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One on one... with Tom Dickins

'… to sit in an arbour, shaded from the sun'. Includes online only answers.

17 August 2014

One album

Tri Repetae ++, by Autechre released by WARP records, 1995. I was introduced to their music when I was a PhD student at the University of Sheffield. WARP Records was also based in Sheffield at that time, and a friend of a friend worked there. On occasion I would visit him to play a lunchtime game of pool and I remember being quite spellbound by this cool, creative place he belonged to.

Autechre’s music is beautifully pared down, creating melody and mood from rhythm. As with exquisite baroque music and parsimonious funk, it is the gaps that stimulate. The music feels like theory building to me – bringing sense to parts, looking for movement and connection.

One age
I opt for middle age only because I am middle-aged. The real issue is getting older. For me getting older has always meant an improvement in my lot, materially, emotionally and intellectually. This is something that can, and most probably will, change. But I would never wish to go back to my uncertain youth, and my inescapable foolish mistakes…
More importantly, it has always seemed to me that the value of youth is simply the future to come. Youth is worthless if one does not become old. To that end, I owe it to my youthful self to maximise all that I can in my current life. Anything less and I would be disrespecting my former self, and undervaluing my own youth. This is not to say that I must maintain the same tastes and interests, but it is to say I should engage with the world. To that end there really is no time for melancholy nostalgia. It is done, now I make it count.

One pressing concern
The environment. All roads lead to this problem. The myopia around it at all levels of government and social organisation is astonishing, but psychologically explicable. The commons are tragic, we cannot act truly collectively, and there is no appetite to legislate a resolution or create financial incentives to develop alternative energy sources. Meanwhile we continue to use oil, buying it from those who fund our enemies and impose fundamentally undemocratic social institutions on their people. The global population is rising and other resources are stretched. Where the population is beginning to fall is in the cities, there is an urbanising effect upon fertility rates, but the new cities are far from green and my bet is that city life reduces effective cooperation and magnifies the problem. Everyone will want just a little bit more for himself or herself.

One film
Signals for Survival, a documentary about signalling in gulls, by Niko Tinbergen. I watched this in my late teens and it was a revelation. For Tinbergen filming was a method in its own right. The camera enabled systematic and comprehensive sampling of behaviour in the wild, and under experimental conditions. I make very bad short films for students and wish that I had the time to do this better. As the American urbanist William H. Whyte discovered there is much to be learnt about humans through this technology.

One holiday destination
Galapagos. I hope to go, preferably with my family. This would be a pilgrimage to the iconic section of Darwin’s voyage, but also to an extraordinary ecology.  

One scientist
Anyone who is open to some order of pragmatic falsificationism, theory-led and honestly curious. REF, impact factors, citations, h-indices, and even pathways to socio-economic impact, have all acted to increase the Whiggish adherence to the notion of a scientific hero or heroine. I have mentioned Tinbergen and Darwin and I admire their work, but I also recognise that they were both team members and engaged with colleagues in open and honest disputation and collaboration. There is so much to solve, and so much to discover, that any other view is simply foolish – our problems are not computationally tractable for one scientist.

One retreat
A walled garden in the United Kingdom on midsummer’s day, at around 3pm. To sit in an arbour, shaded from the sun, sipping a drink and listening to swifts as I ponder something interesting about foraging theory is ideal. Perhaps later a stroll around a cloistered courtyard, and into manicured gardens – a contained peace. This is why Oxford and Cambridge thrive. All vice-chancellors should be aware of this and invest. Far more useful than an information commons – we have that on our smartphones.

One for the road
Get yourself a x10 loupe magnifying lens. At this time of year I have it with me most of the time as my encounter rate with insects and spiders is much increased. The simplicity of this tool belies its revelatory power.

Online only

One era
The 18th Century Enlightenment.
We live in a tremendously exciting scientific period. Technology is a core part of this, enabling us to delve deeper into various mysteries. However, to live through the wholesale changes in worldview that came about during the 18th century would have been deeply unsettling and hugely stimulating. Whilst many historians will place the birth of modern science in the 17th century, with the increasing mathematisation of knowledge emerging from astronomical work, the push to full rational engagement with the natural world did not bite until the 18th century. This was in part due to philosophical work, taking up the mantle of Newton and Locke, by Descartes and others. It was also due to a great energy emerging from interested amateurs and huge amounts of experimental work, as well as natural observation. Taxonomies and systems, encyclopedias, new discoveries and empirical phenomena all formed the backdrop to scientific and cultured life in this period.  Dogma was challenged and open inquisition of nature was favoured.

But I do not really imagine it was all so straightforward. Would an 18th-century philosophe, emerging from Diderot’s salon into the 21st century, be so surprised to learn of faith schools, discussion around Govean intolerance, and a general lack of scientific literacy in the general population? Perhaps the only surprise would be the amount of state interest in STEM disciplines and education, and the lack of scientific education within the government itself.

One conference
Behaviour 2013, The Sage, Gateshead, August 2013.
This was a joint meeting of the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour and the International Ethology Conference.  Around 900 delegates attended and generated the most exciting set of talks and poster presentations I have ever seen. The focus of the conference was the how and why of behaviour, and species were chosen to answer particular kinds of questions, mathematical models were used to generalise. The work was all theory-led, testing key predictions drawn from evolutionary biology, and innovating wonderfully on methods. Particular highlights included the papers coming out of Iain Couzin’s Princeton lab about collective behaviours, as well as the celebrations of Niko Tinbergen’s contributions to ethology (including an idiosyncratic theatre piece that managed to bring his Dutch dunes to life in a small auditorium). I felt an intellectual freedom at this meeting that I rarely feel. All one had to do was wander about the centre and there would be a room or corner where someone would be discussing something fundamental to the behavioural sciences.

- Tom Dickins is Professor of Evolutionary Psychology at Middlesex University