Jump to: Editorial | Enter Stage Left by Fiona Holland (1988) | From Fish to Infinity by Steven Strogatz (1980) | How to Spend $1 Million | Insights into Butler, Duff and Hollond by Professor Boyd Hilton (e1974) | Life Without a Sense of Smell by Bee Wilson (1992) | Tackling big problems – The Trinity Senior Postdoctoral Researchers | Watch This Space
In the spring of 2015, I was taught a sobering lesson about the workings of Trinity. I had just been informed of my selection by the BBC as one of ten ‘New Generation Thinkers,’ willing and able to present aspects of their research to a wider public. I dropped in to see the Senior Tutor, and informed her of the good news: she was very happy for me but also, it turned out, for herself, since she had just started trying to fill the new post of ‘Fellow for Communications,’ and I had presented myself as an ideal candidate. Thus did I learn that one person’s small personal triumph is another’s administrative solution. Though the role was rather thrust upon me, being Fellow for Communications has pushed me to reflect upon the sort of place that the college is and should be.
When I welcome new undergraduates to read English each year, I often ask them why they chose to apply to Trinity, and I ask from genuine curiosity since I would never have applied myself. As a state school applicant, I was put off by an inaccurate set of assumptions about what the college and my fellow students would be like. Now I try to foster a balance in my own students between a proper sense of wonderment before the beauty and rich traditions of the college, and an ability to get on with the messy, quotidian realities of their everyday lives. I try as well to teach them a bit about the history of the college as background to my period of specialisation, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: that it was built quite literally from the rubble of the monasteries, and that even the quietly trickling fountain is a direct legacy of Henry VIII’s larcenous activities. Trinity itself is a wonderfully tranquil surface that vibrates with this subterranean history of violence and disorder.
This is in many respects the sense of the College that I would hope to assist in conveying to the wider world: interested in its own history and traditions, but in a way that emphasises the hugely productive messiness of its past and its present, its ability to generate new spaces and vantage points for thought among members and visitors alike.
Dr Joe Moshenska (e2010)
Return to top
Enter Stage Left by Fiona Holland (1988)
18th-century forger W H Ireland and his Shakespeare play, rediscovered after 200 years
With 1 April on the horizon and a fascinating discovery in the Wren Library, the stage was set for a compelling, if complex, story about the ‘original, 18th- century forgeries’ of a notorious Shakespeare fraudster.
As Communications Officer at Trinity, I worked with Librarian Dr Nicolas Bell to promote the discovery of William Henry Ireland’s fascinating Authentic Account of the Shakesperian Manuscripts, &c. BBC Look East’s Shaun Peel got to grips with the story, which we retell here. 220 years ago Richard Brinsley Sheridan was assembling a star- studded cast for the world premiere of a newly discovered Shakespeare play – when he was told it was a hoax.
Vortigern went ahead at Drury Lane anyway – as an April Fool’s Day production in 1796, met with universal derision. Now the original 18th century forged opening scenes of Vortigern have come to light at Trinity. Dr Nicolas Bell explained, “These manuscripts were created by William Henry Ireland, probably the most notorious forger of Shakespeare. Initially, he claimed the accusations of fraud were ‘a malevolent and impotent attack.’ But soon afterwards he published his confessions and this newly discovered volume includes some of the original forgeries – never seen before – which caused such a stir in the 1790s.
“The faked scenes were discovered in a large album compiled by William Henry Ireland. Ireland’s album also contains his ‘original’ version of King Lear, forged letters and poems ostensibly by Shakespeare, and a genuine letter (dated 1577) signed by Queen Elizabeth I – as well as the forger’s confessions. Set in ancient Britain, Vortigern quickly became notorious as a fraud. Tellingly, a court Fool plays a pivotal role in the play. But at the time it was accepted by a public fascinated by the Bard and eager to believe that a new Shakespeare play could be unearthed.”
Dr Bell said, “Nowadays any new Shakespeare discovery would be treated to careful forensic analysis before being declared genuine, but 200 years ago the thrill of discovering a hidden cache of documents seemed to cloud people’s judgement. William Ireland wrote this play when he was only 19, and what is most amazing in hindsight is that so many people were taken in by what is basically a very bad attempt at forgery.”
