Thursday 8 August 2013


Norman Davies devotes a 20 page Introduction to his rather wonderful book The Isles: a history to the niceties of nomenclature.  Great Britain is not congruent with the United Kingdom even if many people assume 'England' is synonymous with both. The British Isles offends some of the Irish.  So what are we to call the geo-political entity that includes a Republic whose citizens are just mad for royal weddings and a Kingdom where the head of state is also the head of an Established Church whose numbers are dwarfed by the followers of The Prophet?  I'll plunk here for WEA (Western European Archipelago, an acronym to expose the sad fact that we live in a sort of UAE Un-united Anglo Emirates).  At least the factionalism, quota-ism and parochial political narrow-mindedness that pervades Belgian politics has the excuse that there are two and bit languages rattling around among the citizenry.  Remember how Belgium spent 19 and a half months 2010-2011 without  a democratically elected government?  The WEA also has two and a bit extant languages (English and Welsh with Irish distant third), but we (in part of one of the many islands of the WEA) did our separatist nonsense 90 years ago and so we're unlikely to suffer a caretaker government for anything like that long.

All that intro is just to say that the WEA has an almost identical structure to its third level education.  It was my very great privilege to get my post-graduate/PhD education in the USA. I left Dublin with my marginal degree encouraged by my teachers in the complacent belief that the course I had just finished was pretty much all I needed to function as a scientist.  I had to take a year off to set up the next Great Leap Forward and earn the money (in the Netherlands) to pay for it.  When I arrived in Boston, it was quickly apparent to me that, for a wannabe evolutionary biologist, I knew llareggub about Ecology; was woefully innumerate in statistics; knew nothing about physiology; had a cocktail-party-chatter level of understanding of biogeography; and all I knew about comparative anatomy was how to spell homology.  It may have been my own failings, ill-discipline and detachment from reality that left me out to dry, but I think the out-dated curriculum and narrow parochialism of the premier science department in the top university in Ireland was also culpable.

The difference between a USA vs WEA PhD is that in the WEA you sit at the feet of your mentor for three or four years and absorb what you can (I called this basking in mentor-glow yesterday), while in the USA you knuckle down and do 2 years of full time formal graduate-level courses before you start on your own research project.  Nobody puts their research on hold for two years until they sit their comprehensive exams after the course-work, but that is formally a requirement to broaden the sources of intellectual input of all graduate students.  There was a movement that gained some momentum while I was in BU grad school to modify the Renaissance-man expectation of competence in a foreign language requirement to allow mastery of FORTRAN or C to fulfil the requirement.  JBS Haldane, with his admiration of the chemical abilities of Keats and Shelley, would not have been amused.

For me Graduate School was just wonderful - I learned so much stuff from so many fields of biology that I was really well informed when I came to gather my own data and start its analysis.  It all stood to me when I needed some creative ideas and appropriate analytical techniques: these come a little easier if there are lots of different particles in the grist of the intellectual mill.

Belgium, because of her decades of ingrained factionalism, has huge intellectual, economic, political and social potential as soon as they start to grind together rather than folding arms and ignoring the other half of the country.  Grinding is a metaphor les mecs et/en meisjes I am not advocating breaking up the pavement and heaving cobbles at each other.  That has been going on all in a desultory manner all summer 200km North of here - it's apparently particularly about flags this year - which is all good fun until somebody loses an eye (Among the injured was a female officer who had her leg broken while a male officer suffered a broken jaw).

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