Turkey with intellectual trimmings

December 19, 1997

Who would you invite to Christmas dinner? Katrina Wishart asked five academics to nominate their festive favourites

Harry Kroto

In The Ascent of Man, Jacob Bronowski describes an incident during which he and John von Neumann watched an explosion. Von Neumann said that Bronowski's physical approach was no use. "What was happening was that the first derivative vanishes identically and that is why the trace of the second derivative becomes visible." Bronowski realised that this exchange was remarkable in that it revealed a unique way of thinking in which mathematical speech was somehow second nature to von Neumann in the way that our native speech is to most of us.

I should like to have been able to invite von Neumann to dinner to try to understand how this ability developed; I suspect it was by effortless osmosis from the very early cultural environment in which he grew up. It may be that just as our native language is apparently hard-wired into a different part of the brain from a language learned at school, the same is true of von Neumann's mathematical language. This suggests that fundamental educational reforms need to be addressed and that tinkering with peripheral educational issues will be of limited effect.

Science as a cultural activity needs greater representation in modern media. It should be possible to harness television to enable our young to develop an inherent second-nature mathematical/scientific ability. My relatively modest initiative (with the Vega Science Trust) to inaugurate a "science night" on network television was squashed when Digital Broadcast Network's application to run the new digital television channel was turned down in favour of the more commercial BSkyB bid.

A recent article suggested that Ted Turner has greater cultural ambitions for British television than Rupert Murdoch. I would like to have been able to invite both men to my Christmas dinner to meet von Neumann and to determine whether there really is any ambition for a significant cultural - in particular a scientific cultural - component in Murdoch/Turner's plans for the communications media of the 21st century. As far as network TV is concerned, cultural and educational factors appear to be afterthoughts rather than a primary purpose for this amazing technology.

Sir Harry Kroto won the Nobel prize for chemistry in 1996.

Gillian Beer

As Jane Austen observed of households, "every little social commonwealth dictates its own matters of discourse" and "a removalI of only three miles will often include a total change of conversation, opinion and idea". You need to be a quick learner to join a family for Christmas dinner, and I think an anthropologist would fare well as an unknown visitor to our table.He might enjoy learning the language of another tribe or "a little social commonwealth", and what an opportunity. He should be skilled at joining in,yet remaining separate - necessary for comfort through a long Christmas day. He would also be used to groups that contain many generations and be able to manoeuvre among them.

A number of ethnographers would fit the bill, but I want the one whose own language sings - Clifford Geertz.

Geertz explores the fullness of meaning in actions, rituals, and everyday encounter and speech. Geertz, in works like The Interpretation of Cultures and Local Knowledge, is much less autobiographical than the next generation of anthropologists but that does not mean he claims a false invisibility. He is manifest in the sheer eclecticism of his writing. He resists the "explosion of fact", "the rage to invent", as he puts it, but relishes different kinds of knowledge set askance.

His favoured form is the essay, which allows him to move as far through interlocking ideas as he can go at that time. His sense of the occasion of thinking makes it clear that the ethnographer, too, is locked in time, personal and communal. That makes him an appropriate visitor to the intense moment of Christmas dinner, a moment like a snapshot or an essay, gathering meaning without claiming to say it all.

Gillian Beer is Edward VII professor of English literature, University of Cambridge.

David Hughes

Christmas dinner in the Hughes household is a boisterous family affair. So pitchforking another academic into the melee might be problematic. And picking a living academic would be bound to pique the multitude that are overlooked. So my choice would rest between Isaac Newton and Edmond Halley.Should I invite the neurotic bachelor from Cambridge, a man notorious for his disdain of food and known to work for days without breaking for sustenance? Or should I turn to Oxford and the jovial man who, according to the then Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed, "talks, swears and drinks brandy like a sea captain" and is credited with founding the Royal Society Dining Club? No contest really. Halley, at 45, it had to be -and his wife Mary and their three children.

We would probably laugh about how he dropped out of university but got the king to get him a degree anyway, how he convinced the navy to put him in charge of a ship so that he could wander around the Atlantic and how his first crew mutinied. Also up for discussion would be bullying Newton into finishing off the Principia, what it was like minting coins in Chester and how he rated his chances of getting the astronomy or geometry chair back at his old university. Halley would be much too well-mannered to talk shop on Christmas Day, so periodic comets would be out. But he is such a jolly, well-rounded chap that I am sure he would help with the washing-up.

David W. Hughes is reader in astronomy at Sheffield University.

Ben Pimlott

Christmas is a time for getting away from academics, not having them to dinner. The only one I would like to have is my wife Jean Seaton (reader in mass communications at the University of Westminster). But on Christmas Eve or Boxing Day, I would love to have the chance to share a few mince pies with J. K. Galbraith, whom I find wholly admirable. His book, The Culture of Contentment, is a beacon for our times. The thesis that in modern democracies, all politicians and parties are driven by electoral pressures to pander to the better-off majority and forget about the impoverished minority becomes more frighteningly relevant by the day (witness the government's treatment of lone mothers).

As well as being clever and radical, Galbraith writes with elegance, clarity and brevity, and talks with old-world, New England patrician wryness - altogether a civilised intellectual of a kind you frequently find in America but very rarely over here.

Ben Pimlott is professor of politics at Birkbeck College, University of London.

Ian Christie

My choice is Jay Leyda, sadly dead some ten years, but for several decades the doyen of film studies at New York University. Although we worked on the same subject, Soviet cinema, I met him only once. Appropriately, it was a late-night rendezvous in my room at the cavernous Russia Hotel during a mid-1980s Moscow Film Festival. Like most meetings in Russia at that time, even between foreigners, there was a slightly conspiratorial feeling; and we had less than an hour to range over Soviet cinema both ancient and modern.

Leyda had an extraordinary career, of which the final academic phase was the only conventional part. He had moved from the sticks to New York as a youth in the early 1930s and associated with radical photographers and film-makers. He then went to the Soviet Union to study at the VGIK film school with Sergei Eisenstein. (Samuel Beckett applied around the same time but apparently never got a reply. ) On his return to the United States,Leyda translated and published Eisenstein's first collection of theoretical articles, The Film Sense, and, after being driven out of the US during the anti-communism of the 1950s, completed the first major history of Russian and Soviet cinema, Kino.

On the eve of Eisenstein's centenary year, I cannot think of anyone I would more like to reminisce with about the Soviet era that he knew at first hand and the strange and continuing consequences of its demise.

Ian Christie is professor of film studies at the University of Kent at Canterbury.

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