Hawking

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

At a conference recently, I found myself lured into taking part in a competition to spot the famous person in a photograph of undergraduate rowers larking around in the Fellows’ Garden as members of University College, Oxford’s boat club: here is someone hanging upside down, there are chaps dressed as Lawrence of Arabia and here is a fellow holding out a handkerchief as if he is about to die heroically in front of a firing squad.  Recognising the place, because I had spent my undergraduate time there (once in the Fellows’ Garden urging on tortoises in the annual tortoise race) and knowing that Stephen Hawking had been an undergraduate there previously, I named him as the melodramatic, handkerchief wielding person and won a prize.  Here is the photo.

Hawking’s death was my starting item at early morning notices at Bedales on Tuesday: be attentive, I said, to what was being said and written after his death, because there is so much to admire and learn: courage – physical, intellectual and moral; the power of intellectual enquiry; determination – to keep on working and communicating to a wider audience who responded to Hawking’s additional genius for putting such complex ideas into lucid prose.  Being able to talk only with great difficulty and then reliant on his computerised speech, he had to use short sentences and be direct – a handy if unwonted discipline for a writer.

Reading Roger Penrose’s obituary in The Guardian, I was struck by two other things.

Hawking was highly regarded as a Physics undergraduate but did not take work particularly seriously at that stage and, although he took a first class degree, it was not an outstanding one – there were by this metric, plenty of more promising scientists.  It was his increased work rate and, perhaps, the additional energy that his sense of limited time left as a result of the diagnosis of ALS, a fatal degenerative disease, shortly after his 21st birthday, not long after the rowing photo was taken, that made him.

But perhaps the most notable other thing that occurred to me reading about his life and work was the extent to which scientific collaboration shaped his life.  There was only one Stephen Hawking and one megastar scientific celebrity, but his work was enabled by his series of collaborations – with Roger Penrose, Brandon Carter, James Bardeen and James Hartle, to name only some.

We will have a chance to hear more about this when Roger Penrose gives our annual Eckersley Lecture on 17 May.  Tickets are understandably scarce.

Live things

Being away can be stimulating; being back always is.  Evening events and livestock seem to be the two themes of the last few days.

Take last night’s Global Awareness Jaw. Led by Block 5 reporting back on their visit to Woodstock School, Mussourie, India; it began with an extraordinary piece of music composed by Richie and music teacher Giacomo Pozzuto, with Richie on the tabla* and Giacomo on the oboe.  All of the students who went to this remarkable spot, perched on the Himalaya, have a hand in the composition of the presentation and three head it up.  Amongst the various memories that will anchor in the young minds watching, I suspect the spell cast by the sight and sound of tabla and oboe – the interplay of  East and Western musical traditions – will feature most.

Other evening excitements included Sunday’s Professional Guidance department presentation to 6.1 parents on Higher Education: primarily about university entry, it’s an encouraging picture that we present – not only of some of the most sought after universities being able to offer more places to candidates who gain ABB or above at A Level, but of the increasing proportion of our students gaining places at Russell Group universities.  It is the start of the cycle for the new 6.1s.  Next week I will give my annual assembly to the school on higher education, as the most important message is the old adage:  hard work + passion for your chosen subjects + working closely with your teachers = success; and the earlier that starts, the greater the success – and the more enjoyable the journey.

Tuesday evening and I am entertaining a group of fellow headteachers (collective name possibilities, a swelling of heads or a lakh of principals), initially to a meeting and then to dinner at 50 Church Road.  The 86 Group, 20 years old now, comprises 16 schools from across the south east who have enough in common and who enjoy each other’s company enough to meet termly to discuss things of common interest.  Trust and humour are the glue. Meetings of heads of 86 group schools’ departments also happen and are generally handy.  Sitting in the alcove at No 50, the evening light on the great oak tree is particularly wonderful and the birdsong stunning.

