Sunday, February 22, 2015

This Nearly Was Mine

The Oscars will be awarded this evening. As usual I will start watching the show and then groggily go up to bed half-way through, bored stiff. I have seen two of the films up for consideration. I love Turing's story in The Imitation Game, a mathematical equivalent of the puzzle classicists found in the decipherment of Linear B and I have written before about my interest in all books about Enigma. I can't say I have much interest in Hawking's exploration in cosmological inflation and quantum gravity. But as a person he is fascinating and therefore The Theory of Everything is equally fascinating.  What do these movies have in common? Cambridge University.

Turing's Cambridge of the 30's has obviously little connection with me, but not so the Cambridge of Stephen Hawking. There is a scene in The Theory of Everything pretty much identical to the one shown here which we took on a trip back to England (except the view in the movie included a random cow or two.)  My trips to Cambridge are because my brother lives just outside the town, not because of any nostalgia.

I came very close to that nostalgia. At approximately the same time as Hawking was riding his bike through the streets of Cambridge to his lectures, I was sitting the exams for Girton and Newnham. There was a general exam which required a precis of a long passage and a couple of essays to test our writing ability. For some reason I wrote on polar exploration. What a great job I could do of that today. At the time I think I had only heard of Scott's tragedy on his return from the South Pole. What could I have written? Instead of the question on eccentricity, I would love to get my claws into question 8, "Old People." Old people? What were you thinking of, Girton?  In addition there were chunks of Vergil, Horace, Livy, Cicero, Hesiod, Sophocles, Xenophon and Plato to translate into English and blocks of English to translate back into Latin and Greek. Joy of joys, I was summoned for an interview. By letter? Phone? I suppose today they tweet the applicants. Anyway, dear reader, I went.

I do not remember the interview. We must have had dinner in hall and I know I was expected to spent the night. I remember a freezing cold room in a stone building and making myself cocoa in an equally cold kitchenette.

I returned home, only to hear sometime later that G & N would not be requiring my presence the following year. Now here comes something which in future posts I will refer to as a Brian Williams moment, somewhat different from a senior moment. You will either understand or you wont. I am convinced that somehow, maybe even from the university itself, I heard I was next on the waiting list and that if anyone were to drop out, a place would be extended to me. It wasn't. I don't think I could have crossed paths with Stephen Hawking. He would have arrived to study for his Ph.D. just as I left.

The ambience of Cambridge is unique, and I like to think that this nearly was mine.

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