Meet Cromer’s Dr Henry Gee, man of science, sci-fi, rock music and a Tolkien fan
09:01 07 May 2014
Archant Norfolk 2014
Scientist, author and musician Henry Gee has settled with his family on the north Norfolk coast. The multi-talented Dr Gee moves between the worlds of fossils and fantasy with equal enthusiasm and expertise. He talked to ALEX HURRELL about the origins of man – and the problems of getting gigs for his band.
They may be small but hobbits have played a large part in both the professional and private life of Henry Gee.
Dr Gee, from Cromer, is a man of many parts.
A senior editor with the world-renowned science journal Nature, he is also a paleontologist (an expert in prehistoric life), a rock musician, family man, and a fan of JRR Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and fantasy epic Lord of the Rings.
While Dr Gee’s own published works include scholarly scientific investigations into the origins of human evolution, he is also the author of a book examining the science behind Tolkien’s fantasy world.
If you have ever wanted to know the answer to questions such as how far can elves see? How can dragons breathe fire? Or wondered whether hobbits are related to humans, then Dr Gee’s The Science of Middle Earth is a must-read.
It followed an eight-year stint as editor of the Tolkien Society’s magazine, Mallorn.
Hobbits and their relationship to humans caused a sensation in the serious scientific world 10 years ago when Dr Gee published details in Nature of an extraordinary archaeological find on the Indonesian island of Flores.
Skeletal remains of a tiny female humanoid creature, nicknamed “Flo” and “The Hobbit”, were discovered in a cave.
Dating from some 18,000 years ago, she was only about three foot tall, but with huge feet and hands.
The ground-breaking discovery rocked the scientific world. “It caused a profound shift in how we thought about ourselves,” said Dr Gee, 52.
“We had to accept that there were human-like creatures sharing the world with us.
“It was by far the most important thing I have ever published in terms of its scientific and cultural impact. It was a story which ran and ran – it started being referred to in popular culture and even became a cartoon.”
His own fascination with science and the natural world began early.
Born in London to parents who were both lawyers – “One of my first words was ‘affidavit’.” – Dr Gee was brought up in Sussex.
He remembers falling in love with the “curiosities and oddities” of the Horniman Museum in Forest Hill, and his first trip to the Natural History Museum, aged five: “In a sense I’ve never left it since,” he said. “I’m still there in my mind.”
After taking a first degree at Leeds University, he gained a PhD in zoology at Cambridge, decided he wanted to become a journalist and successfully applied 26 years ago for a job as a writer on Nature.
“It’s been the longest three-month contract in history,” he joked.
Nowadays he mostly works from home, in Cromer’s Connaught Road, but still commutes to the capital two or three days a week.
Dr Gee and his wife, Penny, moved from London to Cromer with their daughters, Phoebe, now 16, and Rachel, 13, seven years ago.
They play an active role in the local community. Mrs Gee is a learning support assistant at Cromer Academy, where both their girls are pupils, and her husband plays keyboards for Norwich/Yarmouth rock band Stealer.
“I effectively manage the band now and we’re always on the lookout for venues to play.
“It’s got harder to find them with so many pubs closing,” he said.
A big fan of 1970s rock, including Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Deep Purple, he has belonged to bands since his schooldays and says that some of his best friends have come through the world of music.
In 1999 Dr Gee started to edit a science fiction column in Nature as part of a short series to mark the Millennium. Through it, he became involved with the sci-fi community and began to write a novel, The Sigil.
“I had been a professional writer and editor for 15 years but had never tried fiction,” he said.
“I didn’t think I could call myself a ‘proper’ writer until I had written fiction.”
After time spent languishing in a bottom drawer, The Sigil was eventually published as an ebook, and can also be ordered in print.
It has enjoyed some critical acclaim and, when an agent suggested he write a puzzle book incorporating more science, he ran with the idea, leading to Beside The Sea, a “Norfolk gothic novel with detectives”, set in Cromer.
Despite his busy schedule, Dr Gee finds time to enjoy life in Cromer with his family and pets – two dogs, four cats, two snakes, a rabbit, chickens and an axolotl (a newt which lives its whole life in water) named Squirty Benson Wilberforce III by Phoebe.
While her younger sister, Rachel, is the artistic member of the family, and co-wrote a children’s book with her father called Defiant the Guinea Pig: Firefighter, it is Phoebe who looks likely to follow in her dad’s scientific footsteps.
She wants to be a surgeon and, as a birthday treat, watched footage of brain surgery at the Royal College of Surgeons’ Hunterian Museum.
“She’s a chip off the old block,” said Dr Gee.
“How many 16-year-old girls would watch that and then say: “Wow. Best birthday ever”?