I’ve just returned from a most interesting trip to Yorkshire. First I had to visit the Yorkshire consulate in London where a nice man called Willie Eckerslike renewed my visa and made sure my jabs were up to date, notwithstanding inasmuch as which I set
third fifth forth.
My first port of call was York itself, where I attended the inaugural meeting of PALAEO. This is the interdisciplinary Centre for Human Palaeoecology & Evolutionary Origins run under the auspices of the Hull York Medical School.
Interdisciplinary it certainly is – so apart from lectures on the hardcore stuff I’m used to hearing about – basic anatomy, palaeoanthropology and palaeolithic archaeology – there were some fascinating presentations addressing the kinds of questions that I don’t usually think much about in the context of human evolution, such as why it is that people will go out of their way to – quite selflessly – help a little cardboard robot cross the road; why people first started to make pottery; and how it is that we human beings eat quite so many different kinds of animals and plants. I have this suspicion that humans only became humans when they started incorporating large amounts of seafood into the diet, a suspicion borne out by this wistful graffito I saw in York, which is actually quite a step from the coast.
Some of the new directions in palaeoanthropology aren’t quite as new as I like to think. I was struck by one presentation on ancient DNA. It’s been a generation, said the presenter, since the first ancient DNA work was published. Cripes and Heavens to Betsy, I thought to myself – a generation? I published some of that early work. Now I do feel old. I looked around the room and it struck me that there are people walking around with PhDs who weren’t born when I started work at Your Favourite Weekly Professional Science Magazine Beginning With N: and also that one can become accustomed to the pace of change. When I started at Your Weekly Etcetera, DNA sequencing was only possible by very ingenious people rigging up machines made from old jam jars, bicycle pedals, egg boxes and miles and miles of sticky-backed plastic, all controlled by Sinclair ZX-80s, and even then they could only manage three nucleotides in any given fortnight. And now, thanks to
fifth third generation sequencing technology of the kind that they routinely give away in cereal boxes, you can get entire gnomes genomes of extinct species from really very small pieces of bone.
After a night in York I went to the University of Leeds to interview Professor Jane Francis and her colleagues (to whom many thanks for their time and a lovely lunch) about their fieldwork experiences in Antarctica, for an article I’ve been commissioned to write for the University’s Alumni magazine. Yes, indeed, I am an alumnus of that fine institution (Genetics with Zoology, 1981-1984). I regret to say that I hadn’t been back to Leeds for at least twenty years, and visiting it felt very peculiar. Alighting from my car in the visitor’s car park I felt a mixture of excitement and nerves. Walking around for a couple of hours my mind was a stew of recollection, mixed in with dreams, as I came to terms with a campus on which so many things were recognisable, yet so much had changed.
I remember the lecture theatre block in the background – but where did all those trees come from?
The nostalgia was so overpowering I was quite overwhelmed and had to sit down and play with my iPhone (which has also been quite overwhelmed by iOS5 – ever since the Ascension of St Steve of Jobs, my iMac and iGadgets have become a little wayward.) I have this recurring dream, for example, in which I am anxious to visit the Combined Studies in Science office to check for mail in my pigeonhole. I had planned to visit the office for real as a way to itch this particular nocturnal scratch – but it’s not there any more. Either that, or I couldn’t find it. So now my recurring dream of anxiety at my need to unclog my pigeonhole will be overlain with another, of failing to find the office, and wandering around the campus with a vague sense of
deshabille grenouille disorientation and loss. O, tempura tempora; o fugit.