Thursday 9 October 2014

Last Words

I was tribbing the great Belgian biochemist Christian de Duve the other day and cited a very short clip of Le Grand Fromage talking about one of his ground-breaking discoveries to Web of Stories. From the side bar of that talk, I came across an interesting experiment from the heady days of 1960s when the British government talked itself into becoming incandescent with the white heat of technology to use the phrase of Harold Wilson, then Labour leader of the opposition. In the mid 1960s a number of wholly new Universities were founded and peopled by young and radical faculty who felt that they could make the future a brighter and better place if they could escape from the tyrannies and obstructive conservatism of The Establishment.

One of these places was Essex U, a neo-brutalist design that quickly filled with students and youthful Faculty who were politicised by Carnaby Street, Swinging London, the Vietnam War, the hope of social justice and a swingeing contempt for The Old Guard. This was nowhere better articulated than in the satirical magazine Private Eye [it was much better in the 1970s]. The Faculty at Essex U had "tenure" which meant that, so long as they "didn't bugger the bursar", they had complete academic freedom even it meant dismantling the fabric of the government that paid their salaries. Exciting times. One of the employees of Essex University a few years later was the radical writer Marina "Smartest Girl in The Room" Warner, whom we've met before deconstructing fairy tales . . . alllll the better to understand them, my dear.  Well she's just jacked it in because the promise and promises of 50 years ago have been utterly suborned and corrupted by a succession of governments which think that Universities should contribute to the economy rather than that they should hold the very soul of our society in the hands of their diverse and clear thinking faculty.  Somebody has to do some out-there thinking if we are to weather the storms of climate change, religious wars and just too many people.  Her long form essay articulating her reasons for quitting in the LRB, says it far better than I can.

Mais revenons nous à notre expérience from those heady times as told by John Maynard Smith to Web of Stories.  Maynard Smith [L] was the brightest star of his generation in the field of genetics and evolutionary biology and he was the first Dean of Science at the brand-new University of Sussex, an institution contemporary with U. Essex on the other side of London. These idealists required that every Arts students should take at least one Science course and vice versa as a way of combatting the complacent failure to bridge the gap between the two cultures. It was too much for most of the Faculty and this wonderful idea died a death within a couple of years, despite it being well received by the students. Maynard Smith was a student of JBS Haldane and he tells a moving story of Jack the Giant-killer's last words. Years later, I was at a small meeting in London of MSAMB (mathematical and statistical applications of molecular biology). I'd had one of my very few ideas and had worked up some data to a state in which it could be presented to such a select nerd-fest.  I gave my talk early on the first day and it was "critically received" which was good because the debate helped me iron out some of the issues and extend the study into a wider context. At the conference dinner that night, my pal Frank seized me by the elbow and muttered "Come away, if we're slippy we can sit at John's table, he's always good for a laugh".  And it was so, and he was.  JMS, in his turn, is dead too.  Hats Off!

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