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Sunday, July 20, 2008

Will we drive on underground automated highways?

Will we drive on underground automated highways?

The Time Machine
Image courtesy Amazon.com
Moving highways underground probably won't result in the discovery of bestial sub-humans, but it could pay off in other ways.

In the­ science fiction novel "The Time Machine," author H.G. Wells envisioned a distant future in which humans had devolved into two distinct races: The beautiful Eloi, who live an idyllic life in the English countryside, and the brutal Morlocks, who labor underground to sustain the Eloi's way of life on the surface.

Even if you overlook the Morlocks' cannibalistic attacks on the surface world, this clearly isn't an ideal arrangement. Yet the idea of pushing the less attractive elements of our lives underground isn't entirely without merit. After all, if we can bury power and communication lines, why can't we do something similar with our highways? And while no one at HowStuffWorks will make an argument in favor of creating a race of subterranean monsters to do our bidding, isn't it nice to have someone else do the work? Why can't we pass the wheel over to some manner of mechanical Morlock when we need to take a long trip?

This is exactly the theory behind the creation of an underground automated highway (UAH). Need to travel cross-country to visit your parents? You would simply drive down into the nearest UAH entrance and let your specialized vehicle's automated guidance system sync up with the highway system. You'd turn the controls over to the vehicle, which would allow you to sleep, work or play for the remainder of the drive. There would be no tracks, no moving platforms -- just your vehicle driving itself in formation with other automated vehicles. Upon reaching your destination, the vehicle would follow the proper exit, and you'd take the wheel to manually drive the last few miles.

Such a system would be safer and less congested than current highway systems. In addition, the land that might otherwise be used for highways, interstates and related infrastructure could be reclaimed. Imagine if just half of the world's highway systems could be reserved for oxygen-producing wild plant life? Think about all the hungry mouths you could feed if that land was used for agricultural production?

Are automated highway systems the future of transportation? Drive into the world of tomorrow on the next page.


Building Underground Automated Highways

So maybe the Morlocks and Eloi had a good idea after all. There's a great deal of support for the underground automated highway system concept, and futurists and transportation experts alike have been forecasting aboveground automated highway systems (AHS) for decades. Most experts agree that when it comes to letting machines drive you through underground tunnels, it's probably more a question of when, rather than if.

highway of tomorrow
Peter Gridley/Taxi/Getty Images
Will taking the highway one day involve closing your eyes and letting automated systems drive you through a system of subterranean tunnels?

Experts predict we're somewhere between 50 and 100 years away from the reality of taking the UAH to grandma's house. Creating such a transportation system, perhaps in the United States or Europe, would be a massive undertaking and to pull it off, we'd need to experience advancements in three major fields:

  1. A working automated highway system: As the saying goes, you have to learn to crawl before you can walk. For the majority of society to start using a UAH, they would first need to embrace the system and technology aboveground. And appropriate vehicles would be an essential part of any automated highway system. For instance, you couldn't launch a hovercraft-only lane on the interstate this year and expect everyone to drive in it. People would have to gradually become accustomed to the technology, purchase new hovercrafts and, if possible, update old vehicles to the new hovercraft standard. If AHSs were introduced slowly, the necessary vehicle guidance technology would have enough time to properly develop and catch on with mainstream consumers. This way, by the time the first UAH is introduced, enough drivers will be able to use them.

  2. Zero-emission vehicles: Automated or not, an underground highway would involve a great deal of traffic whizzing through subterranean passages. Such a system would be challenging to ventilate without having to pump out clouds of vehicle exhaust. You'd need vehicles that produce zero emissions through the use of fuel cells, batteries, solar power, hydrogen power or other energy-efficient methods.

  3. Improved tunnel-boring technology: Obviously, the creation of an underground highway is going to involve a great deal of digging. The Channel Tunnel, which runs 31 miles (50 kilometers) underneath the English Channel, took four years to complete [source: Encyclopaedia Britannica]. Imagine how much time it would take to complete a tunnel running the 2,776 miles (4,468 kilometers) between New York and Los Angeles? Some experts also contend that fully automated tunnel-boring technology would need to be perfected before UAHs could become a reality.

