Tuesday, 28 August 2007

Leaving On A Jet Plane

LAST night, as I was driving towards Sidmouth for one final drink in Dukes, the sun set in the most staggeringly beautiful fashion. The blue sky merged into the clouds with an orange aura, the clouds themselves glowing with pinks and purples. Then, as I arrived in Sidmouth, a full moon reflected off the tranquil sea, a gentle shimmer set against the rock jetties and tourists ambling in the warmth. It reminded me quite how much I will miss my home in East Devon.

It has been months in the planning, but at the end of this week, my friend Jeannette and I will be jetting off to exotic climes and exciting locations, and we won't be returning until Christmas. I will try and keep a diary on this page, keep you up to date with our daily adventures and try and share some of my findings, but in the meanwhile I'll just outline the plan.

United Kingdom Singapore Australia New Zealand Fiji United States of America

Sat 1st Sept (Arrive Sunday 2nd):
London Heathrow - Singapore

Sat 8th Sept (Arrive Sunday 9th):
Singapore - Cairns, Australia via Darwin

Fri 14th Sept- Fri 28th Sept:
Conservation Volunteers Australia project, near Cairns

...meander down the Golden Coast, including the Whitsundays, Byron Bay, Fraser Island, the Great Barrier Reef, Sydney, Brisbane and on and on until...

Fri 2nd Nov:
Melbourne - Hobart, Tasmania

Fri 9th Nov:
Hobart - Melbourne; Melbourne - Christchurch, New Zealand

...circle the South island, potter around in lots of wonderful and gorgeous places, send lots of postcards, swim to the North island, wave at a Maori and visit One Tree Hill until...

Sat 1st Dec:
Auckland - Nadi, Fiji

...sail the ocean blue, sip cocktails, cruise the archipelago and hide from cyclones...

Tues 11th Dec:
Nadi - Los Angeles, USA; LA - Washington DC

... 'ooh' and 'aah' at the White House, possibly catch an internal flight to Missouri, somehow end up in Boston, drink some tea and finally...

Sat 22nd Dec (Arrive Sun 23rd):
Boston - London Heathrow

During this time I have but a few desires. Firstly, I wish to see a real, live and wild Echidna. In addition, I simply must see a Big Thing. Plus, because I believe in entertaining national stereotypes, I sincerely hope to meet an Australian couple with the names Bruce and Sheila and have a deep desire to wear a hat with dangling corks whilst cooking a shrimp on the barbie.

I'll keep you posted.

Sunday, 26 August 2007

A Turquoise Chord

Written for my old blog in 2006, I found this musing on music while sifting through and decided to publish it once more. Sat in my drafts folder since summer 2007, this article was finally published online at srbishop.blogspot.com on 20th February, 2008.

Update 2nd May, 2009 - this post has now been endorsed by Rob Dougan :-)
“The art form of an album is seriously under attack. Everything is becoming very fast. People are looking for the big hit, going onto iTunes and picking the one track that they want off of an album, refusing to listen to the whole thing. I know that the art form of an album will always exist but I think it’s a shame that music has become disposable. I don’t like to see music dissected.’
-- Kate Bush, Talking With Kate, BBC Radio 2, Saturday 5th August 2006

A long, long time ago (around 2002), I can still remember how a piece of music used to make me smile. And though the critics, given the chance, used to lump it under ‘dance’, there were classicists who were happy for a while. I refer to a particular moment in my favourite album ever, Rob Dougan’s Furious Angels.

It’s an unusual album I admit. There’s the atypical fusion of classical music and recorded bass and percussion, taking the groove of dance and creating crescendos with a 100-strong orchestra, like Massive Attack’s Unfinished Sympathy but on a much greater scale. There’s the complete immersion into Rob’s world of darkness; the theme of death is omnipresent, none more so than in the world-famous Clubbed To Death. But more than that, there’s the intensity – the record is so intense, so concentrated, you get near the end and you’re gasping for breath. Lucky for the listener then is track 13, the aptly named Pause, thirty-three seconds of… nothing.

That’s not to say the listener is being given a run for their money. Pause is so pivotal to the record, Furious Angels would be incomplete without it. It prepares us for the chilled out aura of One and the Same, the album’s coda. The moment when the credits roll.

