Encountering Cambridge

by BotsAndBrainz

Originally, this was not supposed to turn into a travel blog. Then again, I am a traveling scientist. And the city I last visited (and had some great scientific insights in), is such a classic in the league of overachievers in the natural sciences, that I feel obliged to tell you about my weekend in Cambridge.

I arrived late at the station of the city harboring one of the most prestigious universities in the world. It was cold, windy, and unbeknownst to myself at the time, a rainstorm was getting ready to unleash a flood later that evening. This flooding would unfortunately coincide with my bike ride to a tiny houseboat on the river Cam, which one of my wonderful friends from my former university was taking me to. Never before in my life have I arrived at a party with pants so wet they literally glittered when I stepped inside. I’ve also never accidentally steered my bike into the general close proximity of a cow grazing on a bike path in Europe. Fortunately for me, I swerved right and avoided being added to the statistics of Brits (and foreigners unaccustomed to temperamental bovine killers) being trampled to death by cows. My first impression of Cambridge was, all in all, that it’s a wet, and dangerous place to get amazing science done in.

But amazing science it does get done. Cambridge boasts a total of 92 Nobel laureates, the highest number of Nobel laureates to come out of a single institution worldwide. One of them, Frederick Sanger, the guy with the DNA sequencing technique even (deservedly) received two. Bertrand Russel, another affiliate of the university (and great philosophical writer, you should check out his: “In Praise of Idleness”) was the first one of their kind to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. In 1828 Charles Darwin enrolled into Christ College to become a priest. Thankfully for us, he studied beetles and pollen in his spare time and discussed his displeasure at the idea of priesthood with his professors instead of studying theology properly. The Cambridgian discovery closest to my heart is, of course, the discovery of the structure of DNA. I love the drama of the story, though loathe how the data was acquired. James Watson, a creepy, arrogant little fellow if you believe the stories written about and by him, and his colleague Francis Crick were given crystal diffraction data obtained by Rosalind Franklin in the hallowed halls of Cambridge. Maurice Wilkins, Rosalind’s supervisor/colleague/not really favorite person on the planet, had provided them with the so-called “Photo 51”. Together, the three men went on to understand the importance of what was shown in the picture and subsequently won the Nobel Prize (duh). When they did, they failed to acknowledge their by then deceased female colleague in their speeches, despite the fact that she had made their discovery possible. Hence, my loathing.

The Eagle Pub, where the discovery of the structure of DNA was first announced.

Despite my ambiguous feelings towards how some discoveries were made in Cambridge, I’d always wanted to see it. It’s a charming little town. The river Cam hugs the city much like a friendly snake, and enables visitors not only to walk around the town always in sight of it, but to also be thoroughly confused when using it as a way to orient yourself. When walking away from the river leads you to run into it again, you do start to question your sanity. The impressive, massive main halls of some of the 31 colleges can be seen all around, with friendly students pestering tourists, offering to guide them through the halls. A tour though is essentially paying 7£ for a walk around the grass court in the center of the college and then straight back out again. All other parts of the colleges can only be entered in the company of a student of the college. Speaking of the grass court and silly rules: only so-called “fellows” of the university have earned the right through academic achievement to walk on the grass. Everyone else is forbidden to walk across. I’ve never been so tempted to cartwheel across a lawn, simply to rebel against this strange honor based system.

Student or Tourist?
Outside a college, with students offering tours while trying to pick out the tourists from the locals.

As my absolutely lovely hosts took me on a long walk through the town which was slowly, but steadily waking from its winter slumber and leaving me to wonder at the trees and flowers in bloom, I couldn’t help but geek out occasionally at the institutes I´d only ever read about. The Cavendish lab, the physics department in Cambridge, brought forth a total of 29 Nobel laureates. Housing not only the mind of the great physicist James C. Maxwell, it was also the place where we discovered the electron (courtesy of Joseph J. Thomson), learned of nuclear fission the first time in human history (thanks to Ernest Rutherford) and invented the cloud chamber (gorgeous work, Charles T.E. Wilson). It was the place where the crystallography work necessary for “Photo 51” was done. It was absolutely thrilling to see. The new institute has been moved further away from the city center and is decidedly less impressive. But at least there is postdoc housing directly next to it, probably in order to encourage either burnout or further Nobel prize discoveries.

Punting is another feature of Cambridge I couldn’t help but fall in love with. Students equipped with comically long sticks push a boatload of tourists along the river and tell stories of the colleges. The chatter of a hen’s night group drifted up to us standing on one of the many bridges over the river, as I listened to the story of the Mathematical Bridge. Said to have been designed by Isaac Newton himself, it was once able to hold itself up without the need of nails, an impressive architectural feat! Unfortunately, the story goes that the students of Cambridge were too curious for their own good and took the bridge apart to see how this was possible. Long story short: it has been in the need of nails ever since. Another bridge story: It seems a man named Oliver Cromwell unfortunately destroyed the bridge that gave Cambridge its name. He died of natural causes, but paid for his involvement in the struggle for a British Commonwealth a few years later. He lost his head (posthumously, dear Lord…) to the Royalists. He had been one of the Rebel leaders, as well as a student of Cambridge in his earlier days. I bet he would have struggled to resist walking across the university lawn, too.

Cam Punting
Punters on the Cam

Of course I couldn’t resist shadowing my friends in the lab as well. Most of the labs I entered were a hive of activity. I’ve never seen so many people dashing to and fro in such a hectic manner before in my life. I’m still surprised that I was not required to give first-aid, seeing as it seemed unlikely that they weren’t going to crash violently into glass doors, each other, lab hoods, down the stairs, sample storages and the occasional absent-minded blogging visitor taking notes at the speed they were going. Everyone was working hard, everywhere. I was greeted by discussions of recent discoveries in the office, the stairwell, the bathroom, and the cafeteria. When we went to one of the many cozy (meaning crowded) pubs, a heavily intoxicated person sat down next to me at the bar, and promptly started chatting about … his latest research project. This man had trouble sitting upright on his stool, but was able to give a detailed account of his favorite sequencing method. From what I understood of his slurred speech, it made perfect sense, too! This is what I love about Cambridge. Science EVERYWHERE, ALL THE TIME. I was sure I’d died and gone to academic heaven.

A Lab in the Department of Biochemistry
A lab in the department of biochemistry in chaotic order.

And yet, my favorite time in the university town of Cambridge had (almost) nothing to do with science. It was the laziest Sunday in the history of lazy Sundays, with breakfast at 1pm, a Breaking Bad marathon and ordering pizza for dinner. I love science. But I’ll take a day off with friends and loved ones over academic madness any day.

Breaking Bods
Osmosis Learning with Breaking Bad!

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