Saturday, July 4, 2009

London and Cambridge

On Wednesday and Thursday I (Bobby) had the fortunate opportunity to visit research labs at Queen Mary University London, and Cambridge University, where I presented my research and learned all about their goings-ons. Early Wednesday morning I took the high-speed train through the famous Chunnel, which was so high-speed that I completely missed said tunnel. Just under two hours after leaving Paris, the intercom welcomed me to London! I was expecting something much more grand and magical, relatively speaking. In Charlemagne's time this entire endeavour would be magical, and perhaps borderline heretical.

I had several hours before my appointed lecture time, so I decided to go visit Westminister Abbey. This is where the royal coronations have happened since 1066; and since then the building has undergone various additions and overhauls, the most recent of which are the additions of the Western Towers in the 18th century.

The first thing I recognized when I entered is that the abbey has very little floor space; you can't step anywhere without stepping over a grave or memorial. I took the self-guided audio tour and moved through the thin passageways surrounded by tombs, of which only a few were labeled, such as "Edward the Confessor," "Henry III," and "Mary Queen of Scots." I wondered who are all the other people? In the picture above you see a memorial to the famous English composer Handel, of Handel's Messiah fame.

And of course, as a sort-of scientist, I had to pay my respects to Charles Darwin by snapping a picture of his memorial in a strictly no-picture-taking area.

I then went to the British Library, originally to use the toilet in an air conditioned facility, but there I found an excellent array of treasures that kept me for hours. First, there was an entire corner displaying a wonderful stamp collection of thousands and thousands of treasures. To see them one pulls out from the wall a thin display case, like the one seen below.

Since I "specialize" in early Mexican philately, I was visibly enthusaistic when I saw there was more than 20 displays of such material. It was a wonderfully complete collection of the stamps preceeding the Mexican Revolution, and some great examples of postal history, such as an Ocho reales cut in fours and used as a dos reales.

Then I found a large collection of very old books and manuscripts, including illuminated Bibles, Qurans, and even exotic Oriental scrolls --- many of which you can explore from your very own desktop. Again, in Charlemagne's time this entire endeavour would be magical, and definitely heretical. Above you see an autograph of one of Beethoven's sonatas for violin, in his own hand. And at the lower left is his tuning fork.

They also have an entire room devoted to a copy of the Magna Carta from the 13th century, thanks to which the powers of a king are limited, and we today in the Western world enjoy the freedoms provided under constitutional law, such as, oh, I don't know, habeaus corpus, freedom from imprisonment without sufficient evidence, and the right to a fair trial. (The Magna Carta also says some silly stuff, such as "No one shall be arrested or imprisoned on the appeal of a woman for the death of any person except her husband.")

My talk at Queen Mary went excellently, and afterwards a group of us went to a local pub to sample their ales. At one point in the conversation I asked, "I am wondering how your department, and Queen Mary University, have been affected by the crisis." My BEF (best English friend) Nick looked at me surprised and said, "There's a crisis?" Apparently, with its economy built so heavily on credit, higher education in the US is sufferring much more than that in Europe.

After an excellent but quick curry dinner at Brick Lane, I headed off to Cambridge. When the train arrived a little less than an hour outside of London the first thing I heard were bahing sheep. Cambridge University is the second oldest university in England, which was formed by a group of scholars in dispute with Oxford townsfolk in 1209 (having to do with a murder). Nonetheless, since then many Cambridge graduates have had revolutionary impacts on the intellectual and practical aspects of the world, such as Darwin's theory of natural selection, Maxwell's unification of the electric and magnetic forces (a part of which I inscribed on Carla's wedding ring), Newton's universal law of gravitation, and Crick and Watson (et al) discovery of the structure of DNA.

After my seminar, my host asked me if I would like to see one of the oldest examples of polyphonic music, the Winchester Troper. After I said and had to explain, "Fssshaw!" he called up to the library and said he was bringing a scholar to see the music. We were met by a man who took us into a narrow long room: the famous Parker Library, which contains one of the richest collections of medieval manuscripts. The man pulled from a locked box a small book and placed it in a lecturn-type holder, set up a chair and invited me to sit and thumb through this book from circa 1000 AD.

My host held open the pages so that I could take a digital picture to upload to the World Wide Web accompanied by my commentary about the entire experience so that my friends and family at home in the New World could read of this treasure and respond in kind. None of this, of course, would be possible without the great advances in science that have occurred from around this very place I was sitting, which gave me an eerie sense of history. In Charlemagne's time this most definitely would be magic and supernatural, to say the least.

1 comment:

  1. How amazing,
    All that history in such a short period of time would have been overwhelming to take in and enjoy each moment for what it stood for. We would have loved to have experienced even some of it. However if we had been there you might not have had the opportunity:-) I am glad you were able to take pictures to share it with us, albeit some unlawfully. Tee hee, Kisses, Drea