Sunday, 5 January 2020

Oxford, my Oxford

It’s the end of a year and the new one has a great ring to it: 2020. That’s pronounced twenny-twenny if you cultivate the currently trendy glottal stop – or, if like me you doan’ speak proper. Looking back over twenny-nine’een I think how lucky I am to live in this great ci’ty with its history, fine buildings, good pubs, live music and free lec’ures.

Enough of that, it’s the lectures I want to reminisce about. I probably go to two or three a week when I and the students are in residence (not many outside of term time). They span a universe of subjects from politics to geology, quantum computing to genetics. Here’s a few that have stuck in my memory from last year.

A very topical one held at the Martin School was entitled ‘How China will save the planet’. That brought them out – or was it the free wine following the lecture (happens sometimes)? The lecturer shocked us by saying that China has the most solar panels in the world. What’s more China has the most wind generators in the world. But then again he told us that China burns more coal than any other country in the world. Actually, he told us, their use of coal had been declining, but economic incentives to encourage that were removed and it has risen again. I have seen piles of the stuff lying about in the streets of some Chinese cities.

Then there was the lecture by the Geology Group on the origin of plant roots. There were very few of us there for some reason but I found it fascinating. Most fossils are derived from quite large things of course, but roots, especially pre-historic roots are thin and wispy, hardly likely to become fossilized. But there is a fine grained rock called chert in which fossilized plants have been found in extraordinary detailed form – particularly in Scotland. This provides views of root formation from the Devonian period some 400 million years ago and provided some strong theories of how plants evolved roots .It might sound a dull subject, but with a good speaker and many colourful slides it was fascinating.

Around the same time there were a couple of lectures which updated the whole subject of human migration out of Africa. The lectures were intent on combining knowledge gained from the fossil record with that available from the analysis of DNA. They introduced me to the term anatomically modern humans (us) and how our genetic make up contains DNA from other extinct human groups such as the Neanderthal, which I knew of, but also the Denisovan which was new to me and contributes as much as 5% to the DNA in Asians, including, presumably, my half Taiwanese grand-children.

Another lecture addressed time: its measurement over the ages from the basic egg-timer to today’s cesium clocks which are accurate to one second in 150 million years! The lecturer was quite old, which sort of befits the lecture, but his lecture was bang up to date. He told us that all the measures that we use in everyday life, like the meter or kilogram are derived in some way from the measure of time and other constants of nature. Disappointing really, I always like the idea that that there was a rod and a ball which standardized these things in a triple locked cellar somewhere near Paris.

Other lectures covering everything from the gig economy, to fracking to Brexit filled many pages of my indecipherable notes and maybe, just maybe, improved my understanding of the world in 2019.
In conclusion don’t forget to listen out for the glottal stop in twenny-twenny. Still not sure what it is? Laager drinkers can try the Elocution Bar within my website pub for elucidation.

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