How does our current technology stack up against this list? Learn all about tunneling robots and cars that drive themselves on the next page.

Saving Land and Lives
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration, the country's highways cover 160,000 miles (256,000 kilometers), carrying hundreds of millions of vehicles. Each year, more than 40,000 individuals die on these highways, costing the nation $137 billion. If you consider that human error is the leading cause in 90 percent of crashes, creating automated guidance systems makes more sense than ever [source: Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center]

Automated Traffic Underground

Each year, researchers make new strides in a number of technologies that would play a huge role in diverting automated traffic underground. Some of the existing technology is very promising, suggesting we might actually embark on our first subterranean road trip sometime in the next century.

tunnel-boring machine
David McNew/Getty Images News/Getty Images
As workers follow a massive tunnel-boring machine, they put the finishing touches on the support structure for a train tunnel.

When it comes to designing an aboveground automated highway system, much of the technology has been around for more than a decade. In the 1990s, the U.S. Department of Transportation sponsored the National Automated Highway System Consortium (NAHSC), which resulted in a very promising demonstration of current technology. The NAHSC equipped eight cars with several different automated driving systems. These included radar to detect other vehicles and magnetic and visual sensors to follow a length of highway marked with buried magnetic sensors and visual markers. Over the course of the demonstration, these vehicles traveled a combined 8,000 miles (­12,875 kilometers) and carried 4,000 passengers without incident [source: Smart].

Realizing the dream of self-driving cars will involve developing improved collision avoidance systems (versions of this are already on the market in some vehicles), artificial intelligence and automated, real-time routing systems. Experts predict that the first examples of automated highway systems will emerge in the form of special lanes, similar to high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes, designated for automated commercial trucking operations. From there, as the technology becomes more reliable and available, civilian use of AHS technology will steadily grow.

On the zero emissions front, a number of major automobile companies and private design groups are working diligently to create cleaner and more efficient fuel systems for vehicles. From General Motors' hydrogen-powered Hy-wire to the Reva G-Wiz Automatic Electric Vehicle currently available in India and the United Kingdom, the technology is steadily becoming more practical and efficient.

But what about automated tunnel-drilling technology? While you might think the idea of massive, robot worms drilling their way through the earth sounds like something from the age of Morlocks, the technology is not that far off. Several countries have continued to pursue tunneling projects and associated technologies during the last decade, leading to a decrease in tunneling costs and an increase in efficiency. Recent tunneling costs have dipped as low as $1.50 per cubic foot, and the latest tunnel-boring machines can tunnel through various terrains at a rate of 20 feet (six meters) per hour [source: Smart].

­Most researchers agree that improved earthquake protection systems must be developed to ensure the safety of UAH travelers. However, designers are encouraged by past incidents where underground structures moved with the land during quakes, resulting in relatively little damage. In fact, after an earthquake struck Japan in 1995, underground projects were the least damaged structures in the city of Kobe. A massive tunneling project would also create a great deal of dirt and rock, which would need to be relocated elsewhere. Planning where to transport it would be a challenge, but using the theoretical AHS on the surface would expedite the process of moving this earth to its final drop point.

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Scientist think they've found HIV weakness

HOUSTON, July 16 (UPI) -- HIV researchers at the University of Texas Medical School in Houston said they think they've found the chink in armor of the virus linked to AIDS.

The vulnerable spot is hidden in a protein essential for the Human Immunodeficiency Virus, the virus that causes Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, to attach to host cells, the university said in a release.

An HIV vaccine doesn't exist because HIV is a mutating virus.

The scientists said they are focusing on a stretch of amino acids on HIV's envelope protein gp120.

"Unlike the changeable regions of its envelope, HIV needs at least one region that must remain constant to attach to cells. If this region changes, HIV cannot infect cells," said Sudhir Paul, a pathology professor at the UT Medical School.

