary biology, natural history, marathon, bumblebees, ultramarathon, athlete, jogger, runner, naturalist, Olympics, Bert Hölldobler, Bernd Heinrich

Duration: 4 minutes, 49 seconds

Date story recorded: 2000

Date story went live: 22 May 2018