The British Science Festival is a pretty big deal in the world of European scientists. An event held annually since 1831, except during times of war, the festival’s history includes the first use of the term dinosaur, the first demonstration of wireless transmission, and an important early debate on Darwinism. One week in late September of 2009, thousands of researchers left their labs and set off for Guildford, the town about thirty miles outside of London where the festival was held that year, to present their latest findings and to gossip about faculty openings. It wasn’t the type of event — like, say, the Oscars, or the Cannes International Film Festival — that tabloid editors circle on their calendars because they expect something big to happen. Yet the minute Neil Stanley opened his mouth, the humble gathering of doctorates transformed into international news.
The kicker was the scientific suggestion that sharing a bed with someone you care about is great for sex, but not much else. Stanley, a well-regarded sleep researcher at the University of Surrey whose gray-thinning hair hinted at his more than two decades in the field, told his listeners that he didn’t sleep in the same bed as his wife and that they should probably think about getting their own beds, too, if they knew what was good for them. As proof, he pointed to research he conducted with a colleague which showed that someone who shared a bed was 50 percent more likely to be disturbed during the night than a person who slept alone. “Sleep is a selfish thing to do,” he said. “No one can share your sleep.”
There just wasn’t enough room, for one thing. “You have up to nine inches less per person in a double bed than a child has in a single bed,” Stanley said, grounding his argument in the can’t-argue-with-this logic of ratios. “Add to this another person who kicks, punches, snores and gets up to go to the loo and is it any wonder that we are not getting a good night’s sleep?” He wasn’t against sex, he assured his audience — only the most literal interpretation of sleeping together. “We all know what it’s like to have a cuddle and then say, ‘I’m going to sleep now,’ and go to the opposite side of the bed. So why not just toddle off down the landing?”