Nigel Henbest – A Brief History

Nigel Henbest doctorate

Nigel was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the University of Leicester in 2012.

Manchester 1951 saw the arrival of a tiny Nigel, to the delight (I like to think!) of the late Bernard and Rosalind Henbest. My father was – according to his obituary in The Times – “the outstanding British organic chemist of his generation.” Rosalind, who practised under her maiden name James, was a leading consultant psychiatrist

I was brought up in Belfast, and educated at Inst (the Royal Belfast Academical Institution). Here I skived off rugger as much as I could, while becoming a School Librarian and playing First Bassoon in both the school orchestra and the Northern Ireland Youth Orchestra. In my spare time, I took up stargazing.

The next chapter opens at Leicester University, where I took a combined degree in Physics, Chemistry and Astronomy. To my father’s chagrin, I quickly dropped chemistry and became an astrophysicist. Here I also met Heather Couper, and realised that people whose names combined to produce “Hencoup” were definitely meant to have an entwined future!

Cambridge was the next phase. Unfortunately, during my Radio Astronomy period I fell out with my supervisor, who also happened to be Head of Department and Astronomer Royal. One of us had to leave… And at the same time – to quote from the jacket blurb of my first book – “a talent for science writing was discovered”

Attempting to predict eruptions of Mount Etna!

After a brief fling with geophysics, which involved building and installing equipment on Mount Etna (the devices disappeared under the very next lava flow), I jumped the academic ship to become a freelance writer.

On the media side, New Scientist employed me as Astronomy Consultant. Other consultancies followed, including the Royal Greenwich Observatory; at one stage there was a consultancy for each day of the week!

On the astronomy side, the British Astronomical Association asked me to be Editor of their Journal. Even more fun was getting on the international lecture circuit, starting with New Zealand and Colombia.

In the end, the media won. My first outing came in 1983 when I devised a BBC Horizon programme (IRAS: the Infrared Eye). After Heather presented The Stars on Channel 4 in 1988, the director – Stuart Carter – suggested the three of us set up our own independent production company. Pioneer Productions is now going from strength to strength on the British and international TV scene

In March 2008, I left Pioneer to pursue more of my freelance interests – but I’m still in harness with the “old firm” as a consultant on astronomy productions and developing interesting proposals for new TV programmes. This also gave me time to act for a while as Editor of FirstScience, a popular science website that Pioneer set up a few years ago, and which has a large international following.

Nigel sports his Virgin Galactic astronaut’s badge

And I’m now planning to take off in – literally – new direction: in a couple of years’ time, I’ll be taking a Virgin Galactic flight into space!

You can watch an in-depth interview about my life and times here: