Everyone who attends a certain type of English school is given a nickname. Mine was Floyd Patterson. In 1956, Floyd Patterson was the youngest boxer to become the world heavyweight champion. I was certainly not a heavyweight but perhaps I was pugnacious in defending myself against larger and older boys. Floyd Patterson had a maxim that drove his career: ‘you try the impossible to achieve the unusual’. I have used this approach in various leadership roles and in guiding my research students for many years by encouraging them to throw away caution in planning their PhD programmes. I only made the connection with Floyd Patterson recently when reading Edward O. Wilson‘s book, ‘Letters to a Young Scientist‘. Previously, I had associated it with Edmund Hillary’s biography that is titled ‘Nothing Venture, Nothing Win’, which is peculiar corruption of a quote, often attributed to Benjamin Franklin but that probably originated much earlier, ‘Nothing ventured, nothing gained’. I read Hillary’s book as a young student and was influenced by his statement that ‘even the mediocre can have adventures and even the fearful can achieve’.
Edmund Hillary, ‘Nothing Venture, Nothing Win’, The Travel Book Club, London, 1976.
I had been queueing slowly up the steps to board a plane thinking about nothing in particular when, as I stepped into the plane, one of cabin staff said to me ‘Are you getting ready for winter?’ I looked at her somewhat perplexed because it was only September, and she pointed to the book that I was holding ready to read on the flight home. It was ‘Winter’ by Ali Smith. It is a novel with much to say on many issues.
One of the central characters in the novel, Art writes a blog and someone challenges him to write about a real thing, something that he remembers happening and not a blog thing. He describes a real childhood memory and when it is suggested that he should write about it, his response is he could never put something like that on-line because ‘it’s way to real’. I have some empathy with Art, because it can be difficult writing about your thoughts and memories for anyone to read. However, I have noticed that the readership of the blog goes up when I do write about such things [see for example ‘Thinking more clearly by writing weekly‘ on May 2nd, 2018 or ‘Depressed by exams‘ on January 31st, 2018]. So, if people are interested perhaps I should do it more often.
Another passage that resonated with me was about age. The narrator is her sixties, which I will be soon, and comments that ‘You never stop being yourself on the inside whatever age people think you are by looking at you from the outside.’ I think that this is true but perhaps difficult to reconcile with consciousness being an accumulation of sensory experiences [see ‘Is there a real ‘you’ or ‘I’‘ on March 6th, 2019]
Last month I mentioned that I started reading ‘Overstory’ by Richard Powers on my trip back from the US [see ‘When an upgrading is downgrading‘ on August 21st, 2019]. I only finished it about ten days ago because I have not had much time to read and it is a long book at 629 pages. It is a well-written book including some quotable passages, but one that I particularly liked which seems relevant in this era of polarised perspectives: ‘The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can is a good story.’ And, Richard Powers tells a good story about the destruction of the ecosystem, on which we are dependent, as a result of large-scale felling of ancient forests. The emphasis should be on ‘ancient’ because time for trees appears to run at a different speed than for humans. While we can observe the seasonal changes in an ancient woodland, we are barely conscious on the growth and movement of the woodland. When we read Shakespeare’s lines in Macbeth about ‘Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane Hill shall come’, we think of it moving over the landscape at the speed of an army of people, whereas woods move so slowly that we do not live long enough to notice the change. For instance, there is a spruce tree in Sweden that is 9,500 years old. Our spatial understanding of a tree also leads to a misconception because we can only see the overstory, i.e. what is happening above ground; so, we think that each trunk is an individual tree, whereas for many types of tree many apparently individual trunks belong to the same organism with an extensive understory below ground which might be thousands of years old. All trees are involved in a substantial understory communicating with each other in ways that we can barely imagine let alone comprehend. Most of the ancient forests in Europe were cut down before science revealed the scale and complexity of life in them; yet, we still continue to fell forests as if there was an inexhaustible supply rather than one that could take as long to replicate as humans have been recording our history.
I had slightly surreal time last week. I visited the USA to attend a review of a research programme sponsored by the US Government and reported on two of our research projects. When I arrived in the USA on Monday evening, I went to collect my rental car and was told that I had been upgraded to a pick-up truck because the rental company did not have left any of the compact cars that had been booked for me. I gingerly manoeuvred the massive vehicle, a Toyota Tacoma, out of the parking garage and on to the freeway. I should admit to having owned a large SUV when we lived in the USA and so driving along the freeway was not a totally new experience, except that the white bonnet in front of me seemed huge.
The following morning, I drove to the location of the review and strategically selected a parking space with empty spaces all around it so that I could drive through into the space and avoid needing to reverse the behemoth. As I was walking across the parking lot, someone accosted me and said: ‘Nice truck, how do you like it?’ Embarrassed at driving such an environmental-unfriendly vehicle, I responded that it was a rental car that I just picked up. To which he replied that the best protection against my Tacoma, was his Tacoma. And, that it was his dream car. Then, I noticed that he had parked his black one alongside mine.
Our children learnt to drive in our ancient Ford Explorer and loved it. We all knew that it was wrong to drive something that consumed fuel so voraciously even if it did get us effortlessly through the most horrendous winter storms. However, we have left all that behind and now either use public transport or drive cars that achieve 60 mpg or more on good days. But here I was being admitted to a club that worshipped their pick-up trucks.
We walked together into the review which was held in a small lecture theatre equipped with comfortable armchairs, which was just as well because we sat there from 8.30 to 4.30 for two days listening to half-hour presentations with only short breaks. We were presented with some stunning research based on brilliant innovative thinking, such as materials that can undergo 90% deformation and fully recover their shape and how the rippling motion of covert feathers on a bird’s wings could help us design more efficient aeroplanes. More on that in later posts. Of course, there were some less good presentations that had many us reaching for our mobile phones to catch up on the endless flow of email [see: ‘Compelling Presentations‘ on March 21st, 2018). At the end of each day, we dispersed to different hotels scattered across town in our rental cars. On Thursday, I drove back to the airport and topped up the fuel tank before returning my truck. I worked out that it had achieved only 19 mpg (US) or 23 mpg (UK), despite my gentle driving – that’s almost three times the consumption of my own car! On the plane home I started reading ‘Overstory‘ by Richard Powers, a novel about our relationship to trees and the damage we are doing to the environment on which trees, and us, are dependent.