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Remembering Graeme Mitchison

Graeme Mitchison wrote parts of one of Ian McEwan's novels, contributed a key quote to one of Philippe Sands' International Court of Justice victories, and invented openDemocracy's rotating front-page editorship.

Tony Curzon Price
Ian McEwan Tony Curzon Price Philippe Sands Roger Scruton
18 May 2019
Graeme Mitchison (1944-2018)
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Tony Curzon Price

Graeme Mitchison, polymathic scientist, musician and openDemocracy author, died of a brain cancer last year. He left his mark on openDemocracy as on many other people and groups, being the inventor of the rotating front-page editorship that we operated for a long time.

This page starts with three of the four speeches from a dinner in his honor (the first, by John Vallance, was impromptu and I don't yet have a reproducible version of it).

If you would like to add a memory of your own to this page, email me at [email protected].

Ian McEwan

It’s commonly said that the last people to comprehend broadly all of knowledge were among us in a period between the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth – when natural philosophy was becoming science. I pause here because already I can hear Graeme’s gentle, hesitant voice, anticipating what I’m about to claim for him, sweetly demur. But we’re gathered today precisely because he isn’t here to contradict in his inimitable, tentative style. He was indeed a true polymath.

All of us who knew him will carry to our own graves certain enduring images of a man gifted in explication. One of mine is of being on a tub of a boat of the brass and mahogany kind, anchored one evening off an island in the Galapagos. In the falling light, Graeme stood before us holding aloft three hiking boots by their long laces. He was explaining to biologists and liberal-arts know-nothings like myself, a certain byway of string theory and then drew us onto what he said was the safer, easier ground of quantum entanglement. He span the boots, the laces braided, then a formidable knot untied itself - and we were drawn into what was essentially an exercise in shared wonder at the nature of matter.

Most people, certainly all men, of colossal intellectual capacity are generally too absorbed or too grand to perform in a Brahms trio at the Fitzwilliam Museum and then prepare lunch for fifty people. We will never stand in line to see them again, those giant simmering cauldrons of chicken parts. We won’t forget Graeme’s talent for marshalling disparate people into extempore orchestras of good feeling.

Graeme’s polymathia extended the definition of the word. Along with plant morphology and quantum computing, we should count in hospitality, the art of the piano, literary judgment, drawing and painting, paragliding, hiking and risky mountain scrambling. Another bottomless subject he mastered was friendship. Everyone here knows that. We will always remember the soft gaze, the gleaming, high-domed head inclined towards us as it beamed understanding, patience and infinite goodwill. When he learned that deep within that head, an inoperable tumour had formed across a neurally indispensable region, what did he do? Invite a few dozen friends to his house to listen to Mozart’s Dissonance Quartet and have dinner with him.

I sat by him for some part of that meal. He spoke calmly of dying. One of his responses to his new situation was curiosity and also acceptance. He was not anticipating an afterlife. We agreed that those who do will never learn that they were wrong. So there will be no disappointment. In the course of that conversation, which was often playful, I felt that I was receiving a tutorial in a new and more tranquil, analytical approach to our inevitable end. This too we must add to the reach of Graeme’s polymathia.

It’s regrettable that Nobel Prizes are not awarded to polymaths. What’s demanded is a fearsome and narrow focus. However, a character in one of my novels did once get the prize, and Graeme kindly consented to write the presentation speech for me. Reading it now, I’ve come to believe that where it celebrates the achievements of a non-existent physicist, Graeme quietly inserted a private manifesto, reflecting his delight in harmonious friendships, in the synthesis of all music, art and science, and in the dance of a free mind and great and generous spirit. It seemed only right that he should end with lines by his intellectual kinsman, Francis Bacon.

Graeme wrote: “Here we see the topological essence… the action of the group… that disentangles and choreographs the complicated interactions between light and matter, unfolding them into a succession of logical steps. It is the interplay of these operations that constitutes the essential magic, the wave of the enchanter’s wand, and it brings to mind Einstein’s description of Bohr’s atomic theory as the highest form of musicality in the sphere of thought. In the words of the philosopher Francis Bacon:

‘The sweetest and best Harmony is, when every Part or Instrument, is not heard by itself, but a Conflation of them all.’”

After that Dissonance meal, Graeme and I continued our conversation by email. In one of his last messages he said, ‘Everything is beautiful now, with flecks of ice.’

Philippe Sands

[This is an extracted and reconstructed part of a longer speech]

Graeme’s deep polymathy extended far beyond science. In preparing this address, I went through my email correspondence with him, over many years, and I was reminded of the utter joy and breadth of it, the energy and the sense of life and excitement.

We would often meet for an exhibition in London. I loved his attention to detail, on Egon Schiele, for example, as we prepared for a show at the Courtauld:

“You're right that the map uses a Schiele-esque palette, or vice-versa. However, the effect is very different. The fields in the map are a healthy green, whereas Schiele's green is the antithesis of health: a ghastly pallor. And his reds are blood-flecks, or engorged erotic flesh. He does indeed treat the body as a map, but more of a butcher's or surgeon's map. It's very uncomfortable, though brilliant and fascinating.”

What a revealing description! It says so much, and leaves so much to interpretation. With Graeme you always needed to read carefully, and listen carefully, and watch the face and eyes too, as they also talk.

An exhibition was always better with food, we worked out. I gathered his emails on that subject too, in advance of a get together. Here are three invitations to meet, each offered a year apart.

Year 1:

“I have a favourite wine bar, Terroirs in William IV St close to the National Gallery. Not sublime food, but very agreeable.”

A year later, Year 2 …

“After the Courtauld “we could proceed to supper, you might be interested in trying a place that I find very enjoyable -- a wine bar, really, but still with excellent, authentic food and interesting wine to sample. It's called Terroirs ….”

And a year after that, Year 3 ….

“After the Royal Academy we could go to one of my favourite wine bars, the wine is interesting although I’m afraid I really don’t rate the food, it’s called Terroirs”

Ian has just described how Graeme helped him write certain scientific parts of some of his books. Graeme helped me too. Indeed, his scientific advice turned out to be absolutely central to a historic victory in a case for which I have a particular attachment, at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, known as the World Court. Australia had taken Japan to court over its so-called scientific whaling in the Southern Ocean, claiming that it was in breach of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. This convention offered a carve-out for scientific study, and the question of whether or not Japan was in breach rested on a careful dissection of what exactly consists a scientific entreprise: what is scientific research? .

In my preparation for the case, I had naturally started a corespondence with Graeme to understand the nature of science. Surely science needs to collect data, I proposed to Graeme, working as devil's advocate in order to get my arguments straight, and therefore when Japanese ships hunt whales, measure them, weigh them, catalogue them, could it not be said they are involved in a scientific enterprise? Graeme would have none of it: you need a theory, a hypothesis that you will prove or disprove. There are endless facts in the world ... but only a special subset of those are important to science at any moment in the history of its progress.

I had my concept: fact-collecting without hypothesis is more akin to stamp-collecting than to the advancement of knowledge. But now came the icing. I said to Graeme: "what would really be useful, you know, is if you could find that thought expressed by a great scientist, and in preference a great French scientist". I explained that authority always matters - hence the need for the pithy quote from a known source ... and the added detail that some judges were francophone so a French quote would be even better.

And within a few days the email arrived. in 1902, the great French mathematician and scientist Jules-Henry Poincare had said in his book La Science et L’Hypothese: “Science is built up of facts, as a house is built of stones; but an accumulation of facts is no more science than a heap of stones a house.”

I had it on good authority, after Australia won the case, that Poincare's bon-mot had a certain effect, a pithy encapsulation of an entire issue in a few words, spoken in French. Thank you Graeme!

Tony Curzon Price

I want to remember Graeme the adventurer.

The first day I ever spent with him would define a pattern for almost all of the rest, a pattern I would happily repeat with variation ad infinitum. First, there was Graeme’s thrill to discover that my rucksack contained a paraglider. We walked up Sunday Hill behind Roger and Sophie’s farm, despite it being much too shallow to actually achieve flight, and first I, then Graeme would get strapped in and make the motions of taking off. We were quite happy to feel breezes, look at clouds and get ready for the time we’d be on the right hill.

We eventually joined the rest of the party on a walk, and when I turned up some mushrooms and said I thought they were edible, Graeme never expressed the slightest mistrust and gathered - and later ate - more enthusiastically than anyone else. And then, at a gate in the fence, we started a conversation which would keep going over many expeditions - I talked about games, signals and deceptions; and Graeme talked about the paradoxes of quantum phenomena - that time, he delighted in explaining how it should be possible to probe and measure some very delicate object - maybe a cell - without ever interacting with it.

When, years later, Graeme talked about the ideas and landscapes that somehow resonate with character, those for which one develops a special appetite, I remembered his interference-free measurement, and it struck me that the odd combination of his own absolute gentleness with his complete inhabiting of every complex landscape or social setting he found himself in had something of the paradoxical particle-behaviour he so loved.

