Pearce Wright - Former science editor of The Times and freelance contributor to The Guardian

For
the better part of two decades, readers of the The Times learnt much
about developments in science from Pearce Wright, the paper’s former
science editor, who has died aged 72.

More recently, until cancer
took hold early this year, he contributed dozens of beautifully crafted
obituaries of scientists, astronauts and medical researchers to The
Guardian, pieces the shrewder for his personal knowledge of many of his
subjects. He took his science seriously.

A big, rumpled, generous
hearted, man, with an owlish blink, an impish grin and a fund of good
stories, Pearce’s writing career stretched from the relatively early
development of computers, through the growth and decline of the nuclear
power programme, to the moon shots, the developments that led to modern
biology, the big debates in astrophysics, and on to the detection of
global warming and climate change – which he was one of the first
national newspaper journalists to take seriously.

It stretched
also from the more Rabelaisian days of Fleet Street being Fleet Street,
staffed by characters who could have walked off the pages of Evelyn
Waugh’s Scoop – Pearce himself being a somewhat milder version of one
of those – to a more clinical world of dispersed offices and cold
screens that lacked the camaraderie with his competitors that he
relished.

Born in Plymouth in 1933 he trained as a radiographer
in Hull, married, worked at that and a string of other relatively
short-lived jobs, before persuading Electronics Weekly to take him on
as a journalist in 1960.

COBOL was the newest programming language. Floppy discs, let alone hard drives, were many years away.

Computers
filled rooms and required air conditioning to cool them – a time he
recalled with amusement when buying his first PC in the 1990s.

He
joined The Times in 1966 as technology reporter and became its science
editor in 1974. His big early stories included the Torrey Canyon tanker
disaster off the Scilly Isles and the race to the moon.

He
started at a time when some other science journalists would broadcast
today’s minor response from some new compound in half a dozen rats as
tomorrow’s almost certain “cancer cure”. Pearce had no time for such “breakthroughs”.

He
cared deeply about accuracy and proportion in reporting. But, while
working for what still regarded itself as the (often dull) newspaper of
record, he had an admiration for the tabloid reporter’s ability to
distil difficult concepts into an eye-catching intro – one that at his
best he could emulate.

He knew the pioneers of space travel well from months spent in the US. And when not there for the apparently “routine”

trip
of Apollo 13 he brought British experts into The Times office complete
with models of the space craft, taking over whole desks as he and they
tried to work out how NASA might use the lunar module to get the crew
back.

His exclusives included outwitting theIsraeli secret
service. British reporters, on what was in fact a trip sponsored by the
Israeli government, were subjected to telephone tapping so crude that
they were unable to get the copytakers back in London to hear them.
Pearce’s solution was to go to the airport, persuade a departing
passenger to hand deliver his words to the front page of The Times, and
cover himself in temporary glory.

After leaving The Times in 1990
he began a freelance career that included visiting tutor at City
University’s graduate school of journalism. The inspiration he provided
led to students staying in touch for years. Throughout, he encouraged
the young. He often pressed talent he respected to apply for the job
beyond the one that was likely – and then generously supported those
who got there with his own contacts and guidance. He revived the
Association of British Science Writers in a three-year spell as
chairman, wrote science guides and an environmental dictionary.

In
1954, Pearce married Barbara Andrews, with whom he had two children,
Richard and Felicity. They parted in the 1980s. He is survived by
Barbara, his son and daughter, his partner Rita Marshall and a warm
glow.

Nick Timmins, Financial Times

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