Yes, credits. Furious Angels is the perfect example of an album as an art form, a model too often forgotten in today’s hurried music scene. An album is more than a collection of songs. It is a set of songs based on a moment, a feeling or just a feel. It’s why U2’s Joshua Tree trumps everything else they’ve ever done (even Achtung Baby); it’s why Faithless’ No Roots is so vastly superior to their back catalogue, despite not sounding remotely like Faithless; it’s why the Californian bluegrass trio Nickel Creek sound all the better for not giving in to percussion (at least on their first two albums).

It doesn’t have to be a topic or theme. It doesn’t have to be a sound. It has nothing to do with banality or quirkiness in the lyrics – John Denver sang songs of the Earth where Kate Bush sings songs about washing machines – it is just a feeling. It is well thought out; it takes you on a journey. It is a record you cannot dare to pause, because that would be like waking up in the middle of a dream, like leaving the cinema before the essential plot twist that tells you that the killer was in the room all along. It can never be appreciated when incomplete.

Furious Angels is the perfect album because, for me, it tells a story. As the opening titles fade out from Prelude we get the beginning action sequence in the title track, not making sense but whetting our appetites for what is to come. The scene is then set in Will You Follow Me? Here we visit our hero’s home (it could almost be the Shire), a brightly coloured and triumphant scene before the first betrayal, Left Me For Dead, and our first frenzied wail of rejection in I’m Not Driving Anymore. And from there, we keep digging, the scene getting darker and darker and more and more intense until we can take it no more, when the orchestra is abandoned and the black and white visuals of the story so far make way for our hero sat at a piano alone in the corner of a smoky bar with half a dozen whisky chasers behind him and his dreams torn to shatters and all he wants… all he wants, is to kiss her lips and weep.

I refer to Drinking Song. This is the moment from a long, long time ago (around 2002) when a piece of music used to make me smile. It not only tells a story, but in fact Rob’s voice actually takes the role of our character. With each lonely piano note you long for the heroine to return and complete our hero’s list, to carry the traveller his last mile, to be with him to cherish that long, last look of the swallow preparing to fly east.

Needless to say, I love this song so much. When I had it blaring out in the car last week and some birds actually fluttered up around me on the second the strings take flight, a tear actually came to my eye. Sometimes music really can soothe the savage beast.

If you’ve come with me this far, and you, like Kate Bush, long for the art form of the album to have its time once more, then you might like to read this quote from Rob Dougan himself. Posted on his own portion of a fan site last summer, he brings only good news:

“I'm […] working on 2 new albums of orchestral work, one classical, and one orchestral pieces of my own. The classical one is some gems (often obscure), favourites and pieces that I like a lot. The orchestral one is pieces that I have written. With the classical one there are some (two) pieces I am waiting for permission to arrange, and that and other permissions has kind of delayed it a little, and that and the task of getting the team's timetables together (yes I work with a team! I don't do it all myself) and getting the orchestral sessions fixed is a bother (and driving me a bit mental) at the moment. After that I'm going to do the final recording for the next album.”

Two new albums in 2007. I’m an excited monkey indeed.

Somewhere There Is An Angel

Alice Martineau

Somewhere There Is An Angel

IN 2002 I read an article that changed my outlook on life. It was written by a young lady called Alice Martineau, of whom you have probably not heard. Alice was a singer-songwriter from London, who was at the time pursuing a record deal, longing to live her dream. However, she was also chasing something else. Her life.

Alice was born with cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease that at the time conferred an average life expectancy of only ten years. Despite all her hopes for the future, and her unwillingness to accept the state of her health, Alice was nonetheless on the waiting list for a new heart, liver and lungs. She carried an oxygen tank with her wherever she went, a tube pumped food into her stomach at night and she suffered from diabetes and cirrhosis of the liver.

Cystic fibrosis (CF) is caused by a mutation in a gene for a protein called Cystic Fibrosis conductance Transmembrane Regulator (CFTR), a channel that controls the pumping of charged ions in and out of cells. When chloride ions are pumped across a membrane, water follows. CFTR pumps charged ions across membranes to maintain the salt balance of the body, producing the thin mucus of the lung lining that traps invading bacteria and is coughed out.