I am not sure what the spirit of adventure is, but Graeme let it infuse every detail of what we did together.

Many of us here tonight will have experienced the thrilling micro-adventure of a city bicycle ride with Graeme. I remember one from Kings Cross station to Dulwich Picture gallery - Graeme had his Sylva compass and a sense that it should take about 45 minutes on a due South bearing. What followed was a hurtle armed with a pragmatic attitude towards traffic rules designed to protect pedestrians from cars and cars from each other … and happily creating a play-space for a couple of nimble pedalling urban adventurers.

It was an exhibition of miniatures we got to an hour and a half later, and over a rewarding cake, Graeme said of looking at miniatures that perhaps the essence of what he loved in any domain was having a dark and intricate space in which he could put his hands, feel around, perhaps peer in, to discover its hidden secrets.

That view of his love of the miniature and intricate seemed at the time another paradox - it did not fit the magnificence of the landscapes he so loved and in which we spent so much time together. But I gradually made sense of how it fitted with the way he approached scrambling in those Scottish mountains.

September ‘99, pouring rain, Sgur nan Gillian on the Cuillin Ridge. Bjarne, Graeme and I.

Let me quote from a note in the back of Graeme’s guidebook to Scottish Scrambles: “Climbed first chimney, taking rope with me. OK despite rain. The pinnacles looked alarming but went easily - [insert] for me [end insert]. The others refused to follow, so I ascended alone.”

(Reading the notes scribbled on other outings, it seemed as if Bjarne and my experience was not unique - we have this from an outing with David MacKay - “D very jumpy (“I’m on a short fuse”) and cross with me for not waiting to help him down”; and this from an outing with Andreas: “Then scrambled up An Stac- Terrific for me, though not poor Andreas [who] said “I don’t want any more adrenalin sports!””.)

Here is my memory of that day. We had almost no visibility and were already sodden through. At the top of that chimney, we went along a knife-edge ridge and, where it ran out, needed to take a confident single step across a chasm, onto a narrow ledge, blindly catching a cavity in the rock at full arm-stretch. Graeme, with his long limbs, huge hands and apparent absolute confidence in his place in space could not understand why we, these two, young athletic types in our lycra and Gore-Tex, simply could not make ourselves do it. We wanted to but couldn’t. That was all there was to it.

It was as if the whole mountain, for Graeme, was like that miniature that he would probe and discover, feel and touch, dive into and spread over. He would explore it like he explored so many ideas on our expeditions - finding their extremities, looking for new angles, always probling to discover what was really there.

His huge hands and limbs opened up climbing opportunities for him just as his extraordinary mind opened his conversation to airy steps, the grabbing of chance thoughts and imaginative leaps.

Bjarne and I, feeling pedestrian, found Graeme four or five hours later when our paths finally joined again.

And then there was flying.

One of the best solo flights we had was from the Pointe d’Ireuse, a small summit between Chamonix and Lake Geneva. We walked through the forest and steep rocks from the woodcutters’ cabins to the point, our loads heavy and uncomfortable in the summer heat. Alain, of the expedition too, had decided he would simply wait for the thermal lower down and promised to see us in the air. We’d finished our sandwiches and had lain out our gliders when, about an hour later, we spotted Alain’s glider thermalling from below, getting visibly larger at every turn. We needed to hurry to catch the same bubble of air up, and I was worried - Graeme was not always the most consistent launcher, somehow often failing to find the resolve to take the whole plunge that came so easily to him on rock. He insisted I go first, which I did. After three turns in the thermal, I was surprised and delighted to see that Graeme had done everything needed and was now just below me. Graeme stuck to my tails as we screeched up and up. Occasionally, the timing would be right for me to look straight at him. He was smiling and leaning forward and intensely concentrated - just as he would look when driving a miniscule hire car at speed on mountain roads. All the delight and concentration of a young boy.

Flying kept us in adventure - and misadventure - for years. We started flying tandem - it was Graeme’s ever logical solution to his enduring difficulties with take-offs. From the Isle of Arran to the Sierra de Gredos; from the Torridon hills to the vallee du Grif … I launched, we flew, and often we’d tumble at the landing, I never quite getting used to how much lower down were Graeme’s feet than mine.

Slowly, our nerve went; Graeme, who had now bought his beautiful piano, was getting more and more worried to preserve the full functioning of his hands. We never soared in tandem to the heights we’d aspired. But every time we came close, we shared that same boyish delight.

