Sunday, 26 February 2012

Science in Seatoller

is dedicated to those unlovely twins
staunch supporters that have carried me about
for over half a century,
endured much without complaint,
and never once let me down.
Nevertheless, they are unsuitable subjects for illustration.

A Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells, being an illustrated account of a study and exploration of the mountains of the Lake District. Book Six: The North Western Fells
A. Wainwright, 1964

ONE of the perks of life in our lab is the opportunity to attend a lab retreat, where we go away for a few days with our collaborators for both social time, and to share ideas and hatch plans for the year ahead. It is safe to say that this year I did not want to go.

Such is the way with PhDs that progress rides on a sinuous wave of fortune, soaring high for a fleeting, exhilarating moment before crashing to the ground and swirling, seemingly forever, with the tortuous eddies and vortices of disappointment. Emotions, unnecessarily, get caught up in amongst these movements. With each crash morale takes a hit, but with hard work, a lot of luck and often a change of experimental direction, the wave can begin to build once more. The challenge then is not to go along with the movements of fortune, but to surf atop them, keeping afloat for as long as possible.

By the time of our retreat in November 2011, I was drowning beneath that wave. An optimistic and exciting start to the year had slowly been taken over by failure. I had built many useful tools, but experimentally nothing had been fruitful. There are two kinds of failed experiments — those that yield believable results that say the opposite of what you were expecting; and those that yield no results at all, any conclusion being untrustworthy because the experiment simply did not work. Mine, of course, were the latter. I’d had one modest success, which I was presently trying to add to, but in all other ways the year was a write off. I had one final deadline to meet before the retreat, to build a genetic construct, but with only days to go curious anomalies and problems were creeping in, the likes of which I had never seen before, despite plenty of cloning experience. (When I finally got the correct construct a week later, I discovered a fault in the planning that had slipped past all those who had checked it. I had to start again, all because of a single nucleotide.)

To then spend four days in the middle of nowhere, cut off from all means of communication from my wife, while trying to put on a brave face and admit to a year of nothing, was not how I wanted to end November.

The journey to the Lake District seemed to take hours. It was well and truly dark by the time we stumbled across the house, miles down a tight and narrow lane. We had no idea where we were and no concept of the scenery around us, but the lights inside looked inviting, and the manager of the property greeted us with an enormous smile – and by his side, an equally enormous, but very friendly, husky.

We were staying at Seatoller House, a seventeenth century guest house owned by the Trevelyan family. Its low ceilings, private library, honesty beer tap and remarkably efficient central heating certainly made it warm and comfortable, but something about it did not feel right. It was as if the house knew I did not want to be there or had taken exception to the presence of a southerner. Clearly, it was scheming.

My worries were temporarily abated when dinner was served, all four courses of it: a home-cooked feast of exceptional quality, completed with two sticky toffee puddings, one per table of six people. There was enough to feed an army; little did we know we would need the energy it provided the following day. After doing our best to not demolish the remnants of a once formidable Stilton, we adjourned to the sitting room, roasting beside the fire, where the conversation went on well into the evening, the other guests leaving us early as topics turned heavily scientific.

It was the following morning when the house made its move. Up early for breakfast, and enchanted by my first glimpse of the landscape from my bedroom window, I headed to my private bathroom. But just as I got the water temperature comfortable, and covered myself in soap, I was attacked with a brief second of freezing cold water. I would yelp then start forward, only for the water to become warm again. My guard down once more, the cold water poltergeist sprang at me again. I could almost hear the walls cackling.

Breakfast was another feast, and we were joined by a vast array of wildlife breakfasting at their own table out of the window. All manner of small birds chirped and gobbled away, many of them far too plump to be taken seriously. But the master of the breakfast table quite clearly was the resident red squirrel, hanging from a bird feeder.

After breakfast we opted for a walk rather than work, given the weather predictions for the next two days. Dressed very much not to the nines in waterproofs, warm clothing and silly hats, we climbed the road from Seatoller to Honister slate mine, then ascending the steep footpath to the south towards Grey Knotts. From here the dramatic, sheer landscape, losing its colour as winter kicked in, was quite a sight. Slopes of scree and bare rock featured tiny steps and walls as man had tried to conquer this difficult terrain, stealing its slate innards. To the west the pass dropped rapidly out of sight. Our altitude took me aback. As we proceeded towards Grey Knotts the weather changed its mind, strong winds whipping persistent rain into our faces like razor blades. Drenched and unable to see more than a few metres ahead, we persevered for far too long, our leader keen to take us as far as both Green Gable and Great Gable. We were getting cold and miserable, so eventually accepted defeat and turned back: it was, after all, late November. We had walked miles, climbed hundreds of metres and were soaked through. And then we had eleven half hour presentations to sit through.