Paul's group engineered antibodies with enzymatic activity, called abzymes, that can attack the virus's weakness.

"The abzymes recognize essentially all of the diverse HIV forms found across the world. This solves the problem of HIV changeability," Paul said. "The next step is to confirm our theory in human clinical trials."

The theory was in a recent issue of Autoimmunity Reviews and will be presented during the International AIDS Conference Aug. 3-8 in Mexico City.

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A 540-calorie Big Mac? NY chains post calorie info

Calories of each food item appear on a McDonalds drive-thru menu in New York, Friday July 18, 2008. Several fast food chains say they have finally begun obeying a new city rule requiring some restaurants to post calorie counts right on the menu (AP Photo/Ed Ou)
AP Photo: Calories of each food item appear on a McDonalds drive-thru menu in New York, Friday...

By DAVID B. CARUSO, Associated Press Writer

NEW YORK - Customers at big fast-food chains in New York City are finally facing the facts about their meal choices. And for some, the truth may be hard to swallow — like 1,130 calories for a Big Mac, medium fries and a medium soda.

After months of resistance, the city's chain restaurants have begun obeying a first-of-its-kind rule requiring them to post calorie counts right on the menu.

McDonald's and Burger King were among the chains that unveiled new menu boards Friday at scores of locations throughout the city, taking calorie information that had long been available on Web sites and tray liners and putting it front-and-center above the cash register.

The new rules are part of an anti-obesity campaign that has also included a recent citywide ban on artificial trans fats in restaurant food. The regulation was first passed in 2006 but was redrafted after a court battle struck down the original version.

The calorie posting rule took effect in May, but legal action delayed enforcement until now. Starting Saturday, chains big enough to fall under the rule will face penalties of up to $2,000 per store for not disclosing calorie information in a prominent spot on their menus, preferably next to the price.

On Friday, the numbers at some restaurants could be hard to read, and many places only offered calorie counts for a few top-selling items. A few chains still appeared to be ignoring the rule, perhaps holding out hope that a court would block the plan, the first of its kind in any U.S. city. An industry lawsuit is pending.

Cathy Nonas, director of the health department's physical activity and nutrition program, said some delayed posting the data because they were afraid customers might change their eating habits.

"We want to help people make an informed decision at the time of purchasing," she said. "Obviously, we have an epidemic of obesity across the nation, and New York City is no different."

Other chains, including Starbucks, Dunkin' Donuts and Wendy's have been phasing in calorie information, store by store, for several months — surprising some patrons who never realized that a single jelly doughnut has 270 calories, or that a grande mint mocha chip frappuccino with whipped cream packs a bigger caloric punch than a double cheeseburger.

Dietary guidelines for adults recommend about 2,000 calories a day, depending on age, gender and activity.

Still, some customers grabbing burgers, fries and shakes this week seemed not to notice the new columns of calorie data.

Audrey and Kevin Carroll, visiting from Toronto, didn't see that the box of treats they grabbed for the kids at Cinnabon on their way out of town contained a whopping 850 calories per bun.

"That's why they call it fast food," said their traveling companion, Cynthia Kaufman, of New York's Long Island. "It's New York. If it's loud, and noisy, and you're in a hurry, and the kids are crying, who is going to stop and read the calories?"

To date, the lack of enforcement of the calorie-posting rules had meant haphazard compliance, and it remained unclear Friday how many of the estimated 2,500 covered restaurants would meet the deadline.

A few restaurants appeared to be caught completely off guard by the calorie rules, especially the homegrown fast-food chains that pepper New York City's outer boroughs.

"This has been an absolute nightmare," said Enrique Almela, director of operations at Singas Famous Pizza, which has 17 restaurants, most in the borough of Queens.

The menu rule only applies to restaurants that serve standardized portion sizes and have 15 or more locations nationwide, a distinction that was intended to target fast-food giants. But in practice, the low threshold has swept up little-known outfits like Singas Famous Pizza and other local franchises that have never done nutritional testing before.