Sufferers of CF have no regulatory channels in their cell membranes, since the processing components of each cell destroy faulty channel proteins. Salt balance is disrupted and mucus becomes thick and sticky, clogging the airways and preserving infectious bacteria at the edge of the lungs.

The digestive system also suffers, with thick secretions blocking enzyme release from the pancreas, resulting in malnutrition and associated slowed development. 70% of cystic fibrosis mutations are the result of a simple deletion of three DNA bases in the CFTR gene, but the results are catastrophic. There is no cure, but advances in medication, physical therapy and understanding have increased the average life expectancy of patients to 31 years.

Despite all of this, Alice repeatedly defied doctors, living way beyond all their best estimates and getting on with life as best she could. This was, of course, quite a difficult thing to do.

A new life

For a while she tried to become a model, taken on by Nevs agency. She had the looks, but a model’s life is an exhausting one, rushing between castings held in studios at the top of buildings without lifts. Challenging enough for the fit, it is not a sympathetic lifestyle for those who have trouble breathing.

At 19 she moved to Warwick University to read English, in search of independence and the feeling of control. Her mother, though terrified, drove Alice to halls and unpacked her baggage, which included three enormous cardboard boxes of pills destined only to last a month. It was the start of a new life, but one that would only last two weeks. The hurried walk to lectures and the joys of student life took their toll on her health, and a return to hospital was necessary.

Beaten, but not defeated, Alice enrolled with Kings College, London, working from home to achieve a First, much to her surprise. As her brother Luke put it, “Alice is a winner”, but though she affably accepted her success she did feel that she had missed out on the whole University experience by living at home. Academic success behind her, she turned her attention to singing lessons.

“Dealt a bad hand”

CF is the most common life-threatening inherited disease in the UK, affecting 7,500 people. It is subject to simple Mendelian laws of genetics, where the probabilities of inheriting the faulty CFTR gene are as follows.

Each individual has 23 pairs of chromosomes, one of each pair coming from each parent. The faulty CFTR gene, our CF culprit, is located on chromosome 7 and is carried by around 1 in 25 of the population. Symptom-free ‘carriers’ carry one faulty gene alongside a functional copy of the gene.

The disease is expressed by the unlucky few who inherit a mutated CFTR gene from both parents. If both parents are carriers this has a probability of one in four. Five babies are born each week with CF.

When Alice took up singing, the odds were again stacked up against her, yet she had a wonderful voice and a talent for writing inspiring, heartfelt songs. Her constant coughing had strengthened her voice and with breathing training she achieved marked success, attracting the attention of Robbie Williams among others. Her health repeatedly thwarted efforts to obtain a record deal, but with persistence and dedication Sony eventually gave in. Her debut album Daydreams was recorded in just 10 days and spawned two singles. Track four is Inside of You, a song written by Alice about her own death, conjuring the image of her as an angel, watching over those she loved and left behind. It is somewhat of an haunting anthem, as on Thursday March 6th, 2003, Alice’s heart ran out of summers and she lost her battle with CF. The world had lost someone truly special.

Alice despised being called ‘brave’. It was not her choice to be ill, nor to survive. In her own words, she “had been dealt with a bad hand” and was getting on with it the only way she knew. Yet her “burning desire to beat the unbeatable” throughout her life has proved truly inspirational. She played, she loved, she partied. She was just a singer who happened to be ill.

The future

The Cystic Fibrosis Trust invests £3½ million annually into gene therapy research. 90% of people with CF die with chronic lung damage, so therapies are being designed in order to insert correctly functioning genes and promoter sequences into the cells of the lungs. Single dose trials for CF gene therapy begin in London this year, with a view to reaching the market by 2013. In the meanwhile, patients must continue with their extensive treatment regime, often reaching the need for a risky transplant procedure. Research remains at the forefront of science, investigating the uses of stem cells, genetic screening and, unusually, garlic, but a cure is some distance off.

In the meanwhile, there are a few things we can do, not
least sign the donor register:

http://www.uktransplant.org.uk/

The CF Trust’s Great Strides campaign reaches Birmingham on 20 May, a 9km walk in the Botanical Gardens in Edgbaston. Details are
available on the CF Trust website:

http://www.cftrust.org.uk/

http://www.alicemartineauappeal.com/

Originally printed, in an edited form, in Redbrick Vol 71 Issue 1310 under the title "Against The Odds". My old blog also had a feature on Alice.

