The Making of a Scientist
by Richard Dawkins
Professor Dawkins is one of the few dedicated scientists who can write about the most complex subject and make it both interesting and comprehensible. In An Appetite For Wonder, the first part of his intended two-part autobiography, we do not have to worry too much about the comprehension and can concentrate on the interesting bits. Born in Nairobi, Dawkins spent a large part of his childhood in East Africa before moving finally to England in 1949. Considering his well publicised views about religion (publicised to the detriment of his scientific writing!), it came as a surprise (or perhaps not!) to learn that his paternal ancestry includes seven generations of Anglican vicars.
After a few years at ‘preparatory’ school – [American friends may well ask, as does Dawkins himself, what such schools prepare you for] – he was enrolled at Oundle Public School in Northamptonshire. [American friends read ‘Boys’ Private School’]. Now, I know Oundle quite well, not so much the school as the town, because I live close by, and was fascinated by his description of his life there in the 1950s. His account is laced with dry humour concerning long abolished practices such as fagging, – [a peculiar English public school custom] – being examined intimately by the school matron and having baths in water already soiled by fourteen other members of the school rugby team. Things are very different now; for several years now, Oundle has admitted girls, so I guess customs HAD to change.
From Oundle, Dawkins went to Oxford University, where he read [studied or majored in] Zoology, while learning to programme computers, which he is remarkably good at doing. After his marriage in 1967 to Marian Stamp, also a research scientist, he took up an offer of an assistant professorship at UCAL Berkeley, where he seems to have become an active anti-Vietnam War campaigner. The couple returned to Oxford in 1969 to work on various research projects. Then , in 1973, Dawkins began work on his first book The Selfish Gene, which was published in 1976.
Professor Dawkins is not a modest man. He is proud of his achievements, and this comes over in his writing. However, he is not a boastful man either and is equally ready to admit his mistakes and regrets. Although he argues with passion, his reputation as a ‘militant’ is ill-deserved, even – it seems to me anyway – in the religious debate. I have heard him speak and he is always polite and respectful to his audience and argues his case with reason and logic. Perhaps it is – as is often the case with people of strong opinions – he attracts fanatics, who latch onto a few remarks as total justification for their more extreme views.
An Appetite For Wonder is worth reading for a picture of a man very much in the public eye, often for the wrong reasons, and for a nostagic and often humourous glimpse of academia in the days before personal computers.
Today, I’m posting another extract from my novel The Tiger and the Cauldron
Two figures detached themselves from the shadows of the lower terrace and climbed the steps towards him.
‘Hassan.’ It was Sayyid’s voice. ‘The Captain has commanded me to relieve you.’
‘An hour, no more, Sayyid,’ said Doquz who accompanied him. She too wore a horse blanket round her shoulders. ‘Another should take your place. It’s too cold for extended watches when we have fifty able to undertake the duty. Come with me,’ she said to Hassan. She led him down the steps and across the courtyard, stopping and bending down to rub her hands together by one of the dying fires. ‘You are in need of some warmth.’ She unsheathed her scimitar and hooked it through the handle of a kettle that lay in the embers. Then, taking him by the arm, she drew him into the shelter of one of the rooms, which was empty save for a burning candle and yet another blanket that had been laid as a bed. There she set down the kettle. She took off her helmet and gave it to him. With the blanket edge protecting her hand she lifted the kettle again and poured its contents into the helmet.
‘Drink,’ she ordered.
Hassan raised the helmet to his lips. The aroma of warm wine mixed with spices drifted into his nostrils and he sipped the liquid gratefully. His chill abated.
‘That was good,’ he said.
‘In the Zagros winter, it was a most welcome beverage,’ said she. ‘Who would have thought it would prove equally so in the Alburz summer? In the fortress of Alamut?’
She drank what remained of the wine, threw the helmet aside and sat down on the horse blanket. She undraped the one that covered her shoulders, loosened her corslet and extended both her arms towards him. The candle flickered.
Hassan knelt and took her hands in his. ‘Doquz …’
She pulled him down beside her. ‘I cannot pretend you were the first, Hassan,’ she said. ‘Does that trouble you?’
‘That, no. It troubles me only that I could not please you.’
‘Then I was the first for you, as I thought. Truly you did not bed your Luciana?’
‘Not my Luciana!’ Hassan felt his cheeks burn, but if she had not guessed the whole truth he was not now going to confess it. ‘I could not love her as she wished.’