Ireland’s motivation for the fraud seems related to his aspirations to be a playwright and his complex relationship with his father, Samuel Ireland, a writer and print-maker. But things got out of hand when Samuel opened his house to visitors keen to pay homage to the Bard. The impressive bound album, ironically entitled An Authentic Account of the Shakesperian Manuscripts, &c. ends with Ireland ‘sincerely regretting the offence’, “Here then I conclude, most sincerely regretting the offence I may have given the world, or any particular individual, trusting at the same time, they will deem the whole the act of a boy, without any evil or bad intention, but hurried on thoughtless of any danger that awaited to ensnare him.”
The album will be on display in the Wren Library until 30 September 2016. Read more on the Wren Blog, at trinitycollegelibrarycambridge.wordpress.com
Fiona Holland (1988) is the College’s new Communications Officer, who joined in September 2015. She read History at Trinity.
Return to top
From Fish to Infinity by Steven Strogatz (1980)
I have a friend who gets a tremendous kick out of science, even though he’s an artist. Whenever we get together all he wants to do is chat about the latest thing in evolution or quantum mechanics. But when it comes to math, he feels at sea, and it saddens him. The strange symbols keep him out. He says he doesn’t even know how to pronounce them.
In fact, his alienation runs a lot deeper. He’s not sure what mathematicians do all day, or what they mean when they say a proof is elegant. Sometimes we joke that I just should sit him down and teach him everything, starting with 1 + 1 = 2 and going as far as we can. So, let’s begin with pre-school.
The best introduction to numbers I’ve ever seen — the clearest and funniest explanation of what they are and why we need them — appears in a “Sesame Street” video called “123 Count With Me.” Humphrey, an amiable but dim- witted fellow with pink fur and a green nose, is working the lunch shift at The Furry Arms Hotel, when he takes a call from a room full of penguins. Humphrey listens carefully and then calls out their order to the kitchen: “Fish, fish, fish, fish, fish, fish.” This prompts Ernie to enlighten him about the virtues of the number six.
Children learn from this that numbers are wonderful shortcuts. Instead of saying the word “fish” exactly as many times as there are penguins, Humphrey could use the more powerful concept of “six.”
The right abstraction leads to new insight, and new power.
As adults, however, we might notice a potential downside to numbers. Sure, they are great time savers, but at a serious cost in abstraction. Six is more ethereal than six fish, precisely because it’s more general. It applies to six of anything: six plates, six penguins, six utterances of the word “fish.” It’s the ineffable thing they all have in common.
Viewed in this light, numbers start to seem a bit mysterious. They apparently exist in some sort of Platonic realm, a level above reality. In that respect they are more like other lofty concepts (e.g., truth and justice), and less like the ordinary objects of daily life. Upon further reflection, their philosophical status becomes even murkier. Where exactly do numbers come from? Did humanity invent them? Or discover them?
A further subtlety is that numbers (and all mathematical ideas, for that matter), have lives of their own. We can’t control them. Even though they exist in our minds, once we decide what we meanby them we have no say in how they behave. They obey certain laws and have certain properties, personalities, and ways of combining with one another, and there’s nothing we can do about it except watch and try to understand. In that sense they are eerily reminiscent of atoms and stars, the things of this world, which are likewise subject to laws beyond our control, except that those things exist outside our heads.
This dual aspect of numbers — as part- heaven, and part-earth — is perhaps the most paradoxical thing about them, and the feature that makes them so useful. It is what the physicist Eugene Wigner had in mind when he wrote of “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences.”
In case it’s not clear what I mean about the lives of numbers and their uncontrollable behaviour, let’s go back to The Furry Arms. Suppose that Humphrey suddenly gets a call on another line, from a room occupied by as many penguins as before, also clamouring for fish. After taking both calls, what should Humphrey yell out to the kitchen? If he hasn’t learned anything, he could shout “fish” once for each penguin. Or, using his numbers, he could tell the cook he needs six orders of fish for the first room and six more for the second room. But what he really needs is a new concept: addition. Once he’s mastered it, he’ll proudly say he needs six plus six (or, if he’s a show- off, 12) fish.
The creative process here is the same as the one that gave us numbers in the first place. Just as numbers are a shortcut for counting by ones, addition is a shortcut for counting by any amount. This is how mathematics grows. The right abstraction leads to new insight, and new power. Before long, even Humphrey might realise he can keep counting forever. Yet despite this infinite vista, there are always constraints on our creativity. We can decide what we mean by things like 6 and +, but once we do, the results of equations like 6+6 are beyond our control. In mathematics, our freedom lies in the questions we ask – and in how we pursue them – but not in the answers awaiting us.
Dr Steven Strogatz (1980) is an applied mathematician who works in the areas of nonlinear dynamics and complex systems, often on topics inspired by the curiosities of everyday life.
A version of this article appeared originally in the New York Times.
Return to top
How to spend $1 million?
Sarah H. Parcak, a pioneering space archaeologist who uses satellite imagery to discover ancient sites and map looting, did not have to agonise long. She wished for allies — a global army of citizen archaeologists to “find and protect the world’s hidden heritage.” And now she has the resources to fund it.
Dr Parcak, winner of the 2016 TED Prize for “ideas worth spreading,” announced that she would use the $1 million to build “an online interactive citizen science platform” to allow anyone with a computer to discover and monitor archaeological sites. “There are only a few hundred of us space archaeologists,” said Dr Parcak, 37, a Professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where she founded the Laboratory for Global Observation. “My dream is to have the world help us make these incredible discoveries.”
Under her plan to begin this summer, she said, anyone could sign in to take a simple tutorial and be sent a small series of random satellite images identified generally by location, but not detailed on a map, to guard the actual site.
The images, each representing about 50 square metres, would be preprocessed to make scanning easier. Any crowdsourced finds, including signs of looting, would be shared with experts and the local authorities for further exploration and protection. “The coolest part — they’ll be taking you with them,” Dr Parcak said. The results will be posted on social media.
Renowned for her archaeological explorations from satellites circling 400 miles above earth, Parcak has been using satellite imagery to map looting in Egypt for five years. “My team has just completed a study of looting in Egypt. We found evidence of looting at 267 sites and mapped 200,000 looting pits. It got worse after 2009 – with the global recession. This is fundamentally an economic problem.” Then there is politically motivated destruction: “Isis has destroyed temples at Palmyra. Who blows up a temple?! We know Isis is profiting from the looting of sites, but we don’t know the scale.
“The only way we’re going to be able to get ahead of the looters is by engaging the world in site discovery – giving the world ownership,” she said. “It’s hard for the public to go on a dig, so by building a platform with an elegant user experience, the world will be able to search for satellite data and look for sites.” The project, which will be based on game dynamics to encourage participation, will not make mapping or GPS data available, so as to protect sites. “The last thing we want is for looters to log on and help find sites,” she said.
Ultimately, Parcak looks forward to using data gleaned from the new technology to answer some of archaeology’s biggest questions. For instance, why did Egypt’s great pyramid age end? By revealing thousands of new sites, satellite maps show trends and population shifts that scientists can relate to other important facts such as global climate events. Synthesising the information leads Parcak to credit the sudden halt in pyramid construction to a well-documented global drought that forced migration to big cities where the Nile’s flow still flourished.
“My team has just completed a study of looting in Egypt. We found evidence of looting at 267 sites and mapped 200,000 looting pits. It got worse after 2009 – with the global recession. This is fundamentally an economic problem.”
She stands amazed at the exponential rate technology is improving. “It’s getting much better, much faster. High- resolution satellite images will soon portray objects less than one foot in size. There’s even an aircraft sensor system that sends down hundreds of thousands of pulses of light measured at different return rates. It allows you to literally strip away vegetation and see entire cities beneath the rain forest canopy. This is the unbelievable future of archaeology.”
Her greatest discovery? That’s easy, Dr Parcak told us “My husband” – a fellow archaeologist, Gregory Mumford.
Dr Sarah Parcak (2001) read her PhD at Trinity in Archaeology.
Return to top
Insights into Butler, Duff and Hollond by Professor Boyd Hilton (e1974)
As a young Fellow at Trinity in the 1970s, Professor Boyd Hilton knew Sir James Ramsay Montagu Butler and Professor Patrick Duff. Here, he reflects on their achievements and personalities, drawing on his memories and research for a new history of the College that also provides an insight into the prominent Fellow, Professor Harry Hollond.
The father of Patrick Duff was James Duff, a classicist and tutor, who gave his name to what is now called ‘Duff’s Garden’ between the Fellows’ Garden and the Burrell’s Field development.
He wrote literally every day to his two elder sons while they fought at the front in Flanders and elsewhere during the 1914–18 War. He sent these letters out in batches of four, and had to search around for things to say.
As College historian I wish he had written more about Trinity High Table and controversies arising, such as Bertrand Russell’s notorious ejection in 1916 (when James Duff was on the Council), but what he mainly wrote about – and no doubt he judged rightly that it would be more interesting to his sons in their dugouts – was the progress of his chrysanthemums, the collapse of his new-fangled central heating system, and the everyday doings of his two youngest children, Patrick and Hester.
Patrick Duff emerges from his father’s fond letters as lively, outgoing, inquiring, and capable. However, there was little trace of the lively child of the letters by the time I got to know him 60 years later. He had become deeply conservative and dry, rarely venturing outside Cambridge except to take part in the Lake Hunt, of which he was the Master. Indeed, he was an archetypal bachelor Fellow, and very attached to his spinster sister Hester (who, like him, seems to have been much livelier as a child than she ever was as an adult).
His expertise was in Roman Law, of which he became a Professor, and he was for many years an exceptionally conscientious Tutor who never forgot a face or a pedigree. Moreover, even those who found his personality unexciting conceded that he had been a very judicious and effective Vice-Master.
I also knew Jim Butler. He was the eldest of Monty Butler’s three sons by his second marriage, and was born in what was then a bedroom of the Master’s Lodge and is now part of the Combination Room.
Jim was a seriously distinguished historian. One could argue that his 1912 book on the Great Reform Act, though ‘Whiggish’ in approach and long ago superseded in terms of archival research, nevertheless pioneered the ‘modern’ study of British politics.
He was later the editorial mastermind of the multi-volumed ‘Official History of the Second World War’.
Like the Duff boys and his own brothers, he fought in the First World War; had he not done so he would almost certainly have become private secretary to George V, a post for which he was being groomed. It gives an indication of just how eligible this former head boy of Harrow and current young Fellow of Trinity was considered to be. Jim Butler was MP for Cambridge University in the 1920s.
Like Patrick Duff, Jim Butler became Vice-Master. He invited my wife and me to lunch in the A Great Court rooms now occupied by Ian McDonald. He was charm itself, and plied us with alcohol even though he was teetotal. Apparently he was equally generous in his entertainments as Vice-Master. He was also a Christian Scientist (got from his mother), and probably died unnecessarily by refusing to be treated medically following a straightforward ‘fall’. He had shown the same stoic fatalism while fighting in the First World War.
Harry Hollond, who died too soon for me to know, was an immensely important Fellow, not just because he did a lot of the obvious jobs – Junior Bursar certainly, Senior Dean – but because of his representations to the Royal (Asquith) Commission on Oxford and Cambridge (1919–22) followed by his work as Secretary to the University of Cambridge Commissioners in 1924, which shaped the future of the University.
His was the most important hand in drafting new University Statutes as well as new Statutes for Trinity, and he was subsequently asked to advise on the same by many other colleges. In this way he became a central figure in the wider University, and seems to have been much liked.
He taught conscientiously, I think, but published very little. In his written application for the Rouse Ball Professorship in 1943 he conceded the fact that he had been unproductive, and gave as a reason, not just the public service alluded to above, but the fact that for thirty years he had found that more than half an hour’s academic work at a time tended to give him brain fag – despite which admission he got the Chair. Autre temps autres moeurs.
Like Duff and Butler he was resident in College, but he was not a bachelor, being married to a glamorous American, Marjorie Hollond, who is noted in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for her work as an economist in academia and the civil service.
Professor Boyd Hilton FBA (e1974) is a historian whose research interests are British history from the late 18th century to the late 19th century. He is currently working on a history of Trinity.
Return to top
Life Without a Sense of Smell by Bee Wilson (1992)
Those who lack a sense of smell – the technical term is anosmia – are cut off from a thousand small joys that the rest of us depend on. It is deeply disorienting.
When the American food writer Marlena Spieler lost her sense of smell after a head injury from a car accident five years ago, she no longer recognised herself.