Wednesday, 15 August 2007

The Boy Lent By God

The Boy Lent By God

NORMAN
Lent by God to Edgar & Gertie Ray
August 9: 1916 - July 10: 1926
Called (while at play) to the nursery of Heaven

LAST weekend I stayed at Rachel’s house in Buckinghamshire. It was an action packed weekend of pottering around, enjoying gardens, country houses and delightful villages. On Friday we went to Oxford, where we visited a few of the wonderful museums, toured University College and admired the city’s architecture, as well as managing to buy some shoes and stare lovingly at some of the most magnificent cakes known to man. There was a slight drama with the buses, but otherwise a gentle day.

Oxford could have plenty of blog entries on its own, as it is a majestic place steeped in history and heritage, but today I actually want to talk about where we went on Saturday afternoon – a town called Wendover. Rachel went off to meet a friend in a chocolate shop-come-café, so I took the chance to explore. I knew nothing of the place – I had not ever heard of it before our arrival – and everything I found was a delightful surprise.

Heading down the High Street, I found a path called Heron Path. Intrigued, I walked along it. Bitterly disappointed though I was not to find any actual herons, the path twisted into a little piece of secluded countryside, with woods, fields and a river, and suddenly I was in my element. I felt like I was home.

A cricket pitch appeared to my right, with two local teams playing and a faithful collective applauding from the tiny red brick pavilion. Further downstream the path split into two, one arm heading uphill as a path with wall-to-wall stinging nettles, and the other to St Mary’s church. Just before this split a wild flower meadow spread out before me, it’s grasses patterned with red corn poppies and blue corn flowers, overlooked by a meadow cottage. It was an idyll I hadn’t expected to find and I was enchanted.

Corn Flower
Corn Poppy

There are many reasons why I love Wendover. Firstly, it has a real community spirit, where everybody acknowledges you, and every public bench has a dedication plaque to somebody who loved their town and what it stood for. Not only that, but the council seemed to care about the place too, and had taken action on a derelict listed property under act 54 of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990. This was a place that cared about its appearance and preservation, a town of relaxed atmosphere where local residents support each other. I would hasten to suppose that the sun always shines over Wendover.

Another reason why I loved this town was because of a sign over Hampden Pond by the church. It read:

“For the safety of children and wildlife please do not overfeed the ducks.”

From which I can only suppose that excess food causes ducks to turn into monsters, or – as Rachel suggested - that ducks in Buckinghamshire are liable to explode if fed too much.

I continued on to St Mary’s church. Perhaps it is an unusual thing to say, but I find cemeteries tremendously interesting places. Far from scary, they are the preserve of memories – plaques alluding to emotions and histories that can only be guessed, testament to the complexity of life – and their unrelenting silence provides peaceful refuge to those whose hearts have run out of summers.

While wandering around the churchyard of St Mary’s I came across a damaged grave. It had a statue of a young boy, but sadly the statue had snapped and fallen to the floor. The inscription beneath was so poignant, so heart-wrenchingly sad that I decided to take a photograph and share what it said with you.

Not quite ten, this boy was clearly dearly loved, but his memorial has fallen into disrepair. I dedicate this blog entry to the memory of him.

Saturday, 11 August 2007

Ay Corumbá!

Originally published (and since removed from) my old blog, this is a summary of my trip to Brazil last September.

Howler

SÃO PAULO is several worlds away from Europe. A twelve-hour flight from Zurich airport, itself a boastful demonstration of extreme wealth and extravagance compared to Birmingham, the largest city in the Southern hemisphere is home to some 19 million people. The industrial centre of Latin America, the city is bustling and prosperous. Despite this, one cannot escape the fact that the first sight visible to those leaving the airport is of a favela, a Brazilian shantytown. However, before we had chance to absorb such a culture shock, we were being whisked away in an air-conditioned coach across bumpy roads and out of the city, passing alongside the ominously shiny River Tietê and out through miles of forest and sprawling countryside to the city of Rio Claro.

