Please note that the account below carries the story up to the end of August 2009. Further interviews are being added from time to time.
The interviews can be viewed and/or downloaded at http://www.alanmacfarlane.com/ancestors/index.html
Further information about the life, careers and achievements of those listed below can be seen on this website.
A number of them have also been put up on the ‘ayabaya’ channel on ‘Youtube’
It is difficult to penetrate how people think within an institution. We can see the externals, the books, articles, experimental results. But what the people are like and how and why they make their discoveries is usually a private and impenetrable matter. Even if we read parts of their written (semi-autobiographical) accounts of what they did, it is difficult to get a sense of the excitement of creativity.
to glimpse parts of what goes on is to listen (and watch) people explaining
their search for meaning. I try to look at this in a number of fields and
sub-fields where I have had the opportunity to hold video conversations with
nearly forty years in Cambridge I have got to know many people in a number of
fields outside my own anthropological speciality. The College system and my
earlier experience in a similar inter-disciplinary world as an undergraduate at
conversations, though important to my life are largely unrecorded except when
the collaboration, as with computer scientists, is very close. For a long time
I had thought it worth recording conversations with people in my own
discipline, and a few in my other field of expertise, history. But it was only
through the accidental suggestions of two scientists, Professor Sir Patrick
Bateson and Professor Herbert Huppert, that I began to realize that I should
and could extend this to others. So over the time since my first face to face
interview of Dan McKenzie on 11th May 2007, I have started to record
on camera conversations with many friends and new acquaintances in
Astronomy, cosmology and pure mathematics
been dimly aware that
When I was on the Electors to Fellowships in King’s we elected Lord Martin Reese who would later become Astronomer Royal, President of the Royal Society and Master of Trinity College. When I moved into the top of part of the Cavendish Laboratory in 1975 I found that my predecessors had been Radio Astronomers and that in my and adjacent rooms a number of important break-throughs had occurred, including the discovery of a new type of star, pulsars, by Sir Antony Hewish, who won a Nobel Prize for this work.
In subsequent years the work on black holes, string theory, ‘M’ theory and later developments associated with Stephen Hawking and others was on the fringe of my knowledge. I have learnt something more about what is going on by talking to one of the younger generations of cosmologists, Professor Neil Turok, the co-author of The Endless Universe which proposes a new theory of the origins of space and time.
Biochemistry, chemistry and genetics
for long been aware that
I had met a number of central figures in King’s College. There was Dr Fred Sanger whose two Nobel Prizes had been won for the first sequencing of a non-living (insulin) and living (phage) entity. I had also met Professor Sydney Brenner, who worked for many years with Francis Crick and who won his Nobel Prize for work on the DNA of nematode worms in 2004. I also got to know Dr Dan Brown, a largely overlooked but pivotal figure in the development of the understanding of RNA.
Other major figures I have interviewed include Lord Aaron Klug, who worked with Rosalind Franklin (a key figure in the discovery of DNA) and won his Nobel Prize in the 1980s in molecular biology and was one of the discoverers of CAT scans. Also there is Sir John Sulston, who led the team which first sequenced the human genome, who won his Nobel Prize in 2004. I have also talked to Sir John Gurdon, whose discovery that cells retain all their information as the body grows was one foundation for modern stem cell research, and Sir John Walker whose Nobel Prize was also won in this field.
Physiologists I have interviewed include Sir Andrew Huxley, who received his Nobel Prize with Sir Alan Hodgkin, and Professor Richard Keynes, Professor Charlie Loke and Professor Azim Surani. There is also the geneticist turned administrator, Professor Ken Edwards. The physical chemists are Dr Hal Dixon and Sir John Meurig Thomas, sometime Master of Peterhouse College.
Computers, technology and the
I have been on the fringes of the work which has led to the transformation of our world by computers, the Internet and visual technologies.
I had started to be involved in all of this in 1973 when I started a long-term collaboration with Dr Ken Moody in relation to databases and information retrieval, later to be joined by his colleague Professor Jean Bacon. Simultaneously I was working with audio-visual media in the development of filming, videodisk and other technologies. I was aware of the names, but only came to talk to some of the pioneers in this field, people who were seminal in the development of the ‘Cambridge phenomenon’ and the largest science park complex in Europe, in particular Hermann Hauser and Professor Andy Hopper, currently Head of the Computer Laboratory. I worked with students of Professor Keith van Rijsbergen, one of the founders of modern probabilistic or Bayesian information retrieval. I have also interviewed Professor Ben Shneiderman, a world authority on computer-human interfaces and the innovator who gave us the light blue clickable hyper-link.