Perhaps that is why one of my fondest memories is of a conversation with Juanito - maybe 15 - in Guayaquil, Ecuador, on our way to the Galapagos. We were walking up a hill in the city with a slightly gentrified favella stuck to its side. Juanito approached us, and somehow Graeme could tell the difference between an annoying peddler and someone who wanted contact with another world. A halting conversation followed, Juanito explaining how much he would like to travel to Europe, and Graeme listening and questioning, never condescending, enthusiastic and precise, taking everything as an opportunity to tell this boy how it might one day happen.

That was the day, walking back along the banks of the slow, wide, green Rio Guayas, that Graeme continued with a conversation we had long been having about the multiverse. “Did you know”, he asked, “that we’re each of us immortal? That the only world that you will always be aware of is the one in which the sub-atomic events always line up to stop you from ever having died? And since all possible worlds are actual in the multiverse, you can rest assured that you’ll always be aware of a world in which you are immortal.”

I eventually agreed. He was obviously right.

But I pointed out that our friends were almost certain to be aware of one of the worlds in which we had died.

Immortality as loneliness.

I think back to the Rio Guayas, happy that there is a world still enjoying the company of this wonderful man.

But so sad it is not this one.

Roger Scruton

I counted Graeme Mitchison as the best of my friends. But it was a characteristic of Graeme that I was only one of many people to whom he stood in this special relation. There was no barrier between Graeme and those whom he liked, and all his friends were aware of being unreservedly singled out as recipients of his affection. More than anyone I have known Graeme was conscious of the individuality of the other person, and saw all his intimates in the same way, as uniquely valuable individuals whom it was a privilege to know, a duty to help and a pleasure to love.

Graeme’s astonishing talent for friendship drew upon what to me were his two most striking virtues: the far-reaching and imaginative power of his intellect, and what I can only describe as the purity of his soul. Graeme was a distinguished mathematician who had applied his theory-building powers in many areas of biology and physics, and whose eyes would immediately light up when he saw a way of translating some intellectual problem into mathematical terms. For a couple of years I would regularly stay in his house in Maid’s Causeway. Always, when descending to breakfast in his basement kitchen, I would find him at the table with an open book to the left of his plate, and a sheet of paper to the right. And no matter what the subject-matter of the book - it could be a treatise on Quantum Mechanics or a sober Victorian novel - the sheet of paper would be covered in mathematical formulae, constantly crossed out and added to as he turned over the pages of the book. He concurred with Galileo, that God wrote the universe in the language of mathematics, disagreeing, however, in one small detail. To the question ‘who wrote it?’ he saw no answer; to the question ‘what does it mean?’ he devoted his life.

Graeme did not see science and culture as opposed forms of thought. On the contrary, they were for him inseparable, and he saw art, music and literature as the vital frame through which we explore the world, the necessary preliminary for any science. The beauty of his mind was never more clearly shown than when playing, listening to and discussing music. Graeme was not merely an exceptional performer and an inspiration to all who listened to or played with him. Music, for him, was the phenomenon in which the ‘language of mathematics’ can be most clearly understood. All our feelings achieve objectivity and stability in music, and it is for this reason that musical taste really matters. Graeme was a severe critic of music because music for him was life. To play duets with him was one of the great educational experiences of my life. His form beside me was a magnet, drawing my emotions along the path laid out by the notes, which he navigated with total confidence, for they came from inside himself.

It is when making music with Graeme that I was most vividly aware of that other great virtue for which I admired and loved him, his purity of soul. It may seem odd to use the word ‘soul’ to describe this product of the atheist culture, for whom scientific method could never be set aside merely in the interests of consolation. Graeme had been formed by Cambridge Darwinism, by Scottish humanism, and by the sceptical orthodoxies of his extended socialist family. But none of those cultural habits had any weight for him, comparable to the individual identity of the person who happened to be standing before him. He was immediately ‘soul-to-soul’ with the other person. All thoughts of exploitation, advantage, or domination were alien to him. A kind of spontaneous loving kindness formed the premise from which his relationships began, and all his gestures were informed by this. He did not suffer fools gladly, but he showed them, through his sympathy, how not to be fools. Indeed all were on their best behaviour not because they tried to be, but because he showed that this is the natural and the easiest way. Nobody that I have encountered had this gift as Graeme had. You came before him as a soul. Nobody believed more firmly than he did, that we are animals, governed by the laws of biology, written like everything else in the language of mathematics. But nobody showed more clearly in his life that we are also souls, who have a beautiful dialect of their own.

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