Almela spoke with The Associated Press from his car Wednesday as he rushed sample pizzas to a food laboratory. He said the calorie tests for his 35 different pizza combinations will cost $10,000, and he doubts they will produce accurate data.

"I may put 15 pepperoni on a pie. Someone else may put 12. We don't measure the amount of cheese we put on," he said. "If you put up roundabout numbers, how does that help anyone?"

The deadline also looked problematic for a unique class of New York City eateries: loosely affiliated, largely immigrant-owned restaurants that share the same name and sometimes the same suppliers, but operate independently.

Afgan Paper & Food Products, which distributes food and packaging materials to many of the eateries, said it was scrambling to get them calorie info.

"The stores are all calling and asking for information. We don't have it," said Mariam Mashriqi, a receptionist at the company.

In the meantime, Mashriqi said, some owners were paying for the laboratory tests themselves.

"These are small stores. They are barely making a profit," she said.

City health officials said restaurants have had ample time to prepare. Every restaurant licensed by the city got a letter this spring. Another 250 were issued formal warnings when health inspectors noticed that they hadn't yet complied.

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Richard Dawkins slaps creationists into the primordial soup


(John Carey)

Listen to a podcast with Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins is that rare specimen, a public intellectual, a knight of the mind who goes into battle against the ignorance and foolhardiness of the populace. Unlike the French, who worship their public intellectuals, giving them pet names such as les intellos, and airing them regularly on serious television and in print, the British like to shove academics into a musty corner, or laugh at them. This was not always the case: the Victorians, with their public lectures and royal societies, gloried in debate and celebrated the thrills of fresh knowledge. The nearest we get to this now is celebrating the thrill of Germaine Greer walking out of Celebrity Big Brother.

The marginalisation of academia is partly self-created by its pomp and obfuscatory language. Dawkins broke out of the ghetto long ago thanks not just to an extraordinary mind, but to a gift for elegant communication and controversy: the English-language version of his recent paean to atheism, The God Delusion, has sold 1.5million copies (it has been translated into 31 other languages). He is big in airport bookshops. In 1976, when his first book, The Selfish Gene, was published, The New York Times explained the mind-expanding pleasure of his science-lit as “the sort of popular science writing that makes the reader feel like a genius”.

In these barren, thoughtless times, Dawkins gives people something substantial to chew on. His audience is surprisingly grateful, and also relieved to see someone slapping creationists about and tossing them into the primordial soup, as well as explaining atheism positively. Before I went to interview him about his new three-part television series, Dawkins on Darwin, various over-excited friends offered to accompany me and texted questions for me to ask him; signed copies were requested of The God Delusion, which one Iranian exile said he had recently found himself reading as his plane landed – everyone else was clutching the Koran.

The Darwin-Dawkins combo was of some fascination too; one acquaintance lent me her much-loved copy of On the Origin of Species. “The language is beautiful. I read it for a Victorian literature course, not science,” she said. And that, perhaps, is one of the reasons for the strong connection between Dawkins and Darwin. “Every line of Darwin, you know he really wanted to be understood,” says Dawkins. “There was no pretentious showing off about him.”

When Dawkins set out long ago to bring science to the masses, he says he was not consciously imitating Darwin, but had the same aims as him: “To be understood, to inspire.” His post at Oxford – the Charles Simonyi Chair for the Public Understanding of Science – is appropriate. The ethologist-philosopher has been appearing on television since Horizon in the Seventies; his last series for Channel 4 was The Enemies of Reason, an attack on the bandwagons of astrology, the tarot, psychics and homoeopathy.

He has also embraced new media: his website gets huge traffic and is linked to Facebook and MySpace: “67 – Male – Oxford – London”. There are 40 Dawkins-related videos on YouTube, some of which have been viewed more than one million times. It’s not the usual medium of communication for a man of his generation.

