Sen—I was terribly sad to wake today to the news of Professor Colin Pillinger’s untimely death at the age of 70.
Colin, a true science hero if ever we had one in the UK, suffered a brain haemorrhage while sitting in his Cambridgeshire garden yesterday and died in hospital. He leaves a devoted wife, fellow scientist Judith, and two children.
With his famous mutton-chop sideburns and strong West Country accent, Colin became instantly recognisable as one of our best known scientists.
He was something of a maverick whose unorthodox ways and forthright words could irritate establishment colleagues. But he inspired great respect and led a small but loyal team when he took the bold gamble of organising a cut-price mission to Mars.
They overcame much resistance to see the UK’s Beagle 2 probe sent to the Red Planet, piggybacked on Europe’s highly successful Mars Express spacecraft.
Sadly nothing was heard of Beagle 2 following the spacecraft's descent into the martian atmosphere, and it clearly crashed. Update: No it didn't!
Yet the mission was hugely successful in inspiring a generation of youngsters to get interested in science and engineering. Colin couldn’t go anywhere without being approached by fans and grateful parents.
Mars has long attracted the interest of cartoonists, and I visited an exhibition that Colin, pictured left, organised in London in 2007 called Mars In Their Eyes. Image credit: Paul Sutherland
Colin was always extremely keen on getting the public interested and involved in the excitement of science. As a teenager, he had himself been thrilled by legendary Eagle comic hero Dan Dare, and the serial Journey Into Space on the wireless. (It was called the wireless in those days.)
His Beagle 2 brainchild was named after the original great Beagle sea voyage of exploration by Charles Darwin in the early 19th century that so advanced our knowlege of flora and fauna on Earth.
Colin was sure that his mission could directly discover whether life had similarly started on Mars, unlike NASA’s missions at the time which could only provide indirect clues.
His campaign to win public support for the mission saw the PR man in Colin come out again as he enlisted the band Blur and artist Damien Hirst to contribute to it. Blur wrote music that would be Beagle’s call sign when it reached Mars, while Hirst’s painted spots would allow its camera to be calibrated to get the colours right.
Like many other journalists, I headed to a gathering in London on Christmas morning, 2003, to await a signal from Beagle 2 to announce it had landed safely on Mars. It was a signal that never came.
It was obviously a crushing blow for Colin, though he didn’t give up hope. Jodrell Bank’s famous Lovell radio telescope near Manchester was turned to listen for any sign from the probe on Christmas Day, without success.
Months later, I was summoned to an impromptu press conference at the Open University, Milton Keynes, where Colin worked. He’d found a photo of the martian surface that might show the wrecked probe. It was clutching at straws, and later high-resolution imaging revealed there was nothing there.
Beagle 2 was famous enough to inspire a flurry of cartoons. Despite the disappointment of losing the mission, Colin had enough sense of fun to be able to laugh at them. In fact he was a big fan of space-related cartoons and amassed a huge collection which he showed at exhibitions and compiled into a book, Space Is A Funny Place.
Besides science, Colin was also a dairy farmer, and he once guest-starred in a cartoon himself as Cuzzin Colin, complete with West Country smock and “oo-arr” accent, in Viz’s Falmer Palmer strip.
His sense of fun showed again when he watched as his autobigraphy, My Life On Mars, was launched, quite literally, on a rocket from a field in Cambridgeshire in 2010, before floating back to Earth by parachute
Two years after the loss of Beagle 2, Colin was disagnosed with multiple sclerosis, but he continued enthusiastically to attend events and encourage an interest in science and space.
Colin had spent the early part of his career at Bristol University studying rocks from the Moon brought back by NASA’s Apollo astronauts. In 2010, as he was about to leave an event at the Royal Society in London, he was told “The astronauts would like to meet you.”
Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan, the first and last men to walk on the Moon, plus Jim Lovell, who piloted the ill-fated Apollo 13, had broken a journey home to the USA to attend the event. Armstrong put his hand on Colin’s shoulder and told him, to his obvious delight: “You analysed some of my samples!”