Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Being asked for views and opinions

Occasionally, I am asked to give my views and opinions on various subjects and I find the exercise difficult, preferring to write about the views and opinions of others. This year, my Alma Mater has an important anniversary and, as part of the celebrations, the University invited Alumni to write short pieces under different headings, feeling that we had worthwhile things to say. This is what I came up with (using the headings that we were given).

Life's turning points

I was a Freshman in 1965/6 (that's me in the picture above, taken on a 1st year field trip). Many things stay in my memory of that year: arriving at the University; buying an undergraduate gown (yes, really); buying a University scarf (very 1960s); finding the first lectures and practical classes a bit scary; and making new "friends", some of whom I lost contact with after a day. It was a time of many changes and I was certainly aware that I had left home and that there were new experiences ahead. As the first member of my family to attend University, there was also a feeling of pride and an awareness of being part of an important institution.

After three years, I was ready for new challenges, but didn't want undergraduate years to end. They were that good.

Life's turning points

University courses delivered some major surprises. We covered the basics of the three science subjects that I had chosen during the first year, but this was made pleasurable because we were taught by experts in each field, all being interested in teaching. I found it thrilling to be introduced to areas of study about which I knew very little and one stand-out course was a series of lectures on the History of Science. We started with Greek philosophy, and my admiration for the original thinking of Democritus and Aristotle continues to this day. The course put the topics I studied into context and all degree programmes should do this. We can have the feeling that the contemporary view is the "correct" one and studying the history of a subject shows that this may, or may not, be the case.

Life's turning points

Small children seem so curious about the world around them and are always asking questions, some of them very difficult to answer. As we grow, the number of spoken questions becomes less and we find out more for ourselves or, if we are passive, we accept things that we are told. Information may come from a parent, a teacher, books, sources on the internet, or television and radio programmes. However, it is essential to retain a child-like curiosity, to question what we receive and to fight the passive response. That's what education is all about – the more we learn, the more there is to learn.


Conventions are observed in the workplace and at social gatherings. Some of these are valuable, others just a matter of formality, but they give us a framework for interactions and for behaviour. There are also unnecessary conventions and we shouldn't be afraid to question them, just as we shouldn't be afraid of challenging widely-accepted viewpoints. Every individual is unique, and we all have our own views as a result: as long as we think out our position on any issue, we should trust our own judgement.

Health and wellbeing

In developed Western cultures, we are obsessed with health and ageing. In part, it comes from the knowledge that we are all going to die and we resist that idea, and the signs that death is getting closer. Our susceptibility to illnesses, and to ageing, is affected by our genes and the way that the products they code react within the environment, be that within a cell, an individual, or the world around us. Recent medical research seems to focus on genes and cells, often ignoring the wider environment. It could be argued that the research conducted in medical genetics will result in increased longevity, while the world beyond individual humans will become more and more impoverished. As we obsess about our own fears, we seem less interested in the environment in which we live and which supplies many of our needs, both physical and emotional.


We all have explanations for things that we don't understand: these might come in the theories of scientists, or the belief in a Superior Being. These two positions have been considered irreconcilable, but there are many scientists with strong religious beliefs. There are also many varieties of religion, all offering explanations for everything, but trouble results when the religion becomes organised and ceases to be solely personal. We've all had people knock at our door, whether in our homes, Dorm, or wherever we are living, to tell us about their views and why we should take their viewpoint. These proselytisers of organised religion are convinced they are right and, by implication, that those with other views are wrong. As we all know, this can lead to schism, family and community conflicts, and even wars. Shouldn't we accept that each individual is entitled to their own view and that what is right for one person might not be right for another?


Have you ever had the experience of listening to a piece of music and having a spine-tingling sensation and a feeling of being taken to another place? There are some pieces of music that do this for me over and over again, especially if I am in the right mood and listening intently. Can this experience be considered to be spiritual? The answer comes in whether one believes in the supernatural, or whether the deep feelings engendered are just the result of nerve impulses and chemicals travelling through one's body. I favour the latter explanation, but have no idea why some pieces of music have this effect and others not. Although I think we will never understand the nature of the mechanisms involved (some scientists probably think that we will), I don't feel the need to look for supernatural explanations.


Having my own family was never a priority; nor was pushing ahead in a career. I knew that I was fascinated by Natural History and was delighted that this took me to some interesting places, with agreeable research colleagues. I feel very lucky to have been able to teach the subject and I have also been fortunate in that my wife certainly did want to have a family. The result is two wonderful children who have given me so much and who have gone on to successful independent lives. My son lives with his partner in a beautiful house in Islington and my daughter was married last autumn in a lovely ceremony in Norfolk. It took weeks to come down from the glowing feeling of the day and, as Bob Dylan remarked about parenthood in his Sign on the Window, "that must be what it's all about".


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