Interests

How did a normal fun-loving suburban London kid end up as a cosmologist and astrobiologist living in Arizona and directing BEYOND? People often ask me how I became a scientist. The recently published book shown opposite contains an essay about my early years. Read all about my knife-throwing and bomb-making exploits; how I ground telescope mirrors on the kitchen table; and my failure to impress the opposite sex with my lovable nerd persona.

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» Poetry
» Davies and Sport
» Geographical trivia

 

Poetry

I wrote this poem for the U.K National Science Week, 2005.

 

Homage to Einstein

 

Einstein came down like a wolf on the fold,
Determined to slaughter the theories of old;
And the thought in his mind was of light on the wing,
How its impact on time would change everything.

 

The relative motion of objects would show

How space gets distorted and time cannot flow,
How future and past are just figures of speech,
And events can't link up outside of light's reach.

 

The dynamics of bodies seen moving this way,
Makes Newton's equations redundant today;

Momentum and energy too are not spared,
While mass reappears with a factor c squared

The photoelectric effect came up next,
A subject that everyone found to be vexed;
But quantizing light soon showed us the way,
The photon was born and Einstein could say

 

"Annus mirabilis? It's just a start,
I won't be content till I've got to the heart
Of what makes the universe function like this,
For it's Nature that's really the mirabilis."

 

(With apologies to Lord Byron)

 

Davies and Sport

          This is an oxymoron. Somewhere in the great genetic lottery called Darwinian evolution, the sporting gene got dropped from the Davies lineage. At school I blundered through cricket, limped through soccer and sneaked the odd game of tennis. When I lived in sport-obsessed Australia this dismal record was a blot on my reputation, so to make up for lost time, I took up running. About three times a week I run 7 km (4 miles) in one go. It takes about 35 minutes and I always finish with a sprint followed by an alarming fit of panting. I am gratified that fellow runners along the route I take don’t seem to keep up with me, and even dogs have a hard time. Now I’m surrounded by mountains in beautiful Arizona, I feel I should take up trekking – at least in the winter months.

 

Geographical trivia

          I have always loved maps, and as a boy I studied them in meticulous detail. I used to concoct my own maps: imaginary countries with wiggly coastlines, make-believe underground train systems. Early on I discovered all manner of geographical anomalies, such as countries in disconnected fragments, borders that wound back on each other. I once wrote to the Queen to clarify whether Monmouthshire (alas, no more) was part of England or Wales, and whether Berwick-on-Tweed was still at war with Germany (or was it Russia?). I was thrilled to learn of the recent diplomatic stand-off over a tiny uninhabited Spanish-owned island off the coast of Morocco. And last year I got to visit San Marino, one of only three countries in the world totally embedded in another country (can you name the other two?). For those who share this idiotic passion, the following article I wrote for the Adelaide Advertiser may amuse.

The Hutt River saga

          Last month South Australia was privileged to host a royal visit by no less a dignitary than Prince Leonard of Hutt River Province. His Royal Highness was in town to bestow a knighthood on a former Advertiserjournalist. Though the Prince's tiny enclave in W.A. can boast an area of only 7474 hectares, it cannot lay claim to be the world's smallest sovereign entity. That accolade rests with the obscure Knights of St. John, an ancient religious order that once counted Rhodes and Malta among its possessions. It now has no territory at all, apart from a large house in Rome. Nevertheless it maintains diplomatic representation in dozens of capitals.

          The Vatican is one of the world's tiniest independent nations, with a citizenship of under a thousand and less than half a square kilometre of land. It also has the curious distinction of consisting of many disconnected fragments. The Pope's summer palace at Castel Goldonfo, for example, is Vatican territory. It is joined to the palace gardens by two bridges that pass over narrow lanes. The road surface beneath one of the bridges belongs to Italy, so at this point one country literally passes under another. The sovereignty of the portion of the road below the second bridge is more contentious, and became the subject of legal wrangling following a traffic accident at that very spot. I once asked a Vatican official to tot up the number of his country's territorial parts. "It's so complicated," he replied, "even God doesn't know."

          The Vatican is not the only country to leave tiny enclaves scattered among other territories. There is a little village called Baarle Hertog situated entirely within Holland that belongs to Belgium. Scarcely more than a post office and a few houses, it nevertheless uses Belgian stamps. A similar situation obtains in Campione d'Italia, located on the shores of Lake Lugano in Swizterland. Although several kilometres from the frontier, the town flies the Italian flag and proudly maintains its Italian sovereignty.

          Stranger still is a patch of land near Schaffhaussen in Switzerland that still belongs to Germany. It consists of a few fields of farmland, and the village of Busingen. It must have had a strange history. What happened, for example, during the Second World War? Did Nazi Germany assert a right of access through neutral Switzerland? And are these Swiss pastures today officially part of NATO? The converse situation must have existed in wartime France, since Llivia, a pocket-sized portion of the French Pyrenees near Andorra, is actually Spanish.

          The most famous enclave was West Berlin, which before reunification proclaimed its status as part of West Germany, in spite of being separated from the rest of the country by 200 km of East Germany. Less well known is that West Berlin itself had a number of separated fragments dotted around it. Special protocol permitted Allied forces access through the Russian zone, to protect the odd houses and streets that were thus isolated. Reciprocally, the Russians retained ownership of their War Memorial, located a few hundred metres within West Berlin, and were permitted to station an honour guard there.

          Hutt River Province aside, Australia's political geography is remarkably uncomplicated, with State boundaries that are mostly straight lines. However, the ACT does have its own version of West Berlin at Jervis Bay. And there is even a mild geographical curiosity in our own backyard - a minute piece of South Australia that lies to the east of a part of Victoria. See if you can find it on a map.