The field project was run in collaboration with the Institute of Biology at Universidade Estadual Paulista (UNESP), the University of São Paulo state, based at the Rio Claro campus. This was an open plan campus, with students, tegu lizards and horses alike wandering between buildings. It was here that we spent our first few days, with emphasis on the study of animal physiology. We dissected lizards, fish, birds, rats and frogs, taking detailed notes of two areas of focus: circulatory systems and muscle composition with relation to function. Those amongst you with ethical objections may take some solace in the knowledge that the animals killed were farmed specifically to feed the hundred or so caiman kept in enclosures outside. They were fed directly to the crocodilians immediately after we had finished our research and were not, as such, killed simply for us to experiment upon them.

Each new day at the UNESP lab (nicknamed the “Jacaresario”, meaning “Caiman Room” in Portuguese) presented a new surprise. On only our second day our entrance was blocked by feeding vultures, a tour of the other rooms of the facility put us face to face with rattlesnakes, anaconda and pregnant boa constrictors and while we sat on the grass outside eating our lunch a pair of toucan watched over us.

Forest stretched to the horizon from the back of the laboratory and on the fourth day we hiked for an hour or so down dirt tracks in the shadow of inconceivably tall trees to a coffee plantation that lay in the heart of it. Now a National Park, the Floresta Estadual was part plantation and part eucalyptus forest, planted by the British to use for railway sleepers. The surrounding semi-natural forest provided our first opportunity to explore in the wild, where we marvelled at unique flora and formed an audience around a trail of somewhat hurried leafcutter ants.

Over half of our group were to return to Rio Claro and take up physiology projects for their dissertations, but for now we all checked out of our hotel, packed our bags once more and settled down for a coach journey to the state of Mato Grosso do Sul. Distances in Brazil are so incomprehensively vast that this journey took eighteen hours, and yet we really only covered a small portion of the country. The Amazon basin, by comparison, some 2,500 miles to the North West of São Paulo would take days to cross (with some difficulty). Our destination was Passo do Lontra, a village and ecotourism hotel in the Pantanal. An area the size of France, the Pantanal is the largest wetland in the world and contains perhaps the richest of the world’s biodiversity.

Spot the Howler Monkey...
A taste of the Pantanal

120km from Corumbá on the Bolivian border, the hotel was a series of chalets and a restaurant on stilts, connected by boardwalks that were elevated over land that would flood in the wet season, transforming the landscape from the dry forest with isolated pools and lakes as we saw it (it was approaching the end of the dry season during our stay) to a landscape of 80% water. To get there our coach had to turn off the sole surfaced road through this vast area and navigate narrow dirt tracks, lined either side by steep gravel banks, at the base of which countless caiman lay basking in the midday sun. The passing noise of the engine disturbed flocks of jabiru storks - the second largest bird in the world and the symbol of the Pantanal - and upon reaching a wooden bridge over the Rio Miranda we all had to alight for fear of the bridge collapsing. Needless to say, the hotel was somewhat remote.

The first few days of our stay were spent exploring the local area, learning about the Pantanal, and having a little fun to boot. We travelled on a trailer out to a local farm, or fazenda, where we went horse riding through the marshy waters (much to the horse’s disgust), caiman spotting at night (in preparation for one of the studies, where two people in our group caught wild caiman at night to take blood samples and chart species health) and slept in hammocks, all while being taught of local history and wildlife. We observed beautiful blue hyacinth macaws, land crabs, armadillos, howler monkeys and plenty of resident caiman. We then returned to the hotel site, an hour south, where we raced canoes down the Rio Miranda, teeming with caiman, leeches, stingray and anaconda. We also fished for piranha and later tucked into the sumptuous local cuisine before retiring to bed to the sound of countless insects and, rather worryingly, a bat residing within our ceiling.

Of course, the trip wasn’t all about having fun, so we bade farewell to over half the group who were to return to Rio Claro to begin their physiology projects and began behavioural projects of our own. Along with my project partner Jenny, we spent the next ten days conducting a study of a group of black-and-gold howler monkeys (Alouatta caraya) whose territory overlapped with the hotel. Another pair of students were studying tail use and positional behaviour in the group, but we were trying to quantitatively assess the effect of ambient temperature on the species.

