Friday, July 31, 2009

Catching up

Running out of time... want to report on the Russia Today sampler session by the scholar, the garden tour, the amazing visit to the Natural History Museum, the view of the Cheshire Cat's tree, the final classes, and tonight's talent show. But it's late and I need to pack up for tomorrow morning when I set off for London and perhaps for Down House. More later.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The day ahead

Lying in bed this morning finishing my explication of Chapter III, The Struggle for Existence, which I am submitting in lieu of my essay on the secularization of the 19th century. When I get home I will read "Middlemarch" instead in penance.

After our seminar this morning devoted to the reception of The Origin, a busy afternoon. From 1:45-3:45, the gardener here at Rewley House will lead a garden tour. Apparently she decides on the day which gardens she will include, so it will be a mystery until then. At this very moment, the sun is shining and the sky is blue, but who knows what it will be like six hours from now. Of course, even in the rain the gardens will look beautiful, as you can see from this shot of dahlias in Balliol yesterday afternoon. Since the college was closed to visitors, I had to teeter on the steps and zoom in to include the "day-lias," as they pronounce them.

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The Darwinians in attendance might duck out a little early in order to meet Emma and the others at the Natural History Museum at 3:30. There's a small Darwin exhibit she wants us to see. At 4:00 we are scheduled to see the very room where the famous debate took place between "Soapy Sam" Wilberforce, the Bishop of Oxford, and Darwin's friends Thomas Henry Huxley and Joseph Hooker. The room is now being used for storage, but Emma has persuaded Rowan, her contact, to give us a look.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

This is for Patrick

The weather has been uncertain all week, but today it just teemed and poured. Emma has told us that today's presentation can count as our final piece of work and after dithering around the secularization of society for a couple days, I give in. If I had world enough and time, I might be able to make a stab at it, but I won't.

Instead I went out hoping to tour the Bodleian, but they were booked. So I went to the Sheldonian Theater, famous for being designed by Christopher Wren, who managed to build a huge open space with no columns. Here is an informational placard about how he did it, and a model of the ceiling supports.

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More interesting to me was the climb up to the cupola. It really felt like climbing up into the attic of every old house you've ever lived in. Here's a view.

Once at the top, the cupola afforded views in every direction. I could see the Chiltern Hills for the first time (look closely). Broad Street, Radcliffe Camera and the Bodleian in the rain.


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The interior is famous for its painted ceiling showing Arts and Sciences expelling Ignorance from the University, "a task successfully accomplished." Here's a view of the organ with a snippet of ceiling.
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After this, visited the Museum of the History of Science, which had an exhibit on early architecture. Astrolabes, clocks, compasses, microscopes and other scientific instruments, along with Wren's plans for St. Paul's Cathedral. Somewhat wasted on me, but I thought of Patrick and persevered.
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The last two days

Yesterday we discussed Darwin's theory, trying not to include any modifications introduced because of new information. If only he and Mendel had been able to communicate! But never mind. We also talked about Darwin's hesitation in publishing and his friendship with Hooker. Emma brought in wonderful quotes from Darwin's papers, like this one from one of his notebooks.
It is absurd to talk of one animal being higher than another. We consider those, where the cerebral structure/intellectual faculties most developed, as highest. A bee doubtless would when the instincts were.

In Darwin's shorthand, a defense of relativism. As Emma noted, he might not have said what he believed (religiously), but he could say what he doubted.

Darwin is a very appealing character. Here he is complaining about his eight-year study of barnacles (cirripedes): "I an becoming rapidly a Cirripede in my mind."

Today each of us presented a chapter of The Origin to the group, with mixed but mostly good results. Ken, who has grumbled darkly that Darwin is a gradualist when really it's all about catastrophes, gave an even-handed presentation of "On the Imperfection of the Geological Record." Darling Kumi ended her chapter presentation with an unexpected and spirited defense of her Christian beliefs. Several of us commented on Darwin's sometimes lyrical language as he persuades the reader of the truth of his theory. Altogether a satisfying, if unexciting, class.