When I moved into the Old Cavendish laboratory in 1975 I began to hear stories which were elaborated through the years, about the great discoveries along the passage from where I worked. The long-term legacy of Newton and his successors led in the period between 1870 and 1940 to a number of very famous figures who changed our understanding of the physical world, Sir James Clerk Maxwell who outlined electro-magnetism, Sir J.J.Thomson, the discoverer of the electron, Professor Ernest Rutherford who split the atom, Professor James Chadwick who won his Nobel Prize for the discovery of neutrons and others.
came to talk to some of the leading physicists very recently, successors of
these great figures, including the past and present Cavendish Professors of Physics,
Sir Brian Pippard and Sir Richard Friend. I also interviewed the sometime
Professor of Mathematical Physics, the Reverend Sir John Polkinghorne, later
President of Queen’s College, and the geo-physicist Professor Dan McKenzie the
co-discoverer of tectonic plates. Their work complemented that of people in the
other fields and is part of the seamless web of
Zoology and biology
behind where I worked in the Department is the
ARTS, HUMANITIES AND SOCIAL SCIENCES
History and archaeology
is one the two subjects in which I have personally specialized, so I have been
a participant as well as an observer of
a strong tradition of ecclesiastical and religious history in
Demographic and social structural history has flourished, particularly
with the work of the ‘Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social
Structure’, whose founding triumvirate were Peter Laslett, Sir Anthony Wrigley and
Roger Schofield. Wrigley is also notable as an economic historian, with
particular emphasis on the industrial revolution and the coal industry. Another
social demographer in
Bordering on these fields have been others. There is cultural history,
which is partly represented by the work of Professor Peter Burke and Professor Lisa
Jardine, both of them particularly well known for their books on the
Renaissance and the seventeenth century. There is also an important tradition of the
history of political thought, which is here represented by two of the pupils of
Peter Laslett, Professor Quentin Skinner and Professor John Dunn, both experts
on early modern political philosophy in
history of science and philosophy has also been an important activity theme in
There have been numerous important historians of classical times, including the previous Master of Darwin and writer on Greek and Roman thought, Sir Moses Finley. Here this school is represented by another ex-Master of Darwin, the philosopher, historian and writer on Chinese science and philosophy, Sir Geoffrey Lloyd.
Literature, language and philosophy
have been many distinguished thinkers and writers in this field, including
I.A.Richards, William Empson, F.R.Leavis, C.S.Lewis and others. At King’s
College I have met a number of them. One of the first Fellows I met was Dr
Peter Avery, the historian of
recently have I encountered some of the other senior figures in this field in
conversation, including the polymath and widely published author George Steiner,
the Emeritus Edward VII Professor English Literature and sometime President of
Clare Hall, Dame Gillian Beer and the former Mistress of New Hall and
sinologist Dame Anne Lonsdale who later played an important part in University
administration. In philosophy, Professor
Simon Blackburn is a distinguished
first days at King’s College in 1971 I was aware of the great tradition of
music, in particular choral singing, in
The distinguished physicist Rev. John Polkinghorne retrained as an Anglican priest in his mid-forties and the interview covers that aspect of his work. Rev. Don Cupitt, for a considerable time Dean of Emmanuel College, has written extensively on a wide range of themes in relation to religion and its place in modern life.
major discipline is anthropology, where I have been a member of the Department
of Social Anthropology for over 33 years.
subset of anthropologists from the more than fifty I have interviewed are those
who have taught for long periods in
Marilyn Strathern did her undergraduate and graduate degree at
study of economics is an old tradition in
various interviews I have explored parts of the Keynesian legacy. Professor Wynne
Godley was a contemporary of the post-Keynesians in King’s and sometime
Director of the Department of Applied Economics at
How the Colleges and University work
There are a number of interviews which touch on that very special Oxbridge institution, the College. I have interviewed people because I knew or had heard that they were important intellectuals. But such people tend to get promoted to the Headship of Colleges. Thus, by chance, I have interviewed many Heads of Houses. These include Martin Rees and Andrew Huxley (Trinity), John Meurig Thomas and Tony Wrigley (Peterhouse), Gabriel Horn (Sidney Sussex), Pat Bateson (King’s), Robert Hinde (St. John’s), Peter Swinnerton-Dyer (St Catharine’s) Brian Pippard and Gillian Beer (Clare Hall), John Polkinghorne (Queen’s), Colin Renfrew (Jesus), Owen Chadwick (Selwyn), Geoffrey Lloyd (Darwin), Ann Lonsdale (New Hall), John Gurdon (Magdalene), Marilyn Strathern(Girton).
In terms of the University, there are a number of Vice Chancellors and pro-Vice Chancellors, including Owen Chadwick, Peter Swinnerton Dyer, Andrew Huxley, Alison Richard, and Anne Lonsdale. There is also one of the previous heads of the University Grants Commission, Peter Swinnerton Dyer, and a former Secretary General of the Faculties, Ken Edwards.
The wider sample