The project was an extension of a 1998 study by Júlio César Bicca-Marques and Cláudia Calegaro-Marques, who had attempted to test a theory proposed by Thorington et al. in 1979 that the phylogeny of sexual dimorphism in the species could be explained by behavioural thermoregulation. That is to say, the difference in coat colour between males and females (black and gold respectively) might confer an advantage to different individuals at different times of the year in terms of body temperature and associated activity. Thorington argued that this advantage might be able to explain why the sexes became different colours in the first place (i.e. that it is an evolutionary advantage). This competes with a separate theory by Crockett in 1987 that explains the difference in coat colours by means of mate selection by females. Our study intended to examine the general effect of temperature considering other variables and the use of positional behaviour.

Hiding in my notebook

Using statistical methods developed for behavioural studies since the Marques’ paper, we recorded nine separate variables for each type of individual (adult male, adult female, juvenile and infant) each minute for focal hour periods for eight days. This began when the monkeys became active (typically 5.30am) until they settled in a sleep tree for the evening (typically 6pm). Simple enough to collect data, it was still notably difficult to work for such long, intense periods in heat that reached 38°c in the shade. However, we enjoyed the experience of roaming wild territory, having the privilege of observing a wild family of monkeys (consisting of ten individuals of all personalities, from the playful infants to doting mother and consorting adults), and our subsequent data set was so large it allowed a wealth of opportunities for theory exploration and further study upon return to the UK. Our data set was so large, in fact, that it took two weeks to enter into our statistical analysis software upon return.

Despite being called ‘Howler’ monkeys, our group were ominously silent. Every morning we could hear the roar of nearby groups, but ours seemed content to grunt and huddle, and only call out if other groups were particularly loud. It is possible that this is the case because of the relative safety of their territory. To the North a treeless swamp formed a permanent boundary occupied by basking caiman, wallowing capybara (who were the subjects of the final behavioural study on site) and the unfathomable behaviour of the caracara. To the South the Rio Miranda formed a permanent boundary, with other monkeys having been spotted on the far bank. To the West, territory thinned into swamp and was perhaps the only sight of invasion by another group. To the East the forest ended abruptly. This area was, fortunately, only visited once by our population, since for us it was particularly uncomfortable. Insects of unimaginable numbers insisted upon making our observations in that territory notoriously difficult. Despite using the strongest insect repellent available - which repeatedly melted our stationery - nothing could hold back the pernicious bloodsuckers, and brief visits to open ground became routine on those days. Of course, even ‘open ground’ had its fascinating quirks, from termite-infested trees, to “Cobra Log” and ants the size of fingernails particularly fond of my shirt.

Toucan

At the end of the study period, we took one last boat trip in search of drinking jaguar. Alas, the prodigious cat who we had heard while wandering the woodlands was to prove too elusive on our last day in the Pantanal, but we did get one last chance to share the waterways with giant otters, kingfishers and a host of exotic birds, while watching marsh deer, iguanas and jabiru storks in their conspicuous nests on the river bank. Then, our bar bills settled, we returned to Rio Claro, to catch up with the remaining half of the group, present our findings and observe their experiments in action.

This was also a final chance to experience Brazilian culture and a chance to put our expert linguistic skills to the test. Despite being so isolated, the ecotourism nature of the hotel in the Pantanal meant that all guides on site were fluent in English, in order to tell passing American ornithologists and amateur wildlife photographers of the wonders of their part of the world. Rio Claro, on the other hand, was so far off the beaten tourist trail it was difficult to even find anyone who spoke Spanish, the first language of almost every other South American country. This was not, by and large, a problem, but there were occasions when frantic gesticulations and a scattered mosaic of English, Spanish and presumed-Portuguese were necessary. Buying stamps, for example, has never been so difficult.

And then, when things had barely got going, we were back on that coach to São Paulo airport and heading back to Europe. Behind us lay the wonderfully vibrant and diverse country of Brazil, whose wildlife had entranced us, insects bitten us and locals taught us to dance. All of us came back with a passion to return, and explore and research further. Before we could do that however, we had 69,839 individual data points to analyse…

Tuesday, 7 August 2007

Nullius in verba

THEY say that 90% of all of the scientists that have ever lived are still alive. This is, to some extent, not surprising, seeing as we live in an information age with science so pivotal to industry, healthcare and natural human curiosity and endeavour. Science is now an acceptable career, no longer a pastime of the wealthy or an occupation of serendipity. Many of the great names of scientific history are no longer with us - Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein are long gone of course – but relatively speaking 90% of all the scientists who have ever lived are still alive.