More about the curses

After posting last night, I was lying in bed reading Jan Morris's "Oxford" (which I highly recommend even though it was last updated in 1987, thanks, Annie!) when I came upon this mention of Gill's Ironmongers:

Gills the ironmongers, who live in one of those alleys off the High, substantiate their claim to be the oldest ironmongers in Great Britain (established 1530) with a thoughtful little historical pamphlet, containing a family genealogy and a list of important events that have occurred in the lifetime of the firm -- like the Gunpowder Plot, Votes for Women and the Invention of Green's First Chain Drive Mower.

Quite a change from my local ironmongers, a.k.a. Earl's Hardware, which is housed in a former supermarket that was probably built about 430 years after Gills was founded.

Plumbing is the subject of the other observation. Our rooms are on stairs like rooms in the traditional Oxford colleges. On the half-landing is a most mysterious little room.
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My question is, why does the Rewley House female staff need to take showers during the working day? I have actually noticed little wifts of steam curling out the door as if it had been recently used. I really cannot for the life of me figure it out.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Three curses of England

...are electricity, plumbing and telephones.

The electricity was sorted out thanks to ironmongers off the High Street. Gill & Co. Ironmongers sold me a conversion plug that fit into my so-called universal plug that worked in Scotland last year, but not in England this year. I thought I was all set, until my computer unexpectedly told me I had one minute of power left. It seems that I need both the universal plug and the adapter, otherwise there is no power coming through. I have no clue why this should be so, but now it works. I have also bought a local hair dryer, which is good because the Rewley House hair dryer is of a particular beige color and a particular elephant-like hose that makes me think it was manufactured in about 1978. Of course, I have to make sure the outlet itself is turned on as well as the machine itself, which brings us to...

Plumbing. The shower at Rewley House is easy to understand - until you use it. Because you have to turn everything on twice, it's a bit confusing. I turned on the hot and cold water, and switched it to the shower mode. The only problem was that burning hot water came out of the shower, and freezing cold water out of the faucet. After much toing and froing, I discovered that the rotating switch that I hoped controlled the drain (because the tub was filling up fast) was actually a switch that controlled the temperature of the water that came out of the shower head. And on the second day, I realized that if there was still water coming out of the faucet, you could turn the faucet way down, thus allowing your feet to avoid the red as a lobster option that occurred when the excess hot water splashed down into the tub. If this is still unclear, you have my utmost sympathy. But I've met worse.

The phone is really easy this time around, if you can find your phone card and the number you're calling. I bought the phone card from reception, and for five pounds you get almost two hours worth of calling. It tells you just what to do. I've done it successfully twice now, after I figured out the country code and then found the missing phone card under the phone itself. It does not help to be an idiot.

More on the Botanic Gardens

Having Emma with us meant that we could learn about the bee lines on flowers. Here she's showing us the lines visible to us, and explaining that under ultraviolet light we could see the additional lines that are otherwise visible only to the bees.
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Besides the order beds and herbaceous borders, the glasshouses are also of interest. Here is a fascinating carnivorous plant:

And here is the boldly patterned trunk of a tropical tree.
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The vegetable gardens were lush and healthy. Here is a section protected from the birds by netting. Do click on it to see close up how the netting is supported by sticks with clay flowerpots on top.
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And beans with beautifully colored flowers.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The end of the day

After our visit to the gardens, we all went our separate ways. The rainy day had turned hot and sunny, so I took my books into the Rewley House garden to read and take notes. On another bench was the formidable Dostoevsky scholar, who has gray hair cut in a bob and very stroobly, and wears a striped top with a patterned skirt. Her brain, however, is very big. After a bit, she stretched herself out on the grass and went to sleep. A bit later, I stretched out on the bench and did the same. Very soothing to have the hot (by English standards) sun on your face, a cool breeze, and birds chirping in the distance as you try to contemplate your essay.

I sat with Emma and the scholar at dinner. At the bar beforehand, a bony fellow student revealed that he was studying Dostoevsky and that he had been to school with the scholar. "Of course, she was head girl and all of that," he said. At dinner, her braininess became even more evident. I'm planning to attend her sampler lecture on Russia tomorrow and will discover whether or not I could ever possibly make it in her class. I think she does not suffer fools gladly. Emma is brilliant but also very kind.

After dinner was quiz night, and feeling a bit like an anthropologist, I joined a group and we did our best to answer trivia questions: name the countries indicated on this map of Africa, name the actors who played James Bond in the following movies, from what books do these first lines come (thank goodness I did well on that one), and a slew of trivia ranging from the philosopher of utilitarianism to the tests run with a sphygnamometer (sp?) (blood pressure, it turns out). Our team was second from the bottom, so my knowing a couple American answers overrode my disgrace at naming Julius Caesar as the character ripped untimely from his mother's womb (you knew it was McDuff).

They are are a funny bunch, but I'm enjoying their company.

Darwin, Day Two

Today we finished up with The Voyage of the Beagle by carefully reading a few pages from the text. Though the Galapagos looms large in the popular imagination, Darwin at the time did not really grasp what he was seeing. He didn't label the finches carefully and simply ate the valuable tortoises and threw their shells overboard. A careful scrutiny and discussion of the text was very illuminating. We also talked about the social unrest in England in the 1830s, a time I know almost nothing about (the Chartists, the Poor Laws, the Massacre of Peterloo) and its influence on Darwin. Very stimulating, though it may not sound that way.

After lunch, five of us joined Emma in a tour of the Botanical Gardens across from Magdalen College. It turns out that the gardens are now arranged in "order beds." Molecular biology and DNA evidence have helped taxonomists determine which plants go in which families with great accuracy, leaving the poor morphologists, who simply observed plants under the microscope, absolutely nowhere. About 20% of plants have been reclassified, and the beds here reflect the new order.

Emma is, of course, an enthusiastic guide, who loves the euphorbias (Oxford has a special national collection of them) and also proudly showed off the traditional herbaceous borders that the English do so well. Some samples:


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It doesn't hurt to have centuries-old walls behind the border and a medieval stone tower in the distance!

Here are Jerry behind Stu, Emma herself and Kumi under a big black pine tree.

From Jan Morris's "Oxford:"
The Oxford Botanical Garden, behind high walls opposite Magdalen, is the oldest in Great Britain: and what with its crumbled stones and shaded benches, its urns and pots and greenhouses, the Cherwell flowing sweetly beside its lawns and the goldfish who twitch in its ornamental pond--with the great tower of Magdalen serene above its gate, and the spires peering always between its foliage, there can be few better places in England for the contemplation of flowers.

Two more

This morning I breakfasted with a small group that included a strange man with long golden braids all over his head - one of those people whose gender is unclear from a distance - every group like this must have at least one - and an elderly British gentlewoman who's been coming to Oxford for these classes "since after the war," she said. Jerry, who had met her last year, says she's around 96 and still going strong! She's studying Irish literature this time. "So far," she said gently," it's all about Oscar Wilde." I think they'll move on to Joyce as the week progresses.

The second encounter was at lunch with a man whose eyebrows were startlingly bristly and dark, and who sat hunched down in his seat, but proved to be delightful. He lives in London and advised us when next we visit to remember to look up. Lots of decorative elements at the tops of buildings, "from a more leisurely age." He also pointed out that while London is changing all the time, the pubs and the churches tend to stay in place, so go to them for history. He's studying Beethoven, the one course that is full up.

More suspects

An introverted friend, hearing the class was limited to 8-12 people, said, "Then there's no escape!" My extroverted sister, hearing the same thing, said, "Good, then you can really get to know people!"

They're both right, of course, and there's room to be alone as well as in company. One of the nice things about staying here is getting to talk to other people at meals. At breakfast yesterday I met a woman who divides her time between London and Oxford and whose next-door neighbor here for many years was Philip Pullman! In fact, she just had a coffee with his wife last week and learned that his new book, something about Jesus, is sure to provoke controversy. She knows where he lives now, but has vowed never to tell...

At dinner last night I sat next to a witty Englishman who lives in Australia but has come here for the last 19 years to take courses and spend a month back home. A mixture of Rumpole (physically) and every quick-witted Englishman you've ever met. He's on the parish churches course - I seem to be meeting them everywhere, while of the Dostoevskians there is no sign.

Off to breakfast on this rainy morning, then another seminar. Perhaps the rain will force me to stay inside and work instead of roaming around Oxford as I did yesterday afternoon. Details later.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Plant genetics

When I grow up, I too want to be the Sibthorpian Professor of Plant Science at Oxford, like Nicholas Harberd, if only for the title. He gave the Sunday lecture tonight on his book, Seed to Seed: The Secret Life of Plants. It seems that thale cress is a small, common weed that is the fruit fly of the plant world - a small genome, and reproduces quickly, making it ideal for scientists studying plant genetics. Harberd and his team have studied the plant and determined that it has a mechanism for inhibiting growth when necessary, a big discovery. The book explains his next step after this discovery. A few quotes from his talk tonight:

"The perception of things previously unknown and unfelt" is what science really is.

"Wonder is certainly what drives me as a scientist, but the way science works right now makes it very difficult to express wonder."

He's inspired by this drawing by Albrecht Durer, "The Great Piece of Turf," that shows a community of plants growing together in a meadow:

Class notes

It's ee-volution, igg - yoo - ahna, and glahss - ee - er.

My list of books keeps growing, from A Feeling for the Organism by Evelyn Fox Keller to Sex, Botany and Empire by Patricia Fara, about Linnaeus and Joseph Banks and a must-read for Kew, according to Emma.

Also: The Norton Critical Edition of Darwin, Steve Jones' Darwin's Island, Charles Darwin's Autobiographies, Darwin by Tim Lewens, Charles Darwin by Michael Ruse in the Blackwell Great Minds series, Virolution by Frank Ryan, Reading the Story in DNA by Lindell Bromham (I really want this one), Evolution: what the fossils say and why it matters by Donald R. Prothero, Doubting Darwin? by Sakotra Sarkar, The Rough Guide to Evolution and Darwin's Luck.

I am torn between rushing out to Blackwell's and buying every one, and being more sensible and getting them at home once I get back.

Darwin continues

Today we got a good start on Darwin. Emma led us through his life story, accompanied by a few well-chosen images.

She also set two assignments. The first is to take a chapter from The Origin and present it to the class on Wednesday. Mine is The Struggle for Existence, not the most compelling chapter in my view but perhaps it will prove to be by then. She suggests the following questions to be asking as we prepare for this: What is the argument here? What kind of techniques is Darwin using to convince the reader? What kind of metaphors? And so on. We are to sum up our chapters in a short paragraph with a simple saying or "pithy strapline" (like an advertising slogan).

Second is the essay we are to write by the end of the week. I've tentatively chosen "How significant was the part played by the sciences in what Owen Chadwick has called 'the secularization of the European mind' in the nineteenth century?" Luckily, the college library owns the book by the same name, and I've checked it out in hopes that it will make some sense. I'm interested in this topic but know little to nothing about it.

In today's tutorial, Emma said very generous things about my essay and made some thoughtful comments in the margins. She encouraged me to take a little bite of the big question for my final essay, since it should be only around 1000 words.

She's also hatching a scheme to go to Down House! She and another student have cars, so perhaps we could sneak out one morning. It's about 1 1/2 hours drive so it would take most of the day. If not, perhaps Saturday after the course has ended. I'm game since I wanted to go there anyway and it would be so much more fun with EMMA.

Famous sites

On Saturday's guided walk of the colleges, Simon pointed out the ilex in New College cloister, which is the very tree in which Malfoy turned into a ferret! Look familiar??

And on the way back, he pointed out the house where Bill Clinton lived during his Oxford year.
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He recommended the Turf Tavern by the Bridge of Sighs as a good lunch place, made famous because Inspector Morse stops there frequently for drinks (I really will watch some of these shows with increased interest once I return) and because this is where Bill didn't inhale - perhaps. No picture of it, but a pleasant place down a twisting alleyway. Had a half pint of Summer Ale in Bill's honor.

Who is the murderer?

There are nine of us in the class, plus the 50-60 others here for classes ranging from the architecture of English parish churches to screenwriting. After just one lecture, plus dinner and a wine reception in the courtyard afterwards, here are the suspects in a classic English murder mystery.

Ken is a ruddy-cheeked, white-haired man who is slightly suspicious of Darwin and laments the influx of Pakistanis and Indians in his Lancashire village.

Mohammed grew up in Chad and northern Sudan, speaking Arabic in the streets and the local language at home, now living in Oxford and studying law.

Kumi teaches English in Japan and has a dead-on American accent and a twinkling smile.

Stu is a retired engineer and businessman who did something with highly fired ceramic parts for jet engines and used to visit England regularly in the course of business. He's staying at the Malmaison, the former prison turned into an upscale hotel.

Astrid is Norwegian, with long dyed blonde hair and dark mascara, a mother and grandmother who does something administrative in education. Her English is a bit tentative so she's rather quiet so far.

Jerry is a recently retired geriatrician with a quick mind and a good grasp of genetics. He has twice referred to Richard Dawkins as "derivative" and not doing any original work, but I am enjoying his company anyway.

Barbara is a retired journalist who spent some time in western Canada in the fifties during the aluminum mining boom and makes it sound fascinating. Who knew?

Maurice is a twenty-year-old Scandinavian (I think) with dark, slicked-back hair and I can't quite figure out why in the world he is doing this.

I hope that neither Inspector Alleyn nor Albert Campion is needed, but doesn't it sound like the beginning of so many mysteries?

Then there's Emma, who's forthright, well organized, and very knowledgeable. She's good at eliciting questions from us and promises to be a good teacher. Another lecture this morning (which consists of us sitting around a table and talking), then tutorials this afternoon. This means twenty minutes talking with her about our essays (which some people haven't done, can you believe it?) and discussing our final essay or presentation.

Talking with Jerry, Barbara and Stu at the wine reception last night was very enjoyable in a nerdly way. It's kind of like being on the Newbery committee - where else will you find another group of people who have read with the same focus that you have? (Ignoring the fact that they were all amazed that I have actually done the reading... hmmm.)

Time to hop out of bed and head to breakfast and more Darwin. Cloudy and cool.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Gardening in Oxford least, that's the excuse for temporarily turning this into an Oxford blog.

Arrived without incident, took the bus from London to Oxford (with free wifi), dropped my bags at Lady Margaret Hall, my home for the night, and started walking. One reason I chose LMH is that it's by Norham Gardens, and I have fond though indistinct memories of Penelope Lively's timeslip fantasy, "The House at Norham Gardens," which I intend to ILL.

LMH's gardens run down to the Cherwell (pronounced Charwell). A beautiful sunken garden was humming with bees and butterflies.

Containers lined the steps to the garden.
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Boats along the Cherwell

and yes, I saw some people punting! It must really be Oxford.
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and cyclists everywhere:
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At any rate, between the showers we had dramatic skies and shafts of sunlight.

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I stopped at Blackwell's and picked up a map and a guide to the college gardens. Explored New College, which features a mound in the middle, which I was longing to see, but it's not for the likes of me. Only fellows may walk on the lawn or climb the steps up the mound, which allows you to see the formal gardens (in days past) or look over the walls at the surrounding countryside (today).

Here, two classic perennial borders, perhaps at Wadham College.


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I've been struck by the sheer height of so many plantings. Here, hollyhocks against the old city wall in New College.

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There's so much in bloom, from roses to Japanese anemones to lace-cap hydrangeas, lavender and thyme, butterfly bush and crocosmia. I have already made a fool of myself for asking Emma about the unusual plantings in the courtyard of Rewley House. She very gently said she thought they were ivy. Well, I had never seen such big, variegated leaves! She was very nice about it and we have moved on. Here it is.
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