While some define the term Boffin to be the British version of Geek or Nerd, a Boffin is so much more. A Boffin is not only someone who is smart or highly educated in a technical sense, but a Boffin is usually thought of as someone who is skilled in and pursuing very archane and difficult to explain scientific endeavors. Think rocket science or even beyond. Perhaps someone who is working on creating a renewable energy source from some previously untapped interaction between sodium chloride and orange peels. Or somebody involved in advanced robotics. The patron saint of Boffins would have to be Q from the James Bond films or his successor, played by John Cleese.
Some say the term Boffin was coined when World War II British scientists working on radar, code breaking and advanced rocketry would take their lunches (allegedly) at a Pub called Boffins. In any case, Wikipedia, I think mistakenly, says that the term is somewhat derogatory. I beg to differ. Whereas we might call someone a Nerd and mean it as an insult, I’ve found that the British tend to think of their Boffins affectionately. It’s not uncommon to see the word used, even in such an august publication as the Times of London in a headline such as: “Boffins Find New Gene Splicing Technique, Will Cure Most Cancers”.
In recent years — and I’m not naming names — certain forces have conspired to look down on learning and academic accomplishment. So I was pleased to see President Obama welcome a group of what could only be called Junior Boffins to the White House. These kids, winners of various National Science Fairs, were brought to Washington because Obama said we need to celebrate achievements of the mind and kids like this who are our future. He added that it’s especially important to make a big deal out of achievements in the hard sciences since these “winners” don’t get the sort of accolades sports stars get:
“If you win the NCAA championship, you come to the White House. Well, if you’re a young person and you produce the best experiment or design, the best hardware or software, you ought to be recognized for that achievement, too…You know, when you win first place at a science fair, nobody’s rushing the field or dumping Gatorade over your head.”
Right on, Mr. O. We need to pay attention to the care and feeding of our Boffins. You never know where and when you’ll need them.
For instance: in winemaking. I think I tend to emphasize the farming and the brute force and ignorance part of the equation. Maybe because that’s the part I’m most involved with. Next to all that heavy lifting, perhaps 5 or 10% of winemaking is science — but it’s that part that makes the magic. So I’m grateful that we have our own Boffin. Call him Mr. Wine Science, Dr. FrankenWine or The Wine Boffin. But he’s the guy who directs all the acidity, sugar, pH, specific gravity and other assorted testings we have to do on a frequent basis during the process. And he’s the guy who assesses the harvested grapes and works out the magic formulation of added yeast, acids and processing that will make them into fine wine.
So let’s hear it for Boffins. We’re glad we have one at Two Terrier Vineyards. We appreciate him even when he wanders off muttering mathematical and chemical equations to himself when there are two tons of grapes sitting on the crush pad and Cousin John and I are heaving them as fast as we can into the crusher just ahead of a rainstorm.
Would it be too much to ask to have a Boffin who also did heavy lifting? Guess not. It’s really the Boffins’ world and we just live in it.
Here’s a video of a few of those Junior Boffins who visited the White House: