Don's Diary

June 16, 1995

FRIDAY. I have sat on the Memorial Bench in the Percy Thrower garden but nothing can compare with the cultural achievement of appearing on Blue Peter. I had hoped to demonstrate my dynamite tank made with a cotton reel, an elastic band and a knitting needle.

Diane is not interested in my construction skills,so we listen to 100 children discuss the short-list for the junior version of the Rhone Poulenc Science Book Prize. Smart money is on Fire, Friend or Enemy? or The Most Amazing Pop Up Science Book; the children vote for The Robot Zoo and I like Lucky Science. Unfortunately, assistant producer runs out of Blue Peter badges; Rosalind and I have to share one. This provokes nasty argument about who will wear it on Monday.

SATURDAY. Go shopping at Waitrose with Rosalind. Everyone assumes that I must be a mentally-compromised, single parent as my eight-year-old daughter is clearly in charge.

The check-out lady gives me a lecture on careful shopping and makes me exchange a packet of soap powder for one on special offer.

Later go off to the Arsenal. Desperation stakes, if we lose this one we shall be relegated and I shall be watching First Division football next year . . . The Dutchman Helder does things with the ball that defy laws of physics and anatomy.

We win 5-1. Up the Arsenal!

SUNDAY. In the morning. The Goodfellow team (usually myself, Henry and Rosalind, although sometimes we let Julia be a goal post) take on the Rosin/Williams team. We win easily: 20 goals to 19.

Later I forgo the pleasures of televised Italian football and begin reading the books on the short-list for the adult science book prize. Journey to the Ants is a mixture of coffee table book, biography and textbook. Reminiscences of the authors are given in the third person. The Rhone Poulenc Science Book judge found this annoying.

In bed, I regale Julia with questions from Riddles in Your Teacup. Despite a degree in physics and a PhD in biophysics, she is unable to explain difference between how birds and aeroplanes fly.

MONDAY. Go to work, without Blue Peter badge, on my Brompton, a mega-status- symbol bike. Three hours interviewing prospective PhD students. Gradually a ritual develops: what is an RFLP? Explain RAPIDs. How would you construct a YAC? Describe a cycle of PCR. Is there a difference between an acronym and an abbreviation?

Attend the council of the school of biology. We argue for four hours about weighting factors in the formula for allocating funds for purchasing equipment. A few calculations on the back of an envelope (origin of the phrase spread sheet?) convinces me the equation is rigged. Genetics will only get more money if we take over another department. I offer five years of HEFCE "futures" for controlling stake in zoology my offer is declined; another strategy is needed. I leave early to play football. Good game, I score four goals. Later send off application for zoology chair .

TUESDAY. A full day of reading. I make the mistake of overfilling my brain on Pinker's book - The Language Instinct. Pinker looks like and writes like an angel. His main thesis is that we are hard-wired for the capacity to learn a language and this is under genetic control. I become depressed as well as jealous. I console myself with the thought that this book is a philosophical treatise by an intellectual; real scientists do experiments. I relax over lunch by looking at the spectacular pictures in The High Frontier. The sun is shining and I go for a run. In the bath, I read The Book of Man which is co- scripted by the journalist Robin McKie and Walter Bodmer. The latter is my former mentor and continuing "patron". This is a brilliant book garlanded with wit, decorated with insight and embroidered with entertaining anecdote. Combining the best from a gifted communicator and Britain's foremost geneticist, it brings human genetics within the grasp of the non-scientist. I strongly recommend everyone should buy at least three copies . . . I send off application for vacant chair in anatomy.

WEDNESDAY. I decide to be a real scientist and offer to help in the lab by picking clones. I am continuously called away to the telephone - only for the person to hang up. In the end, I retire to my office and read The Consumers' Good Chemical Guide. I learn that chocolate is a source of phenylethylamine and that this compound has been linked to sexual arousal. My experimental observations during adolescence, on semi-captive females at the cinema, did not support this suggestion. I send off my application for the vacant chair in physiology.

THURSDAY. At last, I am in the department and it is my turn to wear the Blue Peter badge, however, I discourage excited discussion as I need a quiet day to prepare for another Arsenal match. I drink several cups of herbal tea and I try reading Arthur C. Clarke's The Snows of Olympus. It reminds me of a Boys' Own science book. Before leaving for Highbury, I send off my application for the vacant Quick chair of biology. I must remember to buy some chocolate for Julia, if we win.


Arthur Balfour professor of genetics, Cambridge University. He was a judge for the Rhone Poulenc science book prize, awarded to The Consumers' Good Chemical Guide by John Emsley.

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