When I first met her, years before the accident, Spieler was obsessed with the minutiae of different food smells. She is the author of more than 20 cookbooks and we used to have long conversations about how dried mint smelled different from fresh, or the perfume of various citrus fruits. Now she could not so much as smell her morning coffee, never mind tell if it was a good cup. Cooking and writing about food had been her identity for decades, and now it was “as if I had ceased to exist”. She hated being this new person, someone who couldn’t tell if there were lemons in the kitchen. She would ask close friends, “Do I seem like myself? Am I acting like myself?”
To live without a sense of smell is one of the more unsettling forms of human disability, and one of the least understood. It’s a double trauma: you’ve lost something you probably never realised would matter. Where damage to other senses is recognised as traumatic, loss of smell is seen as trivial, even by doctors.
Yet scent appears to activate emotion in the brain more powerfully than any other sense. In her 2011 memoir, Season To Taste, the chef Molly Birnbaum, who lost her sense of smell in an accident, wrote that “the olfactory system is only a short step away from the amygdala”, the part of the brain that “processes memory and emotion”. In her own case, Birnbaum found that anosmia made her angry. When people came into the bakery where she worked and said how good it smelled, she wanted to “spit on their food”.
You can see why anosmia sufferers might feel isolated and angry, as the rest of us blithely go about our business. We do not notice how our sense of wellbeing is propped up by a thousand subtle odours, especially as the seasons change.
I became aware of anosmia myself around 10 years ago, when my husband fell off his bike and suffered concussion. For a few months afterwards, he couldn’t taste anything.
He’d always said he didn’t care much what he ate, which annoyed me, since I am a food writer. But it turned out he did care. Without flavour, his mood noticeably lowered. Meals started to sadden him. He ate a lot more Marmite than usual. I watched him chewing doggedly, as if trying to extract some hint of recognition from what was on his plate. It was a huge relief when his sense of smell came back, as mysteriously as it had vanished.
As a child, I played hypothetical games with my friends about which would be worse: deafness or blindness. Would you rather watch TV without the sound or hear it without the pictures? We never thought to consider whether we’d rather lose our sense of smell or our sense of taste. Maybe we didn’t even realise that they are effectively the same thing, since almost everything we think of as “taste” happens through the nose. We smell breathing in; we taste breathing out, through retronasal olfaction.
When you “taste” something, the chemical compounds that make up any given flavour (garlic! butter! lemon!) travel into your nasal cavity through the back of your mouth. Anosmia sufferers can usually still perceive the basic tongue- tastes of sweet, sour, salty and bitter; but, without the flavour to offset them, the joy is lost.
To judge from how little we speak of anosmia, you’d have no idea how common it is. Statistics are hard to come by, but a survey of nearly 10,000 people in Spain suggested that only 80% had a completely normal sense of smell and nearly 20% had some form of smell impairment. Total anosmia is more unusual, but may still affect more than 5% of the population, according to a 2004 study of around 1,400 adults in Sweden.
Smell disorders have many causes and take many forms. Some endure parosmia, where phantom smells – usually disgusting chemical odours – take the place of the real ones. I came across the case of a woman who suffered so badly from phantom smells that she vomited whenever she ate and was taken to hospital with malnutrition. Like anosmia, this can be caused by head injury, as damage to the olfactory bulb can interfere with the brain’s processing of smells. Other causes of smell loss include respiratory viruses such as flu and cold, or stroke and Alzheimer’s, but in a quarter of cases there is no clear reason at all.
Fenglin Guo was 40 when she noticed she was losing her sense of smell. Neither her GP nor an ear, nose and throat specialist could find any cause. The GP prescribed nasal drops, but they didn’t help, leaving Guo in a state of permanent anxiety.“I live alone,” Guo says. “I can’t smell food. If the food went bad, I wouldn’t know.” She spends a lot of time inspecting use-by dates and obsessively checks whether the gas is on when she leaves the house. But the doctors, she says, “just didn’t see it as important”.
The first inkling Guo got that there might be other treatments available was through the British anosmia charity, Fifth Sense. Everyone I speak to tells me that this organisation, set up in 2012, has helped them cope, largely because it was such a relief to find others going through the same thing. The website offers information on treatment options, from surgery to smell training using essential oils; there are conferences where anosmics can meet others who understand the condition.
