The admissions process to Cambridge can raise strong opinions. I’ve written about dispelling the myths behind the process and more recently about widening participation issues. But now I’m provoked to write about my own experience of applying to the university, an embarrassingly long time ago, by a book I’m reading. The book is Rachel Carson and her Sisters by Robert Musil. It discusses the birth of the American environmental movement and the many women involved in it (Carson’s foremothers as Musil puts it, as well as her scientific colleagues and children).
What has that to do with Cambridge admissions, I hear you asking. Well, back then (and also from the 2017 admission round, although in a very different format) one had to sit an entrance paper. I don’t know how it worked for the mens’ colleges but for the 3 women’s colleges, if I remember correctly one had the choice of doing either a combined Girton/Newnham set of exams or a very differently structured one for New Hall (now Murray Edwards) – or indeed one could do both. The former was very technical, building on A level course work but designed to stretch the average student way beyond. My memory of it was that it was a nightmare. There was also a general paper when essays were required. I think New Hall was aiming to identify a rather different cohort of students, perhaps those with a freer spirit whose technical competence in their chosen subject was less important than their all-round ability to think. Or at least that is how I recall things at this distance in time. (I know I also carefully considered my clothing for the ensuing interviews, choosing a decidedly more hippy look for New Hall than for Girton, but that is another story.)
Being the sort of nerd who thought hard about exams, being the sad kind of girl who had decided at age 7 (allegedly) I wanted to go to Cambridge, I mentally ran through what might maximise my chances of getting in given that, due to a combination of reasons including ill health my preparation had been less than ideal. It was 1970. The fear of pollution was then on everyone’s lips and in the newspapers. Environmentalism was getting to be a ‘thing’ – though I don’t think it was yet the word being tossed around. Consequently, when thinking about how to survive an essay paper I decided to plan on an essay around this theme. I thought about Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring which I must have read in the months previously, and I thought it would be smart to preface my essay with the relevant quote from Keats (‘The sedge has withered from the lake and no birds sing’) to demonstrate my apparent erudition – for a scientist. So, when I sat down to the paper I was well-placed because, guess what, one of the essay titles was ‘Pollution’. (Bizarrely, possibly evenly presciently I see from my diary that the other essay I wrote was on ‘Excellence versus equality in educational policy’ – still a hot topic of course. The other essay titles I described as ‘awful’; what I wrote on this second topic I identified as an ‘abstract load of rot’.)
Anyhow in due course Girton admitted me. An essay on pollution obviously did something to offset my inability to answer classical physics questions. My excuse, I think a good one, was that my pilot Nuffield A level syllabus simply did not cover the material the overwhelming majority of students would have studied so the questions by and large remained totally unknown territory to me. (I believe only 7 schools were trialling this new exam.) But it wasn’t just a passing whim to waffle about pollution, I was seriously interested. Rachel Carson, DDT and pesticides all mattered to me and my family as committed bird-watchers. We were aware of the fragility of the eggs of birds of prey due to the high levels of pesticides at the top of the food chain leading to their failure in breeding. I was even something of an armchair activist. I got involved with a petition against ICI’s expansionists plans in Upper Teeside which threatened some rare gentian, an activity ironic in retrospect given my long research collaboration with ICI on polymer physics (before the former blue chip company got consumed by Akzo Nobel and other companies).
All these recollections from my past have come flooding back reading this book about the environmental movement and the women who have contributed so much from the 19th century on. It is an impressive roll call of Americans who bucked the trend of being docile housewives and took on important roles talking up the importance of studying birds alive in their natural habitats as opposed to anatomically when dead. Women who fought against the millinery trade’s slaughter of birds for their plumes (in the UK the equivalent bunch of women were hugely instrumental in forming the RSPB). And women who, in due course, drew connections between toxic elements and compounds and occupational health hazards. These stories precede what has happened in Flint by many decades, but there are parallels.
I may not have time to be an environmental activist (armchair or otherwise) these days, but it is salutary to read this book about issues that historically have been so important and which still haunt us today. At a personal level I am glad to have happened across this book for conferring a sense of nostalgia and identity, even though it suffers from a lack of adequate editing making it a slightly irritating read. If you want to be reminded both that women have been playing a key role for more than a century in scientific endeavour, despite often being neglected and overlooked, and also that pollution and environmental health matter today as much as ever, you might want to read this book. If you were looking for a heroine to name on last Thursday’s 1st UNESCO International day of Women and Girls in Science, Carson would have been a good candidate to choose. Many did just that. That locally in 2016 I can see peregrine falcons nesting once more in the city centre , buzzards and red kites not far outside would have been unimaginable back when I was a student. We owe Carson a lot.