‘Yet with me you were gentleness itself.’
‘I beg you do not tease me.’
‘I do not tease, Hassan. You are young, but there is more to manhood than most men learn in a lifetime. With you …’ She did not finish the sentence but reached up and kissed him full on the mouth.
Hassan allowed his lips to linger on hers before breaking free to pose the question that had haunted him since Maragha.
‘Then I did not displease you?’
‘How could you think that? My life had become so grim and, before that night, I had not thought to find such love again.’ She paused to kiss him once more, this time fiercely, her mouth open and her tongue seeking his. When it seemed to Hassan that neither could any longer draw breath, she released him. Her lips found the lobe of his ear. ‘No, indeed, it was more, Hassan,’ she whispered. ‘The other was a childish fancy. I know that now. It excited and thrilled, but did not satisfy.’
Once more Hassan was gripped by a fever of excitement. He felt he ought to respond in some way but found he could not speak without stumbling over the words.
‘The last few nights,’ he began. ‘… when we camped in the hills … I would have come to you. I wanted to come to you … when you cried out in your sleep. Yet you sent me away …’
‘It would not have been proper. You must know that.’
She bit the lobe of his ear, very gently, and encircled his neck with her arm – the left – and only then did Hassan notice she no longer wore the bandage.
‘Then let us lie together now while we have the time, my Hassan,’ said Doquz. She pulled him even closer, then down beside her on the blanket. The ground beneath his elbow was hard but he scarcely noticed.
‘My breasts are warm,’ she breathed. ‘Feel my heart; ‘tis beating so fast. Come to me again. In case there are soon to be no more tomorrows for us, I want to know your love one more time.’
I knew before I even opened this book that the author, Robert Galbraith, was actually JK Rowling of Harry Potter fame. I think everyone knew that, almost from the day it was published. My hesitation and delay before reading it stemmed from my disappointment with The Casual Vacancy. That just wasn’t my thing at all. See https://bookheathen.wordpress.com/2014/08/25/its-not-harry-potter/
The Cuckoo’s Calling is quite a different sort of novel, a detective story featuring a PI who steps out of the pages like the bomb that took off part of his leg. Cormoran Strike is ex British army, over-weight, broke and has been dumped by his girl friend. He is also the illegitimate son of a famous rock star.
The mystery, and the first case for a while that’s likely to help Strike with his debts, concerns the death of a celebrity model called Lula Landry, who has apparently committed suicide by jumping from the balcony of her luxury appartment. Lula, we learn early on, was adopted, and it is her brother John Bristow, also adopted, who engages Strike to find out the truth. Assisted by his temporary “secretary”, Robin, Strike embarks on his search for evidence that Lula was murdered, and to find the killer. His investigation takes us on a tour of London, from the fashionable West End to the colourful world of designers, models, film producers and pop stars, and into the less glamourous lives of wannabees.
Strike is a cerebral detective, Robin an efficient and intuitive assistant. The other players we meet in the course of the novel are brash, self-opinionated, camp, frivolous, sad or just plain funny. Lula, whom we never meet except as a dead body, is described as having a ‘drive towards self-destruction, a tendency which seemed to have revealed itself first in early adolescence, when her adoptive father … dropped dead from a heart attack. Lula had subsequently run away from two schools, and been expelled from a third, all of them expensive private establishments.’
Among the possible suspects for the crime is designer Guy Some, whose face ‘contrasted strangely with his taut, lean body, for it abounded in exaggerated curves: the eyes exophthalmic so that they appeared fishlike, looking out of the sides of his head.’ Another is model Ciara Porter who, ‘attenuated and angular, with milk-white skin, hair almost as fair, and pale blue eyes set very wide apart … stretched out her endless legs, in platform shoes that were tied with long silver threads up her calves, and lit a Marlborough Light.’
Then there’s film producer Freddie Bestigui – ‘… tiny eyes between pouches of flesh, black moles sprinkled over the swarthy skin’ and Lula’s mother, cancer-ridden Lady Bristow, whose ‘death was an almost palpable presence in the room, as though it stood waiting patiently, politely, behind the curtains.’
Ms Rowling has an eye for detail, a flair for characterisation and a wonderful bizarre sense of humour which, I think, is best demonstrated in this kind of story. I enjoyed reading The Cuckoo’s Calling and will quite happily read the next book in the Galbraith series when I get the opportunity. Strike, who seems rather sad at the beginning, improves as we get to know him better. Another book and we might actually get to admire him.