Which takes me on to livestock.  The new lambs are in Butts’ Field now and (yes, honestly) are gambolling in the evening sunlight as I walk back from home after Jaw and chat to some Block 3 boys about why lambs like going into the wooden shelter that our alpacas so scorned.  We will all feel easier about the lambs’ transition along the food chain (mint sauce is the clue here) when the time comes, because they have not been named.

This is not the case with the new quartet of 50 Church Road hens, who have recently been named.  Unlike their predecessors, who were uniformly brown, either Waitrose rejects or rescue hens, depending on how you spin it, these are proper, svelte and gorgeous young creatures, a mere few weeks old and full of adolescent preening, with a good three of four years of productive laying ahead.   Given the hopes that we pin on them, the capital outlay (x 6 of their predecessors) and their splendid distinguishing plumage and general pomp, we take the bold step of naming.  Following a brief and entirely frivolous What’s App consultation with our own offspring, they are named: Snowy (the white one), Bluebell (bluish and that’s her breed and its bluebell time in Steep woods), Chicken (brown and looks like one) and Chardonnay, after the memorable character in Footballers’ Wives, Series 1, who was herself named after the over-worked varietal type of the extravagant 80s.  I trust that they are all going to behave, especially Chardonnay.

 

*NB The left hand plays the bass on the wider drum called the “dugga” and the right hand plays the lead drums on the “tabla”. Together, the drums are also called “tabla”.

Teachers Matter

In the wake of Professor Stephen Hawking’s testimony to the influence of his Maths teacher from St Alban’s School, we have our very own Professor Alan Lucas, former student of Dunhurst and Bedales, giving us a powerful account of how an inspirational Bedales Biology teacher, Andrew Routh, changed his life.

The occasion was Civics, when Alan Lucas, speaking to students and parents, told the story of his extraordinary journey of ground-breaking research into paediatric nutrition.  In the audience was Andrew Routh, aged 91, the Biology teacher who had particularly inspired Alan during the later stages of his time at Bedales in the early 1960s.

Gemma Klein Photography

OB Alan Lucas with his former teacher, Andrew Routh

Alan’s description of the Damascene moment when his weak academic trajectory started to climb was particularly telling: his Physics teacher, Bill Crocker, sees him dawdling over a piece of work and gives him a strong verbal prod – “Who do you think you’re doing it for, me? No, you’re doing it for yourself.”  That comment changed his whole approach to school, making him an early riser and hard worker: it changed his life; he then went on to outstrip the two other undergraduates on the same course at Clare College, Cambridge who had been to a school with a much more “coercive, carrot-dangling ethos.”  Alan put his success down to this formula:  “inspiring teaching + life-changing self-motivating remark + freedom to develop in my own way.”

Currently Chair of Paediatric Nutrition at UCL and Fellow of Clare College, Alan has been instrumental in changing the way that babies all over the world are fed through alerting the medical world, not only to the importance of breast-feeding but to the effects of early nutrition on long term health and development.  The advice being given to nations across the world – whether by their own governments or by the World Health Organisation – is influenced by his work.

Like Stephen Hawking, Alan extolled the importance of inspirational teaching – both the kind he had here but also at university where university academics need to have the excellent presentational skills that the best teachers deploy. His advice to the students “If a teacher inspires you, try to analyse how they do it, because that is a great thing to learn.”

Alan spoke briefly last night about what he did when he won the James Spence medal for life-time achievement in British paediatrics.  When I talked with him in the autumn he told me the full story.  As soon as he had won this award, he phoned up Andrew Routh and told him “We’ve won a medal.”  He then drove down to Hampshire to see Andrew to show him the medal, congratulate him, thank him and, as he said last night: “We had a moment then.”

For any of us lucky enough to spend time with Alan and Andrew last night, it is difficult to feel anything other than gratitude for the power of great teaching and life-altering scientific research.

biology Andrew Routh 446 (002)

Andrew Routh during his teaching days at Bedales