Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind is a big book: it may be only 400 pages, but it’s scope is breathtaking. Don’t come to this book looking for dates or expositions of key historical events. Harari’s approach to history is to stand back and see what patterns emerge from the big picture. Continue reading “Sapiens: a big history of the species”
We spent 24 hours in Oxford last week – there primarily to see Cezanne and the Modern, the current exhibition at the Ashmolean. Somehow, I’ve reached retirement age without ever having been to Oxford before, so we spent time strolling through the streets of the town and ambling along the shaded path that lies between the Cherwell and Christ Church Meadow.
I was quite taken aback by how much Oxford conformed to what I had assumed was a clichéd image I had of the town: you know – young people punting lazily along the Cherwell, drinks in hand; bicycles everywhere, left leaning against walls and railings; the honey-coloured Cotswold limestone of the buildings. Two of the most memorable places we encountered on our meanderings were the Botanic Garden (above) and the Bodleian Library.
Poppies in Oxford Botanic Garden
The University of Oxford’s Botanic Garden is Britain’s oldest, founded almost 400 years ago, when the first Earl of Danby donated £5000 to start a ‘physic garden’ to grow plants that would support medical practice. From the beginning the garden was intended to be, in Danby’s words, ‘for the glorification of God and the furtherance of learning’. Danby might have been motivated to appease the almighty by having, thirty years earlier at the age of 21, murdered a man in a long-standing feud between families.
A site for the garden was chosen on the banks of the River Cherwell at the north-east corner of Christ Church Meadow. The land belonging to Magdalen College, part of it having been a Jewish cemetery until the Jews were expelled from Oxford (and the rest of England) in 1290.
The garden, established for ‘the furtherance of learning’, continues to support scientific enquiry and understanding, but is also a place for taking aesthetic pleasure in nature, or for quiet contemplation. Undergraduates studying biological sciences at the university visit the garden to learn about many aspects of plant biology, while thousands of school children visit the garden each year as part of the university’s schools education programme.
Strolling around the rectangular ‘family beds’ where plants are grouped according to their botanical family, geographical origin or uses, we occasionally came across signs that described the investigations currently going on in a particular section.
The garden is home to more than 5000 plant species – on less than five acres of land, this makes it, according to the guide we were given, one of the most biodiverse places on Earth. In addition to colourful flowerbeds, there are sections where herbs and vegetables are grown, and – dispersed throughout the garden – some very interesting and beautiful trees. One tree survives from the original 16th century planting – an English yew, a species, as a label informs, that today is the source of drugs used to treat breast and ovarian cancer.
The blossom of the Tulip tree
There is a Gingko, a Monkey Puzzle, and a Tulip tree with beautiful blossoms that look like tulips, though the plants are not related. Most dramatic was the towering Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides), a tree known only in the fossil record until several living ones were discovered in China in the 1940s. This one was planted in 1948, so is my age but a little taller.
The Dawn Redwood
Then there is the Black Pine. I love pines, and this one reminded me especially of one of my favourite Cezanne paintings, ‘The Great Pine’. But this tree has literary, rather than artistic associations. Indeed, the garden is rich in literary associations: Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, would bring the children of Henry Liddell, Dean of Christ Church (including Alice), for picnics in the garden. In John Tenniel’s original illustrations for Alice in Wonderland the garden’s water lily house can be seen in the background of one of the plates illustrating the Queen of Heart’s Croquet Ground.
Alice in the Queen of Hearts’ croquet ground: inspired by the Botanic Garden
The Black Pine, brought here as a tiny seed in 1795, was the favourite tree of Oxford professor and author, JRR Tolkien, who often spent hours in the garden sitting under this tree.
The Pinus Negra in the Botanic Garden
The tree is also a favourite of another Oxford-based author, Philip Pullman; he so loves this tree that he has Lyra, the heroine of His Dark Materials, sit under it tree at the conclusion of the trilogy. In his story, a bench beneath its spreading branches is one of the locations where the parallel worlds inhabited by the protagonists, Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry. In the last chapter of the trilogy, both promise to sit on the bench for an hour at noon on Midsummer’s day every year so that perhaps they may feel each other’s presence next to one another in their own worlds.
The bench is now the subject of pilgrimage, and the names of Lyra and Will have been carved on the backrest. Such is the resonance of this place that the University has added to its website a podcast in which the author shares his passion for the Botanic Garden and reads from the end of the His Dark Materials trilogy where Lyra sits beneath the pine and dreams of the time when the Republic of Heaven will be established:
The Master had given Lyra her own key to the garden door, so she could come and go as she pleased. Later that night, just as the porter was locking the lodge, she and Pantalaimon slipped out and made their way through the dark streets, hearing a’r the bells of Oxford chiming midnight. Once they were in the Botanic Garden, Pan ran away over the grass chasing a mouse towards the wall, and then let it go and sprang up into the huge pine tree nearby. […]
She sat on the bench and waited for Pan to come to her. He liked to surprise her, but she usually managed to see him before he reached her, and there was his shadowy form, following along beside the river-bank. She looked the other way and pretended she hadn’t seen him, and then seized him suddenly when he leapt on to the bench. […]
Pantalaimon murmured, ‘That thing that Will said. . .”