For final proof that Dawkins, rather than God, is everywhere, you need only to have seen the most recent series of Doctor Who, in which Dawkins played a cameo as himself. Russell T. Davies, the executive producer of the series, is a fan. “He has brought atheism proudly out of the closet,” Davies says.

Dawkins has a real-life connection with Doctor Who: he is married to Lalla Ward, who was previously the wife of Tom Baker, having played the role of his assistant, Romana, in the series in the Seventies. Dawkins met her at a birthday party in 1992 for the late Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Lalla floats in and out of Dawkins’s vast living room and kitchen in Oxford, smiling and bearing espressos in terracotta mugs.

The Dawkins on Darwin programme – note who gets the first namecheck – was commissioned to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the presentation to the Linnean Society in London of Darwin’s paper on his theory of evolution, and the bicentennial of his birth next year. Dawkins says that natural selection is “the most important idea to occur to the human mind”, the slow change of species over millions of ideas disproving the religious theory of intelligent design by God.

That we are still trying to sell evolution to a large part of the public bothers him. “It is weird in many ways that natural selection is still debated,” he says. “But it is not debated by anyone who knows anything about it.” Indeed, Dawkins refuses to share a stage with creationists. “I don’t like giving them the oxygen of respectability, the feeling that if they’re up on a platform debating with a scientist, there must be real disagreement. One side of the debate is wholly ignorant. It would be as though you knew nothing of physics and were passionately arguing against Einstein’s theory of relativity.”

In the programme, he worries that evolution takes up little more than two hours of a child’s science education in school, against potentially a lifetime of religious indoctrination at home. He tries to persuade a class of secondary school children about evolution. He frowns, exasperated. “It is such a tragedy that children are being deprived of this extraordinary exciting knowledge, which is theirs for the taking. What a privilege that they live in the 21st century, when that knowledge is available, but how tragic that they’re being educated as though it were two centuries earlier.”

At his home, among the modular sofas, tribal masks, plaster skulls, and three huge, painted animals from an old fairground ride, Dawkins is smiling and persuasive, his arguments clipped and accurate, no breath wasted. He is no elbow-patched, tweedy academic; his spotted socks and shoes are rather cutting edge, and he looks much younger than his 67 years. By contrast, on television he becomes almost a messianic teacher, his statements framed in the language of his true religion – science. At times, in the winds of Chesil Beach unearthing fossils, his glasses glinting, he suddenly has the choleric look of a 19th-century vicar; almost Trollopian.

Dawkins has long been nicknamed “Darwin’s Rottweiler”, a reference to the Victorian biologist T.H. Huxley, who was known as “Darwin’s Bulldog” for advocating natural selection and sensationally debated the cause, in 1860, against the Bishop of Oxford.

That was then and this is now, yet what has changed? “In a Gallup poll 44 per cent of the American people said that they believe the world is less than 10,000 years old,” Dawkins says. “It’s a massive error. I’ve likened it to believing that the width of America from New York to San Francisco is 7.8 yards – that’s the equivalent error if you scale it up to the true age of the Earth, which is something like 4.6 billion years.”

For Dawkins, there is a tree of life; not the one featuring Adam and Eve, but the one tantalisingly sketched by Darwin with the two words “I think” written above, showing how different species branch slowly off from each other over millions of years, until fish are on one branch, and apes on the opposite. If creationism falls, so, logically for Dawkins, does the rest of religion piled upon it.

“There is something very, very odd about American fundamentalism, and it’s spreading to this country. I am frequently hearing of science teachers who have problems teaching evolution, mostly to Muslim students.” At this point, Dawkins lapses into a “let’s-not-go-there” silence. In The God Delusion, he mostly mauls Christianity. “I said something about Islam, but not as much. I regarded the book as attacking all religion, especially the three monotheistic religions – Islam, Judaism and Christianity. There’s no particular emphasis on any of them; I know more about Christianity, so I emphasised it.”

