Obituary: Michael Hanlon
The Old Bournemouthian Michael Hanlon was a contemporary of such distinguished figures as Sir David Attenborough and Buzz Aldrin. He was a highly regarded scientific journalist and planned to create a spectacular Dorset attraction similar to the Eden Project to display Dorset coast’s world-famous fossils. No museum yet exists on a large enough scale to truly do justice to the local area’s highly significant archaeology, a subject with which, from a very early age, Michael was infatuated.
Estimated to cost some £85-90 million, ‘Jurassica’ was to embrace modern technology to display the evolution of life over the past 200 million years. The former Yeolands Quarry on Portland, now disused, was to house this visionary project, encased beneath a translucent roof.
Jurassica, a registered UK charity, is a project to build the world’s most spectacular prehistoric visitor attraction, on Dorset’s Jurassic Coast. Read more here: http://www.jurassica.org, or here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jurassica
The film-maker Lord Puttnam, and Lord Rees, the Astronomer Royal, sit on the advisory board. The BBC asked Hanlon to accompany Sir David Attenborough on a wildlife-filming trip in Africa, during which time the famous naturalist became so enthused with the project as to become its Patron. Renzo Piano, the architect of The Shard, designed Jurassica for free. Renzo gave Michael a private tour of The Shard, during which time he was encapsulated by Michael’s positivity and enthusiasm for Jurassica, thereafter offering his services for free.
After Hanlon’s death, Piano wrote: “He had no money for the project, no backing and didn’t own the site. But he spoke from the heart and with such passion. He had an almost child-like innocence, which made the project feel visionary and enlightened.”
Sir David Attenborough said: “Michael was a great visionary with a wonderful idea to bring the past to life, an idea without parallel.” He spoke at Michael’s funeral on 27th February.
Sir Tim Smit, the co-founder of the Eden Project in Cornwall and a trustee of Jurassica, said Hanlon was “the heir to the great traditions of entrepreneurial scientists, driven by knowledge and spectacle first, commerce second”.
As CEO of Jurassica, Michael promised that it would be open by 2021. He had already raised several million pounds from private, corporate and public investors towards it. It was on leaving a board meeting about strategic funding that he suffered a fatal heart attack. He was rushed to St. Thomas’ hospital in London with a ruptured Aorta, but an hour of emergency service could not save him.
The obituary in The Times described him as “ebullient, larger than life, a bon vivant”, and “always gregarious and generous, he had a streak of quirky pomposity that endeared him to his many friends.”
During childhood, Michael spent many hours chiseling and fossil-hunting along the Dorset coast. His passion for science developed at an early age, with his particular interests including space exploration, astronomy and paleontology. Born in 1964, he was a student at Bournemouth School between 1976 and 1984. He studied Biology, Chemistry and Physics at A-Level, and went on to read Earth Sciences at the University of Dundee. Michael said of the 1974 government re-organisation (when Bournemouth moved from Hampshire to Dorset) “I remember the day, in 1974, when my home town of Bournemouth slipped the bonds of Hampshire and made it into Dorset. And I remember what my schoolteacher said at the time. Hampshire is a county of traffic and motorways, big ports and industry. Dorset is a place of magic, of ancient forts and castles, remote beaches and strange rock formations. Where would you rather be?”
My father was one year his junior at Bournemouth School, and remembers spray-painting the door of a Volkswagen Beetle along with Michael in his garage during an evening after school.
Michael met his future wife, Elena Seymenliyska, at a Scuba-diving course in Clapham in April 1989, aged 24. She was aged 17, and was the daughter of a distinguished Bulgarian foreign correspondent. During this period, her family was posted back behind the Iron Curtain, so Michael worked as an English teacher across the border in Greece. She then got a place at Queen’s University, Belfast, and Michael accompanied her to Northern Ireland by working as a geography teacher in the city.
It was during his time living in Northern Ireland that a rather trivial incident occurred in a bar. Having left to use the lavatory, his phone, which he had left on the bar, started ringing. The barman answered the phone to “Buzz Aldrin”, to which he replied “sure, and I’m Neil Armstrong.” The caller really was the second man on the Moon, and was merely calling up for a chat. They had been friends for many years.
A search for an alternative career led him to a journalism course in Camborne, Cornwall. By the mid-1990s he was sub-editor for the Irish News. His news editor described him as “a dream reporter who could write well about anything”. Hanlon moved to the Independent in London, then the Daily Express and then to the Daily Mail, where he was science editor for 10 years from 2000. He travelled the world writing articles for the newspaper.
His publications include: The Real Mars (2004); 10 Questions Science Can’t Answer (Yet!): A Guide to Science’s Greatest Mysteries (2007); and Eternity: Our Next Billion Years (2008).
Despite his love for food and wine and his purported antipathy to healthy eating, he was a keen sportsman, running marathons, swimming in the Arctic Circle and, while in London, cycling. Once, while on an assignment in Africa, he was chased through the bush by an angry rhinoceros. He survived by outrunning the beast uphill until, exhausted, it gave up.
Michael Hanlon was born on 20th December 1964 and died on 9th February 2016, aged 51, leaving Elena, to whom he was married for 25 years, their son, Zachary, and his partner, Alison Smith (a colleague at the Jurassica project).
Watch him delivering a speech at Talks at Google in 2010: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rtt1xTxkj5I
Images reproduced by kind permission of Jurassica.