The charity was set up by Duncan Boak, a dynamic 32-year-old with a shock of curly black hair and a fondness for flamboyant waistcoats. Boak looks more like someone in a rock band than an activist, and indeed he spent much of his 20s in failing bands before dreaming up Fifth Sense, which offers the support to which Boak wished his own doctor could have pointed him.
Over the past four years, he has formed a community of British anosmia sufferers where none existed before. One of his own ways of dealing with anosmia, surprisingly, has been through cooking. He likes to spin out the prep time, to heighten his anticipation. He tries to enjoy the sight of vibrant green parsley on a chopping board, even if he gets nothing from the flavour (with his eyes shut, he can’t tell chopped parsley from coriander). He encourages other sufferers to focus on the tiny differences they can notice in the mouth, even in the absence of flavour – the way that one cup of espresso tastes sweet on the tongue while another is acidic.
Perhaps we are all guilty of treating our sense of smell as a luxury. We associate it with expensive perfumes and little think how alien daily life would be without it. Imagine not being able to smell a baby’s downy hair when you hug them; not to realise someone has been baking hot cross buns. Recently, Duncan Boak attended a meeting of the British Rhinological Society to raise awareness of anosmia among medics. He asked consultant ENTs to put on noseclips and taste different flavours of sweet mousse. “It came as a complete surprise to many of them that they could not taste the different flavours,” he tells me. “And these are nose specialists.”
You can see why anosmia sufferers might feel isolated and angry, as the rest of us blithely go about our business. We do not notice how our sense of wellbeing is propped up by a thousand subtle odours, especially as the seasons change. It is the smell of hot tarmac and street food when you fling the windows open on an August afternoon. It is bonfire smoke in November and strawberries in June. It is walking through the door at the end of a long day and knowing, even with your eyes shut, that you are home.
Dr Bee Wilson (1992) is the award- winning author of First Bite: How We Learn To Eat, Consider the Fork, Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud and The Hive: The Story of the Honeybee and Us. She read History at Trinity.
Return to top
Tackling big problems – The Trinity Senior Postdoctoral Researchers
Last year, the College determined to create new posts giving young researchers the freedom and funding to focus on truly big problems. Thanks to significant philanthropic support, the first two positions have been created, promising transformational research on cancer and world food security. Trinity hopes to establish over the next few years further positions for top flight and pioneering researchers. To find out more, we talk to philanthropists Eashwar Krishnan, Tzo Tze Ang, and Robert Cawthorn.
Having already established the Krishnan-Ang Studentships for outstanding overseas doctoral students at Trinity, Eashwar Krishnan (1996) and Tzo Tze Ang (1997) were intent on funding cancer research and to do so in such a way as to allow recipients maximal academic and operational freedom to pursue their goals.
“We have long been interested in the fundamental role scientific research plays in improving societal outcomes,” they explain.“Target candidates for the new Senior Researcher position in Cancer Research would typically be in their thirties and forties, senior enough to have demonstrated a history of research excellence but hungry enough to benefit from an unconstrained funding environment.
The right candidate will have a positively reinforcing impact on the programme – great research will attract better academic partners, build critical mass in the area of investigation (in this case cancer research), and eventually potential interest from other donors. Over time, each of these Senior Researchers will seed an area of academic investigation – some of which could eventually grow into real centres of excellence in their respective areas.”
As the initial Trinity Senior Researchers will be funded for five years, the long-term and unconstrained nature of the position allows for genuine, curiosity-led enquiry. The freedom to pursue path-breaking academic research without the constraints of an annual funding cycle is what makes Trinity’s programme unique and potentially transformational.
Much like Eashwar and Tzo Tze, Robert Cawthorn’s (1956) motivation for establishing a Trinity Senior Research position was to inspire truly world- class research into tackling the world’s greatest problems, in this case world food security. Having spent his early career in pharmaceuticals in Canada, Africa and Europe, Robert then moved into biotech, where genetically modified crops were first being commercially pioneered in the late 1970s. If his career taught him anything, it was the significance of the security of the world’s food supplies on the trajectory of modern civilisation.
For Eashwar and Tzo Tze too, Trinity’s history of nurturing and cultivating some of the most innovative, forward-thinking minds in the world makes it the ideal setting for cancer research.