So imagine the scene. It is the 28th of November, 1660, and twelve prominent natural philosophers are gathering at Gresham College after a lecture by Christopher Wren. Little do they know how important they, and the body they are to form, will be for the future of science. So oblivious are they – for how can they know of the future of science when the subject of ‘science’ has yet to be properly defined – that the opening minutes of this meeting discuss only that they shall meet every Wednesday at “three on the clock” and shall each pay an attendance fee of one shilling.

The Royal Society

The body they formed was initially entitled ’a Colledge for the Promoting of Physico-Mathematicall Experimentall Learning’ but just one year later, with the approval of Charles II, it was renamed The Royal Society, and this it has remained. Present at his meeting, in addition to the astronomer and architect Christopher Wren (knighted in 1673), were Robert Boyle – alchemist, chemist, physicist and author of Boyle’s law – Sir Robert Moray- first president of the Society – renowned mathematician Second Viscount William Brouncker and astronomer and mathematician John Wilkins. Quite some crowd, I am sure you will agree.

For two whole weeks this summer, I got to pretend that I too worked for the Royal Society. I was doing work experience in editorial for the journal Biology Letters, and every morning I got to walk through Trafalgar Square, part way along the Mall and into the Society’s current home in Carlton House Terrace with its marble floors and DNA-etched glass door handles. The Society has been based here since 1967, and boy, what a home. The view from the toilets, for example, takes in Westminster, Buckingham Palace, The Mall, St James' Park and the London Eye. During the second week, while the public were swarming around the Summer Science Exhibition on the lower floors, I was given the privilege of a guided tour, first around the libraries and then the archives. It was on this tour where I got to read the hand-written minutes of that fateful meeting in 1660, in one of many leather-bound books of minutes leading up to the present day.

President's Staircase

With over 70,000 titles, occupying temperature-controlled basement vaults and an entirely hidden low-ceiling floor, the Royal Society archive really is the most mesmerizing place. Firstly there are it’s own publications – the journal Philosphical Transactions of the Royal Society is the world’s oldest English-language journal, begun in 1665 as both a record of scientific achievement and to stop people bickering over who discovered what.

Further into the archives I was shown more and more fascinating documents: Flinders’ Voyage to Terra Australis, complete with maps of Van Diemen’s Land dating from 1801-03; Robert Hooke’s Micrographia, the first observation of the microscopic world, complete with highly detailed copperplate engravings and drawings of insects, cells and the eye of the fly; the first star map drawn by the first Astronomer Royal, complete with constellations. I am told that somewhere in the archive, no doubt locked up and protected by magic, is a 12th century short document on the transition between Roman numerals and Arabic characters.

Such is the surreal nature of this vast collection of scientific memorabilia that when another worker passed my guide, Joanna, and asked what was in the box she was carrying, she replied “Christopher Wren’s tongs” as if that were something normal.

Marble, Marble, Everywhere

Before having to rush off, Joanna allowed me to see the Charter book, the book that outlines the Royal Charter and the Statutes by which the Society attains them. It is a large, red leather bound clasp-sealed book of great weight, the first page containing the Royal seal and the signature of Charles II. Kept in it’s own locked box, this book contains the signature of every Royal since, non-Monarchs included, and also every fellow of the Society. Nigh on every famous British scientist has signed. Controversially, Robert Hooke defied every subsequent history book to bear his name, and signed it “Rob”.

There is so much more I could talk about – the archives are so extensive and the history of the Society so important – but I was only there for two weeks, and only in the archives for about an hour. In my element though I may have been, people had work to do, including myself, so I returned upstairs, past the exhibition visitors up to editorial on the staff-only floors. These visitors were getting to hear of the best of current scientific research, being inspired to pursue an interest in natural philosophy, but I had just stepped back in time and seen something they’d never get to see. They probably don’t even know it’s there.


Many thanks to all at the Royal Society, for the staff of Biology Letters, Proceedings A and B and everyone else in the editorial office, especially Louise, Aysha, Jen, Helen and Fiona (I know you run Google searches for Biology Letters, so you’re gonna find this eventually!). You work in an amazing place, you do a great job, and frankly, I’m jealous!