Tag: favourite stories

Playing blocs

When I got to Parker’s Piece* for our class football game, Anna and Chris were already there. Bettina soon joined us, and in fifteen minutes, there were ten of us.

‘Ten! Perfect! We can have two teams of five.’

‘How do we split it? Boys against girls?’

There was a short and lively discussion about the fairness of this arrangement, and how embarrassing it would be when the girls won.

‘I know! Let’s do Kyoto and non-Kyoto!’ someone eventually exclaimed.

‘Huh? Oh, you mean…? Would that work? It does!’

And so it was, that the five people from the UK, Trinidad and Tobago, Argentina, and Ireland (countries supporting the 1997 Kyoto Protocol to curb the world’s greenhouse gas emissions) played off against the five recalcitrant Aussies and Americans.

‘Okay, guys,’ said Chris. Chris is from Seattle and is obviously evil. ‘Remember, we don’t like Kyoto so we can play dirty.’

‘Nation’s right to pollute!’ hollered Ian, a stubborn Australian from Adelaide, as he charged after the ball.

‘Voluntary emissions targets!’ I yelped, running to the other half of the field in my ignorant and conservative manner.

After fifteen minutes of vicious football, Don arrived.

‘Hi guys, sorry I’m late,’ he said. ‘Whose team am I on?’

‘Are you for Kyoto or against Kyoto?’

Without batting an eyelid, Don said, ‘Well, Canada’s on the fence for this one. But recently, it’s been rumbling against mandatory targets…’

‘Traitor!’ someone cried.

‘You’re with us, then!’ I said, triumphantly.

With six versus five, the global tide soon turned against the Kyoto Protocol. A passerby from Kenya was invited to join the pro-Kyoto side and soon, the game was back on the knife edge.

Who won?

Don’t know. We lost track of the score.

* Parker’s Piece is a historic place, famous for being the birthplace of modern football (or soccer). There is a plaque on the ground which reads:

“Here on Parker’s Piece, in the 1800s, students established a common set of simple football rules emphasising skill above force, which forbade catching the ball and ‘hacking’. These ‘Cambridge Rules’ became the defining influence on the 1863 Football Association rules.”

Source: BBC (2006)

To boldly go: An evening with Stephen Hawking

“It’s like he’s a rock star,” Alex remarked, as we joined the long queue snaking up the staircase from the entry to the Arthur Goodhart Lecture Theatre in the Law Faculty.

It was Wednesday night on January 24, 2007 and hundreds of people had snapped up seats to hear Professor Stephen Hawking speak on “To boldly go. My life in physics.” Hawking, Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, was giving the first Gates Distinguished Lecture of 2007.

As I found my place in the packed theatre, I thought “holy prophet” was probably a more appropriate descriptor than “rock star.” There were no screaming fans; instead the lecture theatre of people expressed their awe in absolute silence. When Hawking entered, the only sound was the whirr of his motorised wheelchair.

Over the next hour or so, Hawking described his life in that famous synthesised voice, complete with American accent, despite Hawking being entirely British. Hawking did his undergraduate physics degree at The Other Place – “ ‘A very easy course,’ he observed. ‘When they asked what I would do after I graduated, I said, ‘If you give me a First, I will go to Cambridge. If you give me a Second, I will stay at Oxford.’ ”

Hawking was awarded a First, and Oxford’s loss was Cambridge’s gain.

A Twist of Fate

Hawking is humble about the path he has taken to scientific and popular fame. He explained that it could have been very different had he been granted his first choice of PhD supervisor, Fred Hoyle. Hoyle worked in the then-glamorous field of elementary particle physics. “None of my work from that period would have survived,” Hawking said. Instead, Hawking was diverted into the underdeveloped fields of cosmology and gravitation. This twist of fate meant that Hawking found himself in the centre of the most fundamental of debates on the nature of the universe. Did the universe have a beginning? Does it have a fixed mass or is it steady state, with new mass being created to keep density constant? “It is just as well I wasn’t a student of Hoyle, because then I would have had to defend the Steady State Theory,” Hawking mused. That theory was waiting to be discredited by astronomical observations by 1965.

A turning point came when Hawking began to collaborate with Roger Penrose. Penrose’s work allowed Hawking to realise that if stars could form singularities (points of infinite density and zero volume), then there would be singularities at the beginning of space-time.

“It was a glorious feeling, having a whole field to ourselves. It was unlike particle physics where people are falling over themselves to latch onto the latest theory. They still are.”