“As I read Agriculture, I’ve always been interested in how to feed the world. I was in Africa in the seventies and saw how hard it was for farmers to produce crops, and then get paid enough to survive,” he says. “After joining the board of Cambridge in America, I reconnected with the University and found that one of its imperatives was food security. This rang a bell with me because of my background and from there I got talking with Professor Sir David Baulcombe (Regius Professor of Botany & Trinity Fellow). Having worked with David for the last 3 or 4 years, we ended up funding a large part of a new Chair in Crop Sciences to research how to get better food to market with more efficiency and benefit to the world.
“I wanted to help both the University and the College, but in order to attract the very best candidates to the Chair it seemed sensible to put the funding in place for a Senior Researcher to be selected by the new Chair,” Robert explains. “My wife and I thought that having this researcher at Trinity would be the thing to do.”
Why Trinity? “I found my time here immensely valuable and I believe in paying back,” he says. “Our hope is that the Trinity Senior Researcher in Crop Sciences can make a significant contribution to help the world’s food security. I don’t know what specific area this person will be working on but it will be in this broad field. I am very happy that the Professor of Crop Sciences will identify the best candidate and guide their research in the area or areas of the greatest need.”
For Eashwar and Tzo Tze too, Trinity’s history of nurturing and cultivating some of the most innovative, forward- thinking minds in the world makes it the ideal setting for cancer research. “Much of this has to do with the rich interactions among the diverse groups of Fellows that make up the College community. With Sir Gregory Winter as Master and Professor Patrick Maxwell as the Regius Professor of Physic, there is a strong biochemical and medical presence here. Our hope is that our capital will not only provide funding for the Krishnan-Ang Senior Researcher but also allow this individual to benefit from the warm and stimulating atmosphere that is collegiate life at Trinity.
“Both of us attended Trinity as undergraduates and, as such, have strong ties to the College. Our philanthropic goal is to allocate funds to institutions with a proven track record of excellence, and we believe that Trinity more than meets this criterion. The College’s focus on maintaining its position at the forefront of academia and research makes it an excellent custodian of our capital. Over the last eight years, we have provided funding to PhD candidates at Trinity through the Krishnan-Ang Studentship programme and have been very happy with the results. The Trinity Senior Postdoctoral Researcher in Cancer Research is an important extension of these initiatives and one that we believe will prove highly scalable and generate amplified returns over time.”
For Robert Cawthorn, philanthropic investment in the College seemed natural given his experience at Trinity in the late 1950s; three years that gave him the confidence to explore the world. “I came away from Trinity and Cambridge and emigrated right away. I never really worried that I was going to make my way in the world and a significant chunk of this confidence was down to my experience at Trinity. When I left College and University, I was a different kind of person to the one who matriculated. It’s because of this, as well as the extraordinary contributions both have had and continue to have on the world, that I think Cambridge and Trinity deserve support.”
The College would like to establish a cohort of Trinity Senior Doctoral Researchers. For more information and for funding opportunities, please contact Kate Glennie, Development Manager (email@example.com).
Return to top
Watch this Space
Twenty years ago, in Geneva, PhD student Didier Queloz discovered a planet orbiting another sun – something that astronomers had predicted, but never found. Today he continues his terra hunting for extreme worlds and Earth twins in Cambridge.
When the numbers began to filter through from the spectrograph that was measuring small shifts in light from distant stars, Didier Queloz at first thought they were wrong. He certainly didn’t think he’d discovered an exoplanet. He checked and re-checked.
“At some point I realised the only explanation could be that the numbers were right.”
Today, many regard the discovery of 51 Pegasi b by Queloz and Professor Michel Mayor at the University of Geneva in 1995 as a moment in astronomy that forever changed the way we understand the universe and our place within it. It was the first confirmation of an exoplanet – a planet that orbits a star other than our Sun. Until then, although astronomers had speculated as to the existence of these distant worlds, no planet other than those in our own solar system had ever been found.
“For centuries, we only had the one single example of our own solar system on which to base our knowledge of planets,” says Queloz, who moved to Cambridge’s Department of Physics two years ago. “If you wanted to understand botany, you wouldn’t build the botanic picture from one single flower – you need all the others.
“Of course the question everyone would like to answer is whether there is life out there, because we are curious and we can’t resist – it’s how we are,” says Queloz.
