Archive | February, 2015

Prayer

8 Feb

alhazen_b01x

The other day I was asked to tutor a young muslim woman in science by her father, in order that she might achieve her career ambition of becoming a Doctor. A bright young person, she and I discussed the best way to proceed at Tea with Percie my wife’s tea shop on Abbeydale Road in Sheffield. I wanted to understand how I might help her by discovering the way in which she herself learned and understood concepts and, in particular, how she had been taught to date.

It is a very long time since I have done this and I was apprehensive – I did not want to fail them.

I am not a great believer in didacticism, rather, I prefer the Socratic method. Tutor and pupil create a dialogue in which mutual respect allows trust and exchange to develop in order to foster imaginative leaps and insight in the pupil’s mind. It can be a challenging way to teach for both parties: the tutor must be prepared to listen very carefully to a student’s responses, and the student must be encouraged to give precise answers. There is no room for woolly thinking, pat answers, or obfuscation.

There is also no ‘right’ answer in these exchanges, because both parties are moving towards building a model of a (scientific) concept.

Too many of us are happy to be spoon fed by people not qualified to do other than to dispense facts. Thus, the first thing I did was to invite her to check my credentials. It is not a good idea in my book to put any faith in the words of someone who has no form. Googling P.M.H.Littlewood, she discovered the scientific papers I have published on neuroscience, centipede biology, behaviour, neuroanatomy and physiology. I counselled her of the need for skepticism in the pursuit of knowledge together. Her dad, acted as chaperone over a pot of tea. An excellent arrangement for both of us as it made her feel safe. My wife Clare, my psychological chaperone, made me feel safe to use the full extent of my intellect without risking my own ‘fall-out’ (depression usually).

alhazen Al Hazen demonstrating a pin hole camera.

I had given her father some homework for her the previous week when he and I discussed terms. I had asked her to investigate Al Hazen, the 11th Century philosopher who is rightly dubbed the ‘Father of Modern Optics’ from his treatise on light. He was one of the first scholars to pursue what we now think of as the ‘Scientific Method’. My new pupil had identified this achievement and recognised that Al Hazen had also debunked Ptolemy’s ‘Extromission’ theory of vision – that we see by emitting rays, hypothesising and demonstrating by experiment that rays of light enter our eyes (Intromission). I chose Al hazen as a fine example of a polythmath, and a muslim scientist/role model to boot. I thought that my tutee might appreciate this as she is, herself a devout muslim.

I was delighted that she had grasped the opportunity as she told me all about the man who torpedoed Ptolemy. Al Hazen had used practical and thought experiments to postulate that we ‘see’ by receiving light into our eyes, not by beaming light rays out of our heads onto objects. A good philosophical starting point for any student.

I gave her a hand written summary of the ‘scientific method’ on a scrap of paper as a reward, and we proceeded to split light with a prism. She immediately pulled out her note book to write.

I said “Please put it away, it will only hinder you, you can make notes in your own time if it helps” – I wanted her to exercise her young brain to make its own connections and memories unfettered by slavish wrote recording.

As we progressed more deeply into discussing the nature of light she said “I don’t really like how all these subjects are separate, they don’t seem to be connected” showing me a glossy science revision text book. “Well, everything is connected”, I said, “but it is easier for teachers to dole science lessons out in spoonfuls when faced with a large class of students – who are not really interested. What bit of science do you particularly not get?”

“Chemistry” she said “bonding in particular”

“To ‘get’ this you need a model” I said “Because it is impossible to see, unlike the rainbow exiting the prism, which gave us a clue to the make up of white light”

“If you think of the atoms of a metal, all lined up like the congregation of the mosque, all facing Mecca and the Imam, then the prayers of the Imam are the electrons that hold the people (atoms) together” I suggested.

Electrons as prayer from the Imam, she loved this. Her dad had initially bridled when I mentioned the Mosque, but he liked it too.

“I’m sure you could think of your own analogy to describe when electrons are shared – as in covalent bonding, or where atoms with opposites charges stick together as in ionic bonding?

I chucked a sugar cube into water and some salt to get her thinking. “Food for thought, and to help you – have a fresh look at the periodic table – Mendeleev has given you a rather elegant menu of ‘stuff’, which we might consider in the light of what you have now discovered…”

Arabic teaching, learning and literature is vast and underpins many ‘Western’ concepts. Muslim tradition places great emphasis on logic, writing and memory – but imagery is eschewed in their teaching. Western learning is riddled with visual analogy based upon natural forms. I believe that powerful understanding can emerge in the exchange. Perhaps in these troubled times our prayer should be to seek the understanding of our children.

أول الشجرة بذرة
“A tree begins with a seed.”

Lift

7 Feb

Henk and Polly

(Henk and Polly 1986)

Old memories float back like model aeroplanes, flown in friendship years ago.  At the core of good therapeutic practice lies the skill of Listening. When I came out of the psychiatric hospital I had to learn to do this. I have concluded that ‘listening’ is one of the 3 ‘L’s’ of good mental health in my case; the other ‘L’s” of the trinity are Love and Lithium. They ring-fence the hell of manic depression.

One cannot ignore this diagnosis, nor be complacent, because it brings out the ‘feral‘ in me and the ‘fear‘ in you.

It takes real bottle to stand up to my kind of crazy, and calm the wild beast. My wife has it – she picked up the shards and helped me glue them back together with love. My shrink had it, he helped me with honesty, respite and Priadel – “It may screw up your thyroid, your kidneys and your liver and make you feel nauseous, take away some of your talents even, but you will be able to function in polite society” – Lithium. Three L’s for liberation from the black dog of suicidal despair to the vaulting madness of hypomania and hubris…. in one day, every day.