Betting on Black Holes

The world that Hawking describes is familiar to all of us who are navigating our way through academic research. He told us of egos and competition, chance discoveries, serendipitous meetings, pointless seminars, absent-minded supervisors, and eureka moments (“I can’t compare it to sex but it lasts longer”).

The only difference between Hawking’s world and ours is that he was making (and losing) bets on the nature of black holes, developing theory far ahead of experimental evidence (and being vindicated when technology finally caught up), and bouncing off other unique minds like Penrose and Feynman. He did all this while living with motor neuron disease. Being unable to move or speak without human and computer help has not stopped Hawking from pioneering new scientific theories, writing best sellers like A Brief History of Time, and starring in three episodes of The Simpsons.

“Professor Hawking,” came the final question of the night. “If you could ask God one question, what would it be?”

Hawking took his moments in time to compose an answer. His helper explained that the professor selects his words by tensing the muscles in his right cheek. The presentation had, of course, been largely pre-composed. Answering our questions that night would take longer.

We, who indulge in txt msg and msn chat language without thinking, were willing to wait. Hawking offered a perfectly composed response:

“Why did you make M-theory so difficult?”

Published in the spring 2007 Gates Cambridge Scholarship newsletter

Looming unemployment

There was a knock on the front door and because I was the only one home, I went downstairs to open it.

‘Do you view the future with fear or hope?’ There were two women at my door.

‘Erm.’ I blinked and thought about it. Well, I still go on, don’t I? Despite the war, the injustice, the stupidity and the wastefulness.

‘Basically optimism, I guess.’

The woman who spoke looked a little confused. I guess she had been hoping I’d say ‘fear’ because she went on to read a passage from the bible, assuring me that God was coming take away our suffering.

‘The bible tells us we shouldn’t face the world in fear. The bible gives us hope because God is coming and will solve all these terrible problems we see in the world these days.’

What I thought was, ‘Well, that puts me out of a job.’ What I said was, ‘Okay.’

‘Have you ever thought about the bible?’ she asked.

By this time, you readers might be wondering why I was still talking to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Essentially, it was a sunny day and I was enjoying the warmth of standing at the doorway. And I had ten minutes before I had to leave the house.

‘No, not really.’ Actually, I’ve thought about the bible before but mostly in a storybook kind of way. I like bible stories but I don’t think that’s what she was getting at.

She gave me ‘The Watchtower’, a thin periodical that looks at different bible passages. I had read one a few months ago, which was about how the bible provides guidance on how to make day-to-day decisions like, ‘What do I wear?’ (nothing too short or sexy) and ‘Should I ask her out?’ (only if you respect her and intend to take it seriously).

That wasn’t the end of the conversation, though, because she asked me what part of China I came from (her husband used to work in Hong Kong). When I said actually, I come from Australia, she and her friend were quite excited because they were from Sydney. We ended up chatting about BBQs and the drought back home.

They promised to come back next week in case I had questions about the pamphlet.

Triumph of swan propoganda

I used to think swans were special. You can hardly blame me; they have such good publicists. Some of their propoganda triumphs include: countless retellings of The Ugly Duckling; encore performances of Swan Lake; Schubert’s relabelled Schwanengesang; and the Sydney Swans being in the AFL grand final for two years running.

You don’t see a lot of swans in Australia so to me, they’ve been mythical beings. When I arrived in England, I was lucky enough to spot a swan on the River Cam. Excitedly, I snapped dozens of photos. SNAP! SNAP! SNAP! I was paparazzo.

In the seven months I’ve been here, I’ve come to the realisation that they’re everywhere. That’s right, swans are everywhere. Common as dirt, and they nearly all belong to the Queen.

Mum’s first day in Cambridge: ‘Oh, mum, don’t bother with that old thing. They’re everywhere.’

‘Hello, swan, we meet again.’

‘Smile for the camera!’

Smiling for the camera.

‘What, you call us all the way here and there’s no food? We’re leaving!’

They left behind a feather as a mark of their disdain.

I want to be something

‘When I grow up, mama, I want to be a boat!’

‘Oh, dearie! You can’t be a boat. You’re a trailer.’

The little green trailer clutched to his dream. Every birthday, he blew out the candles and submitted his wish to the great big petition box in the sky. But each morning, he would wake up to find his wheels still attached, his body still squarish and, soon enough, rusting.

His hope, now, is small. Years of soul destroying drudgery — lifting and trundling and carrying and bitumen — had ground even the happiest little trailer to trailer trash.

Dispenser of life

‘You’ve done moderately well,’ the guide said, as he handed Pat three large silver coins. ‘This should be enough for you to get something decent. You can make your selection in the next room.’