‘On the beach, just before you tried the alethiometer. He said there wasn’t any elsewhere. It was what his father had told you. But there was something else.”
“I remember. He meant the kingdom was over, the kingdom of heaven, it was all finished. We shouldn’t live as if it mattered more than this life in this world, because where we are is always the most important place.”
“He said we had to build something. . .”
“That’s why we needed our full life, Pan. We would have gone with Will and Kirjava, wouldn’t we.”
“Yes. Of course! And they would have come with us.
“But then we wouldn’t have been able to build it. No one could, if they put them first. We have to be all those difficult things like cheerful and kind and curious and brave and patient, and we’ve got to study and think, and work hard, all of us, in all our different worlds, and then we’ll build. . .”
Her hands were resting on his glossy fur. Somewhere in the garden a nightingale was singing, and a little breeze touched her hair and stirred the leaves overhead. All the different bells of the city chimed, once each, this one high, that one low, some close by, others further off, one cracked and peevish.
another grave and sonorous, but agreeing in all their different voices on what the time was, even if some of them got to it a little more slowly than others. In that other Oxford where she and Will had kissed goodbye, the bells would be chiming too, and a nightingale would be singing, and a little breeze would be stirring the leaves in the Botanic Garden.
“And then what?” said her daemon sleepily. “Build what?”
“The republic of heaven,” said Lyra.
Gallery: Oxford Botanic Garden
Earlier we had drifted into the quadrangles that enclose the Bodleian Library, the main research library of the University of Oxford, and one of the oldest libraries in Europe. In Britain it is second in size to the British Library, containing over 11 million items. In its current form the library has a continuous history dating back to 1602, though its roots can be traced back even further. The first purpose-built library known to have existed in Oxford – a small collection of chained books – was founded in the fourteenth century by Thomas Cobham, Bishop of Worcester.
The Divinity School, built between 1427 and 1483, and attached to the Bodleian Library
Thomas Bodley was the son of a Protestant merchant family from Exeter who had studied under Calvin in Geneva – a Protestant exile in the reign of Queen Mary- before returning to England when Elizabeth came to the throne to study at Merton College) In 1598 he wrote to the Vice Chancellor of the University offering to support the development of the small existing library.
The library expanded rapidly, with the Schools Quadrangle – where we had entered – being added between 1613 and 1619. Doorways leading off the quadrangle are labelled with the names of various disciplines and I was interested to note the entrance to the School of Natural Philosophy. Only a week before I’d heard Melvyn Bragg’s panel on In Our Time discuss the work of the pioneering scientist Robert Boyle – one of the first to conduct rigorous experiments to lay the foundations of modern chemistry.
Doorway to the Schola Moralis Philosophiae (School of Moral Philosophy) at the Bodleian Library
Except that Boyle – as a member of the panel pointed out – wasn’t a scientist, and would not have understood the term. He was a natural philosopher, the term scientist only coming into use in the mid-19th century. As an interesting feature in yesterday’s Guardian explained, the word was coined in 1840 by the Reverend William Whewell in his book The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, which contained a 70-page section on the Language of Science:
In it he discusses how the new words of science should be constructed. He then coins the universally accepted term physicist, remarking that the existing term physician cannot be used in that sense. He then moves on to the larger concept. ‘We need very much a name to describe a cultivator of science in general. I should incline to call him a scientist.’ The word that scientist replaced was philosopher. An account of this coinage in Word Study, a newsletter published by Merriam-Webster in 1948, noted: ‘Few deliberately invented words have gained such wide currency, and many people will be surprised to learn that it is just over a century old.’
The Radcliffe Camera
Leaving the quadrangle, we came face to face with a circular building constructed from the local honey-coloured limestone. This was the Radcliffe Camera, designed by James Gibbs in neo-classical style and built between 1737 and 1749 to house the Radcliffe Science Library. Known as the Radcliffe Camera (camera, meaning ‘room’ in Latin), it was taken over by the Bodleian in 1860, as the library grew short of space.
Gallery: Bodleian Library
On a warm afternoon, we strolled the sun-dappled path alongside the Cherwell, as students punted past us in celebratory mood. Where the Cherwell meets the Thames we sat and watched teams of rowers as they practised on the Thames, the shouts of their cox’s splitting the air. Later we enjoyed a drink at the waterside pub by Folly Bridge, The Head of the River. Then over the river to The Folly restaurant for a delicious meal on the terrace as the sun set on a balmy evening.
Gallery: Cherwell and Thames
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold
– William Butler Yeats
This last week BBC4 viewers who tuned into Jim Al-Khalili’s two-part series called Order and Disorder had the privilege of seeing the best science documentaries I can recall on TV. These were programmes that explained very difficult, abstract concepts (at least for a non-scientist), doing so without any dumbing-down or special effects, but in an elegant, indeed beautiful, manner. Continue reading “Jim Al-Khalili’s Order and Disorder: elegant and beautiful science films”
A really interesting piece in today’s Guardian by Victor Keegan. He’s taken part in the Genographic project organised by National Geographic, which is collecting over 100,000 DNA samples from around the world. He writes: Continue reading “Who we really are”