He claims the television film is not about Christianity but Darwinism, and that he tried to steer clear of religion, which he covered in an earlier two-part series for Channel 4, The Root of All Evil?. There is much about Darwin’s five-year journey on HMS Beagle and about the Galapagos Islands, and there are scenes shot in Kenya, where Dawkins was born in 1941. The savannah scenes amply demonstrate the survival of the fittest, and the suffering, starving, struggling and death of the natural world. There is also an oddly touching moment when Dawkins holds specimens of racing pigeons that Darwin used to study the domestic breeding of animals. The label on each bird is handwritten by the great man. How did Dawkins feel, holding these artefacts? “Quite tearful, really… It is sort of moving to see his own handwriting on these labels he must have handled and examined many times.”

Again he lapses into silence, but I now know to sit out these Pinteresque moments rather than interrupt – while most interviewees are floundering, Dawkins is thinking. “There’s a very important misunderstanding of the relationship between Hitler and Darwin, which is relevant to this,” he resumes. “A lot of people think that Hitler sort of was a Darwinian, which he absolutely wasn’t. What Hitler did was to take the principle of domestic breeding of animals and apply it to humans. What Darwin did was to take the principle of the domestic breeding of animals and apply it to nature. It’s all done by nature, by who as a matter of fact survives.”

In 2006 Dawkins used his book royalties – and some donations from Silicon Valley – to set up the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, a charity on both sides of the Atlantic that supports the teaching of science and evolution. His own website is labelled “a clear-thinking oasis”. It contains articles, a chatroom, an online shop that sells “RDF” mugs for $10, and “A-for-Atheist” T-shirts for $20. There’s even a hoodie.

Although Dawkins is facing mandatory retirement from his chair at Oxford University, he will remain active on the web and through his writing, lecturing (at the Edinburgh Book Festival next) and television programmes. His recent tours of America, speaking alongside co-thinkers such as Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, have met with standing ovations from packed audiences. “I think that there is something happening in America. I think it is revulsion against Bush, and revulsion against militant Islam,” Dawkins says.

He is also a member of the Brights, a group who out themselves as atheists. But he is not too keen on the name. “The word Brights gets a lot of ridicule. A lot of Americans think it’s arrogant, that it’s saying non-religious people are cleverer than religious people. On average they probably are, but you’re not allowed to say that.” He grins.

Television has proved a powerful part of his arsenal. When he was first asked to present a Horizon programme based on The Selfish Gene, he refused. “I was too shy.” They found another presenter. But Dawkins does have one of those early posh BBC accents, and his slightly geeky enthusiasm and erudition works on screen. “Yes, I do quite enjoy doing it now. I don’t like speaking rehearsed lines to camera – and it’s quite trying when a plane goes over and we have to do a retake. I like it when it’s spontaneous and natural.”

I tell him it’s a relief to learn something from the television in these dark times, especially when he shares a channel with Big Brother, surely the ultimate cultural meme of the moment. (A meme is an idea that replicates across society, the cultural equivalent of a gene, and another one of Dawkins’s inventions.)

Dawkins becomes unusually agitated at the mention of the reality television show. “I find that very shocking. I utterly despise Big Brother and I’m really sorry to be associated with it on Channel 4. It really is demeaning.” You might assume that he would find the programme fascinating, the studio equivalent of a wildlife show, with nature red in tooth and claw. But he has nothing but contempt for the survival of the fittest in the Big Brother house. “I have heard indications that the bullying style of some of the Big Brother characters is copied by schoolchildren. Schoolchildren doing copycat bullying because they learn about it from these vile people, the trailer trash who go on Big Brother.”

Perhaps we must blame trailer-trash education for our television celebrities. Have you seen the Key Stage science course for 11-year-olds, I ask Dawkins. He hasn’t, but I can tell him that it is dull, uninspiring, and so simplistic as to be almost inaccurate. Evolution doesn’t get a look-in. “I should love to have everybody taught about evolution from a fairly early age, because it is so important, so exciting,” he says. “It answers so many questions and mysteries; it solves so many problems. Until you know about it, you’re wandering around on this Earth looking at trees and birds and flowers, not knowing why any of them is there. Evolution is the answer to that riddle, so you’re not really a whole person if you don’t know where you come from and why you exist. And it’s not difficult. It’s not like relativity, it’s not like quantum theory – it’s something teachable to fairly young children.”