‘Is that all?’ Pat was disappointed by the unceremoniousness of it all. He had wondered about this his whole life.

‘Oh, no, you’re absolutely right. You get a bonus for believing in reincarnation this time,’ the guide remembered, and gave Pat a smaller brass coin with a hole in the centre. ‘Not many people do, you know.’

Clutching his tokens, Pat walked slowly to the next chamber. It’s funny that it’s come to this, he reflected. He remembered the last time he had gone through. The old fashioned way was that you spun a big wheel and, puff! Next thing you knew, you were a bricklayer’s son or a racoon.

The guide had told him that too many souls had complained about the randomness so they switched to this token system. The market would work its magic so that good souls had the pick of the most popular lives. ‘We’re getting with the times,’ the guide had said jovially. ‘You know, supply and demand and all that.’

It was sensible, Pat supposed. But he still felt a bit glum, standing in front of the vending machine. It hummed and flickered, much like the candy dispenser at the pool where he used to swim. Some of the slots were already empty.

‘Ah well,’ he thought.

He pushed the coins through the slot, saw his credit flash up, and pressed ‘D’, then ‘4’.

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The end of learning

Don, Tommy and I were preparing for our final presentation for the Systems Dynamics class.

“You know, this will be my last class,” Don remarked. “…ever.”

I have another module to do next term, but for most people in my course, this Lent term was the last term with taught classes.

“Ever?” I laughed. “You mean you’re done with the MPhil? Done with postgrad? Done with school?

“That’s right,” Don declared. “I’ve decided. Learning Stops Here.”

My reward

I was walking home with a bag full of groceries from Sainsbury’s. I was in a good mood.

‘Scuze me,’ came a voice.

‘Hmm?’ I said, slowly pulling myself out of my pondering. I focused on a young man dressed in a grey hooded jumper.

‘Sorry to bother you, but do you have [mumble] [mumble]…’

‘Pardon?’ I was still thinking too slowly to interact with a real person.

‘Do you have 97 pence? You see, I need to buy a bus ticket.’ He ducked his head down, waiting for rejection.

I was in a great mood. I put my shopping down and reached unzipped my backpack to get my wallet. Today, I could afford a pound.

‘Thank you!’ he said. ‘I’m sorry, ah, I have to ask for money for the bus…’

‘That’s all right,’ I replied. I looked in my coin compartment. There was no gold one pound coin. There was only copper two pence and one pence coins. ‘Oh, I don’t know if I have anything,’ I said, feeling truly sorry. I looked in the notes compartment and found only £20 notes. If I had a £5 note, I probably would have given it to him. I was in such a good mood.

‘No, no, that’s okay, whatever you have,’ he assured me.

‘I’m really sorry, this is all I’ve got, honestly.’ I gave him five pence in coins.

Although a tiny amount, he must have been warmed by my absent-minded glowing smile. ‘Thank you… What’s your name?’

‘I’m Joan. How about you?’


He stuck his hand out. I reached forward and he shook my hand. Then he raised it up and kissed it.

‘Thank you. Have a good day!’ And he darted off.

Bundle of pink

“Those things are cool,” Dom commented. We turned to look at a man in our tube carriage carrying a baby in a sling around his front. The baby was dressed in pink and crinkled its eyes at us in a smile.

“Oh, I love babies!” Toria agreed.

“No! I meant the sling!” Dom quickly corrected. “They used to only have them at the back…”

We laughed. Dom was clearly trying to defend his masculinity. The baby cooed and waved its tiny hands at us. It was the cutest thing in pink.

“Flirt,” Dom muttered, smiling.

Tearing down the rainbow

I was waiting for a friend in the surgery waiting room. Beside me, a mother was reading to her daughter on her lap. It must have been a kid’s science book or something. I heard mum say ‘lightning’, ‘space’ and ‘plants’.

The mother read, “Sometimes, after when it rains, there is a beautiful rainbow in the sky.” The little girl bounced up and down. Mum asked her, “Do you know how rainbows are made?”

“Oh! Oh! I know this, I really do!” The girl was excited. She concentrated. “Mmmmm…I do know… After lots of rain, God made the rainbow to promise that it would never rain lots again!” She looked at mum, triumphant that she had remembered her lessons.

Mum laughed. “Er…yes. That’s… one way to say it. Another way is that sunlight can be split up into lots of colours. Did you know that?”

“No!” the girl cried.

Mum ploughed on. “The light gets split up in the raindrops… But I wonder why the rainbow is curved?”

The look on the little girl’s face — it was like she had just been told Santa didn’t exist.