Times Higher Education Supplement May
This is going to be a good week. I only have
to go into the University once and have four whole days at home to work.
Bliss. Of course before I do any real work theres some marking,
letters, an urgent book review - but I might finish the pile today.
I should have known.
A journalist rings; doing a feature about psychic
pets. Yes, there are alternative explanations. Aliens. No - we dont
have proof theyve landed. Yes - people do believe in abductions
but it could be sleep paralysis, when we wake up from dreaming sleep
and cannot move. I sound like a sound-bite machine.
A TV producer rings. I have recently learned
two really useful skills; to say no, and to ask for money. I finally
know what I really enjoy in life - and probably always did - thinking
and writing. You cant think and write if you accept every invitation,
every TV show, every lecture. I used to travel the world. After all,
if someone is paying my fare, luxury hotel, inviting me to their
important conference, how could I refuse? The answer is - just say thank
you very much but Id rather stay at home and work.
My daughters first GCSE today. Is it
as awful for them as it was for us? Worse I expect, and certainly theyre
more advanced. Her maths includes things I did at "A" level,
and things I never did at all. I feel aged. I cant imagine what
the world will be like by the time they leave home.
Ill really finish the pile today. I mark
two psychology projects. If I do one a day I can get them all in by
Thursday. Im on target - just.
Then theres a paper to referee. When
you submit a paper to an academic journal it is refereed by at least
two experts in the field. I expect my papers to be refereed, and naturally
feel obliged to referee others in return. But when? Years ago I cut
my full-time lectureship to half-time and recently to even less. The
reason? Because I want to think and write and do research, and a modern
university job just does not provide time for all that - or for refereeing.
I make up the rest of my income (just about) from TV, radio and writing
- buying my thinking time from the media. But the refereeing? Effectively
I work at paid jobs to find time to referee other peoples papers.
I am worrying about memes again. A meme is
"A self-replicating element of culture passed on by imitation".
Songs and stories are memes; habits, skills and fashions are memes;
in fact everything youve ever learned from anyone else is a meme.
Thats most of what you know. But what exactly is imitation? Ive
just written a whole book about memes and Im still worried about
My two PhD students come over. I argue that
imitation is different from simpler forms of social learning. When blue
tits learned to peck at milk bottle tops to get the cream, the habit
spread across the country from bird to bird. But this wasnt true
imitation because they already knew how to peck. The students disagree
- loudly. Theres another problem. A book of stories or scientific
ideas contains memes, but we dont normally call reading imitation.
I argue it is. This keeps us going for an hour or two. This is fun.
My one day at college. Its hot. My research
assistant is running an experiment in our tiny combined office and lab.
I give in the project marks and attend a meeting. I have a secretary
one day a week and he helps me plough through the mail. Since my recent
Desert Island Disks theres been a lot. Some write to thank
me for explaining about sleep paralysis - now they know they are not
alone and are not going mad. Im glad. Many send accounts of their
extraordinary experiences. I feel inadequate to the task. I cannot read
them all thoroughly, let alone write helpful replies. I try to pick
up on the ones in distress but I probably miss some. My scribbled post
cards are a poor response to life-changing experiences. Then there are
those who know Im wrong. There are psychic powers, there
is life after death, explain this. .... I cannot. I hear them
sneering. The art of knowing you don't know is prized in science (and
by me) but not, it seems, among the psychics.
Oh bliss. It really is true. The sun is shining.
And I can work.
The kids leave at 8. Breakfast in the sun.
8.30 Im at my desk. I see no one. The phone doesnt ring
I am starting a paper on memes and free will.
If memes are replicators, getting themselves copied from brain to brain,
then our brains will all get filled up with stuff, whether we
like it or not. In fact, our precious self might be just
a conglomeration of memes. On this view, the genes have constructed
our bodies and the memes have constructed our minds. There is nothing
left over for free will to do. I start writing (but who is writing?).
Coffee at 11 (exactly 11). If my partner were
here wed play table tennis. In ten minutes you can have a bit
of exercise, stir up the brain cells, defeat the enemy (or not), and
be back at your desk. I do 5 minutes weeding instead.
Lunch at one (exactly). They moved the Archers.
I feel bereft. But it does mean Ill be back to my writing that
bit sooner and after all, thats all I really want to do.
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