We set up in the library, our projector, laptops and screen out of place against the wooden bookcases and antique furniture. Discussions ensued with summaries of the aims of each lab, progress since last year and points for discussion over the next two days. Talks overran, and with frequent tea breaks we could finish only half of the talks by the end of the day, at which point our efforts were rewarded with another feast.

Discussions had been fruitful, with plenty of wise tips to investigate for the project in the future, but with my immediate experiments already decided the conversations were simply an opportunity to share ideas, rather than add to expectations. It is helpful to think of my project as an avenue of investigation that will continue beyond my PhD and beyond me, because it’s an important question that needs further research.

The next morning I awoke early in a panic. Foolishly, I had put my phone in a non-waterproof pocket the previous day, and with it now in telephonic heaven I had no alarm clock. Missing breakfast would be unforgivable, so as soon as I awoke I rose quickly, dressed and headed to the dining room, only to find the lights off and not a soul in sight. I was an hour early. I took this opportunity to explore, surveying first the gardens around the house. There I met a friendly, pregnant cat, who took me to see the sheep with fluffy feet in the adjacent field. These Herdwicks were enjoying their breakfast too much to greet me, so I just watched, their faces expressing utter joy at the abundant supply of grass.

Back in the warm I scanned the library, picking up books on the history of the house itself. Seatoller is the base for the Lake Hunts, an annual game of hare and hounds over the central fells played not by animals but people. This has been played since 1898, continuing to this day, with experienced walkers spreading, chasing and hiding over 16 square miles of extreme terrain in a giant game of hide and seek. The hares are only considered successful if they make it back to Seatoller House by the end of the day uncaught, welcomed into the warmth of the house and its bountiful kitchens. I enjoyed the tales of heroism, daring and recklessness, but had no desire to join in.

After breakfast our talks continued. It was my turn to start. I had been nervous about the fact I could present little, but comments were favourable on the few results I had obtained. Furthermore, I achieved solidarity with a colleague from our companion lab, who had had a similarly frustrating year, and together we supported one another through the experience. Talks were productive, if not enjoyable. I did get to point at graphs with a big stick though, which was good fun.

The party split into two for the afternoon: some dared a climb of Fleetwith Pike; the rest of us took a leisurely stroll around Buttermere lake, deterred by the overambitious bravado of the previous day’s planned route. Both groups turned out to face fearsome challenges, the climbers racing the sun (they set off at 2pm, sundown at 4pm) and the strollers fighting storm force winds. Frequently we would be blown sideways or sprayed by the seven metre high white horses on the lake surface.

We faced a worrying wait that evening for the climbers. Long since dark, we had no means of communication to contact them and a deep unease about the extravagance of their plan. We had seen, on our journey back from Buttermere, the distance they had planned to travel, assuming they would not make it down to Buttermere, let alone back up the 1:4 gradient of the Honister pass, before nightfall. They too, of course, were fighting the wind. Yet there was little we could do except sit by the fire and eat cake.

They of course did return, with tales of heroism, supreme strength and the opportune timing of a passing vehicle. They had reached the summit before dark, but needed to run down the other side to beat the sun. They then had to negotiate the road up the pass in complete darkness, walking head-on into the wind, the valley creating an enormous wind tunnel. Often unable to move forwards, they clung to one another for support. Eventually they hitched a ride – nay, commandeered a ride – from an unsuspecting passing tourist.

And they say that scientists are boring.

The thing is, Seatoller rather won me over. It was a lovely house, so inviting and in beautiful surrounds. I hadn’t wanted to be there, and I hated being cut off from Rachel, but I did very much like it. Managers Dan and Lynne made us feel very welcome and safe, and the science turned out to be worth it.

It was the last week of the season for Seatoller, and the last week for Dan and Lynne at Seatoller House. They were moving on to a new job in Combe Raleigh in Devon in the New Year. To thank them, I wrote an essay in their comments book. Much like the one above.

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