Of the 1,900 or so confirmed exoplanets that have now been found – a tenth of these by Queloz himself – many are different to anything we ever imagined, challenging existing theories of planet formation.
Fifty light years from Earth, the exoplanet 51 Peg resembles the gas giant Jupiter. But unlike our distant cousin, which is located in the further reaches of our solar system and takes 10 years to orbit the Sun, 51 Peg ‘hugs’ its sun, orbiting every four days. It’s been hailed as an example of a whole new class of ‘roaster planets’ or ‘Hot Jupiters’ and has prompted scientists to wonder if large planets are able to migrate closer to their suns over millions of years.
“We are constantly surprised by the diversity of the other worlds,” says Queloz. Super-Earths like the volcanic planet 55 Cancri e with a temperature gradient across it of a thousand degrees; rogue planets like PSO J318.5- 22, which roam freely between stars; Kepler-186f, which is lit by the light of a red star; and icy Kepler-16b with its double sunset. “For some, we don’t even have names to describe what they are.”
But, as yet, no planet has been discovered that could be considered a twin of our own. “We are finding planets of a similar size and mass to Earth but nothing at the right temperature – so- called ‘Goldilocks’ planetary systems in the habitable zone close enough to the sun to be warmed by it but not so close that the presence of water and life is a sheer impossibility,” explains Queloz.
“Of course the question everyone would like to answer is whether there is life out there, because we are curious and we can’t resist – it’s how we are,” says Queloz.
Queloz believes that a new era of terra hunting is fast approaching.“The past 20 years has seen a ‘brute force’ hunt for exoplanets. We are now confident that they are practically everywhere you look for them. To find an Earth twin, however, we need to look at specific planets for longer.”
It’s not possible to see an exoplanet directly – it’s far too close to a blinding source of light, its star – so astronomers use two techniques to look indirectly. Focusing on a star, they use NASA’s Kepler telescope to look for the dimming of starlight as the planet transits in front of it. From this, they calculate the planet’s size and temperature.
The breakthrough that Queloz and Mayor pioneered was a technique to look for signs of ‘wobble’ caused by the gravitational pull exerted by the planet on the star as it orbits. The technique needed to be accurate enough to detect a wobble of only 10 m/s – the speed of a running man. To put this in context, the Earth moves at the speed of 30,000 m/s.”
Current technology works well for finding large exoplanets but to find planets the size of the Earth in the habitable zone astronomers need to look at smaller stars, and they need to overcome ‘stellar noise’, or natural variability in the data caused by physical motions of gas at the surface of the star.
“This noise is slowing further progress but we believe that it can be overcome by careful analysis and by extending the length of time we are able to observe a planet for,” adds Queloz. “Intensive runs on a small number of stars where an observation is carried out every night for years is far more valuable than unevenly spaced data taken over years.”
As techniques improve and with the launch of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, astronomers will be able to ask whether what we understand as the basic molecules of life – carbon, oxygen and hydrogen – are present in the atmosphere of exoplanets, opening up the possibility of understanding their astrobiology and geophysics.
“My feeling is that life will be found, although life like us may be extremely rare because otherwise we probably would have seen it by now,” he adds. “It may take a long time, and many scientists, to find life, but maybe that’s part of the fun – it would be too easy otherwise!”.
On the door of Queloz’s office is a spoof poster published by NASA in celebration of 20 years of exoplanet discoveries. Offering greetings from the Exoplanet Travel Bureau, it suggests 51 Pegasi b as a dream destination, or indeed “any planet you wish – as long as it’s far beyond our solar system.” Could this be reality one day? “It’s far too hard to say,” says Queloz. “But I would hope that sending a tiny probe of perhaps a few grams in weight might be possible in the next century.”
At one stage in recent years, Queloz was almost finding an exoplanet a week. His terra hunting has slowed while he focuses on improving the equipment and techniques that he believes will help find an Earth twin. But the excitement never goes away, he says. “I must admit that every time I find a planet I feel like a child – it’s a surprise because it’s a new system. I used to joke with people asking me about sci-fi – the reality is far more exciting and diverse than any sci-fi movie you can imagine!”
Professor Didier Queloz (e2013) is an astronomer with a prolific record in finding extrasolar planets in the Astrophysics Group of the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, and also at the University of Geneva.