Today's Reading

I had six or seven close friends in St Albans, and I remember having long discussions and arguments about everything, from radio-controlled models to religion. One of the big questions we discussed was the origin of the universe, and whether it required a God to create it and set it going. I had heard that light from distant galaxies was shifted towards the red end of the spectrum and this was supposed to indicate that the universe was expanding. But I was sure there must be some other reason for the red shift. Maybe light got tired and more red on its way to us? An essentially unchanging and everlasting universe seemed so much more natural. (It was only years later, after the discovery of the cosmic microwave background about two years into my PhD research, that I realised I had been wrong.)

I was always very interested in how things operated, and I used to take them apart to see how they worked, but I was not so good at putting them back together again. My practical abilities never matched up to my theoretical qualities. My father encouraged my interest in science and was very keen that I should go to Oxford or Cambridge. He himself had gone to University College, Oxford, so he thought I should apply there. At that time, University College had no fellow in mathematics, so I had little option but to try for a scholarship in natural science. I surprised myself by being successful.

The prevailing attitude at Oxford at that time was very anti-work. You were supposed to be brilliant without effort, or to accept your limitations and get a fourth-class degree. I took this as an invitation to do very little. I'm not proud of this, I'm just describing my attitude at the time, shared by most of my fellow students. One result of my illness has been to change all that. When you are faced with the possibility of an early death, it makes you realise that there are lots of things you want to do before your life is over.

Because of my lack of work, I had planned to get through the final exam by avoiding questions that required any factual knowledge and focus instead on problems in theoretical physics. But I didn't sleep the night before the exam and so I didn't do very well. I was on the borderline between a first- and second-class degree, and I had to be interviewed by the examiners to determine which I should get. In the interview they asked me about my future plans. I replied that I wanted to do research. If they gave me a first, I would go to Cambridge. If I only got a second, I would stay in Oxford. They gave me a first.

In the long vacation following my final exam, the college offered a number of small travel grants. I thought my chances of getting one would be greater the further I proposed to go, so I said I wanted to go to Iran. In the summer of 1962 I set out, taking a train to Istanbul, then on to Erzuerum in eastern Turkey, then to Tabriz, Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz and Persepolis, the capital of the ancient Persian kings. On my way home, I and my travelling companion, Richard Chiin, were caught in the Bouin-Zahra earthquake, a massive 7.1 Richter quake that killed over 12,000 people. I must have been near the epicentre, but I was unaware of it because I was ill, and in a bus that was bouncing around on the Iranian roads that were then very uneven.

We spent the next several days in Tabriz, while I recovered from severe dysentery and from a broken rib sustained on the bus when I was thrown against the seat in front, still not knowing of the disaster because we didn't speak Farsi. It was not until we reached Istanbul that we learned what had happened. I sent a postcard to my parents, who had been anxiously waiting for ten days, because the last they had heard I was leaving Tehran for the disaster region on the day of the quake. Despite the earthquake, I have many fond memories of my time in Iran. Intense curiosity about the world can put one in harm's way, but for me this was probably the only time in my life that this was true.

I was twenty in October 1962, when I arrived in Cambridge at the department of applied mathematics and theoretical physics. I had applied to work with Fred Hoyle, the most famous British astronomer of the time. I say astronomer, because cosmology then was hardly recognised as a legitimate field. However, Hoyle had enough students already, so to my great disappointment I was assigned to Dennis Sciama, of whom I had not heard. But it was just as well I hadn't been a student of Hoyle, because I would have been drawn into defending his steady-state theory, a task which would have been harder than negotiating Brexit. I began my work by reading old textbooks on general relativity—as ever, drawn to the biggest questions.

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