Dawkins was first taught about evolution by his parents, who are in their nineties now. His family moved from Kenya to Nyasaland, now Malawi, when he was two and then on to England when he was eight. You might expect that he had a Gerald Durrell type of childhood, collecting African beetles in matchboxes, but he says: “I didn’t take much advantage of that. I must say I wasn’t the real enthusiastic naturalist. My route to science and biology was almost more philosophical. I was interested in the questions of existence – why are we here?”

He did not fall in love with Darwin until he was an undergraduate, and now the culmination of their long affair of the mind is the television series and a book on evolution, which will also take in modern knowledge of genetics and DNA. Dawkins has also just edited The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing, which contains essays by dozens of those scientists who manage to inspire ordinary people, including Steven Pinker, Oliver Sacks and Steve Jones.

He does not see why literature and science should be enemies. “If you push novelty of language and metaphor enough, you can end up with a new way of seeing.” His love of books began as a child, with Dr Dolittle – of course. “He was rather like Darwin in a way, a doctor who loved animals, with this top hat, who went on little ships roughly the same vintage as the Beagle.”

Of The Selfish Gene, Dawkins says: “This book should be read almost as though it were science fiction… It is designed to appeal to the imagination. Cliché or not, ‘stranger than fiction’ expresses exactly how I feel about the truth.” He likes science fiction – Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Fred Hoyle – but he adores P. G. Wodehouse. “I’ve read all of him. I know it almost by heart.” As for influences on his writing style, he says: “Dare I suggest Evelyn Waugh? I admire the spare economy – not many adjectives except in certain purple passages when he’s turning on the purple tap.”

Best not to go into Waugh and religion here, although Dawkins does describe himself as a “cultural Christian”. He says: “I admit to a sort of vague affection for Anglicanism inherited from my parents. I like the idea of the vicar turning up to the village cricket match.”

He also admits to having a curious ambivalence towards Christians who accept the theory of evolution, because on the one hand they are natural allies. On the other hand, at least the people he refers to as “fundamentalist wingnuts” agree with him that the scientific world is incompatible with supernaturalism. “They dig their heels in on one side, and me on the other.”

Yet there is almost a spiritual side to Dawkins, a childlike wonder and joy in the marvels of the universe. He talks about being moved almost to tears when he took his two-year-old daughter Juliet (his only child, from his marriage to Eve Barham), wrapped in blankets, out into the back garden in 1986 to see Halley’s Comet in the night sky. Dawkins could barely see the comet, but, aware that he would never see it again in his lifetime, he whispered to Juliet that she might just see it when it passed again, when she was 78. He chokes up a little talking about it again, and it reminds me of the Ted Hughes poem Full Moon and Little Frieda, when Hughes’s toddler daughter is in the garden in the evening and suddenly shouts “Moon, Moon” in the silence.

Dawkins is equally emotional when he talks about the ashes of the planetary scientist Eugene Shoemaker being taken to the Moon in a capsule aboard a space probe. “Shoemaker wanted to be an astronaut, but for reasons of health, he couldn’t go. Instead, he spent his life training astronauts and conducting research on the specimens they brought back, and he gave the Shoemaker-Levy comet its name. When he died, people lobbied Nasa to send his ashes to the Moon, which they did, with a plaque [on the capsule] with a quote from Romeo and Juliet: ‘And, when he shall die/ Take him and cut him out in little stars/ And he will make the face of heaven so fine/ That all the world will be in love with night/ And pay no worship to the garish sun.’”

It’s not quite pagan worship, but “it’s a fine example of secular spirituality”, says Dawkins.

Dawkins on Darwin will be shown on Channel 4 from August 4. Dawkins on Darwin and The Richard Dawkins Collection (4DVD, £19.99 and £29.99) are released on August 25

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