Speaking of bottle, I met Musaid Iqbal, when I was a postdoctoral research assistant in the Zoology Department of the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. He was completing his Ph.D. on the ecology of the Cheer Pheasant (Catreus wallichii).

“I was hiking with my college mates in the Himalayas crossing the Pir Panjal range at about 17,000 feet (which separates the Valley of Kashmir from the Indian Plains). We were not carrying any maps – or food – and were going by whatever the occasional shepherd that we ran into would tell us or feed us. We ended falling down a scree slope which  in its brush had red bee nests. The bees attacked  some of us as we were trying to latch on to anything that we could grab going down! Luckily, the slope ended on a slight embankment which was helpful, but the steepness of the mountainsides above and below dictated that we had to cross the very cold and icy mountain stream that had very slippery, algae-covered boulders strewn about in its bed. I think I finally crossed it after many half attempts and falls and losing hold of the make-shift rope made out of ruck-sack straps. The clapping and exhortations from my mates were the only things that kept me going.”
Musaid revealed that he was not confident in water as a result of this incident in one of our common room chats in the Zoology Department at the University of Newcastle-u-Tyne.
I persuaded him that I thought I could help him to overcome his hydrophobia, as I had done with my daughter, Polly in our local swimming pool in Jesmond.

My friend and I would sit in the shallow end of the pool and chat. He gradually got used to the noise, the smell of chlorine and the splashing, and he felt ok because the bottom, the side rail and his friend were never far away. In his own time I got him to wet his face as if washing, and eventually I gave him a pair of swimming goggles. When he got used to the feel of these we progressed to full face immersion, and then to lifting his feet of the bottom of the pool and …floating!

After that, swimming was just a matter of flapping the sticky out bits, because he realised he was in control of the element that had nearly killed him all those years ago, and not at its mercy.

I received an email from Musaid after my mother passed away. In my grief he had thrown a rope made from his rucksack straps of memory into the icy torrent of my unbidden emotions. He had listened all those years ago.

“I found time today to visit your blog, and read the sad news about your mother’s death. I am sorry to learn about her passing away, but I was instantly reminded of bits of conversations I had with you whilst in Newcastle – going to the pool, or in the tea room in Ridley Building, or at other times – in a few of which you mentioned your mother. I remember you told me that when you demanded a toy once, she challenged you to build your own, and I also remember what she told you about what your money would be used for if you bought stuff at Marks and Spencers!”

johnnysevencatalog

The toy I had demanded was a ‘Johnny Seven‘ rifle. The ‘must have multi-functional toy rifle 1964 that every other boy in Wolds Rise, Matlock and the UK in general, seemed to me to possess (in the days when the Vietnam War was in the news these toys and war games in general were a preoccupation with boys). My mam could not afford much in those days as a single parent. She just said “Here, make your own!” handing me some Balsa wood. Genius.

Balsa wood grows in South America. Ochroma pyramidal is fast growing and consequently very light (like our willow) and, yet immensely strong. The timber can be cross cut with a sharp knife with great accuracy and is the favoured material of aero modellers everywhere, it is also spectacularly easy to make boats with it as it floats as well as cork.

Screen Shot 2015-01-29 at 15.02.53

I believe my mother was given the Balsa wood by a family friend and neighbour – Mike Green pictured above in 1955 with his own design ‘Heatwave’ – a one-time world champion balsa wood maestro and legendary aero-modeller of the 1950’s and beyond. He also had a wickedly funny and mordant sense of humour.

Thanks to my mother’s wisdom, an new model maker and woodworker was created, the third world war was averted and Marks and Spencer impoverished!

Thanks to Musaid’s friendship my spirit has been given Lift, like the scores of aeroplanes I built in my youth. Perhaps all kids should be given Balsa, then fewer guns and more aeroplanes would be made so that they could understand lift(sic) and not death.

Glue

3 Feb

There are times when fancy joints, screws and nails, clamps and bolts will simply not do.

Glue

On Monday 2nd of February we cremated our mother, grandmother and friend and the glue that held the day together was our daughter, Polly Rachael Howden. Pictured here with her biological parents (Henk and Fiona) at the evening do at the Head of Steam. Polly held her cool with quiet dignity whilst all of us mourners bumped around like motes of dust in a smoke chamber. Poly vinyl acetate – PVA – or, Polly’s very adept.

On the day Polly and her husband helped us bear our mother’s coffin into the chapel, she held my hand and gave the last sweet eulogy. Pritt-y fine.

Polly and Alan and Fi's wreath

In the afternoon Polly helped her uncle Tim organise the Wake at The Rendezvous Cafe, Whitley Bay. Tea, savoury cheese sandwiches, Tunnocks Tea Cakes and hot chocolate was served to frozen mourners against the backdrop of a wild North Sea breaking on the beach. Two part adhesive: Araldite

Seen through her eyes my second wife Clare and I looked like this (knackered, but together) after the funeral. We met for dinner, Alan, Polly, Clare and I at a lovely Restaurant called The Botanist in Newcastle upon Tyne. Superglue.

Us@The Botanist Alan and Polly

The father of one of Polly’s school friends, Dave Whitton, posted this on his FB page:

“The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out Why.” Mark Twain

That was 25.08.1982 when ‘Bean’ was born

Polly (3)  eggs