On Cambridge #3: My Top 10 moments, Part 2/3
6. “We don’t know, Kilian”
One of the things I’ll remember most fondly from Cambridge are my supervisions with Bob Dillon. He’s a brilliant teacher and, of all the people I met in Cambridge, I was most awed by his intelligence and thought processes. This guy does between eight to ten hours of physics/maths supervisions back to back, each and every day (he typically supervises more than 60 students). He does these 8+ hours with no breaks. Despite this, regardless of the hour, he was razor sharp, on point, and had marked my work along with everyone else’s. He’s a machine.
He’s also excellent at sarcasm and has a brilliant sense of humour.
Many of my supervisions with him, particularly in second year, were as filled with hysterics from me and my peers as they were insightful physics revelations. Most of the hysterics were caused by the chaotic combination of Bob, me and my friends trying to communicate effectively but often failing. One particular occasion stands out as the funniest supervision ever.
We were in second year in Lent term and were going through some Quantum Physics supervision questions. Bob was there, as always, teaching me along with my very good college friends Stephen and Kilian. Stephen is a spectacularly great guy, very friendly but often quiet and focused in supervisions, punctuated with the odd sarcastic remark about a question’s trick solution. Kilian on the other hand... well, Kilian is hard to describe. Let me try.
Start with the character of Sheldon from the Big Bang theory. Keep all the brilliance but subtract the arrogance and occasional callousness. Replace it with a caring, good natured, good humoured and humble personality. Perhaps due to his giant intellect, he has a propensity (by his own admission) to occasionally misunderstand social situations and often tune out of them completely, only to tune back in again and start talking about something completely unrelated.. This was one of those occasions.
We were going through a particular question - I believe it was the third of the supervision - and we had already been giggling over some nonsense. We were in a rare situation where Kilian, the physics genius, had gotten a question wrong but Stephen and I had succeeded. So we smugly leant back in our chairs as Kilian asked Bob to explain where he had gone wrong. Bob calmly began talking through the question.
He was barely through his third sentence when Kilian put his hands down on the table and, to the best of my recollection, the following exchange occurred:
“Actually Bob, I don’t care about that”.
Stephen and I immediately share a quick glance and grin as Kilian continues.
“Bob, like, if I’m at the edge of the universe, and I throw a rock towards it, what happens dude?
Like, is there an edge?
Where does it go?”
At this point Stephen and I are giggling. Kilian is being perfectly serious, suddenly exasperated by his lack of knowledge of the edge of the universe.
Bob smiles, clearly enjoying the question, but takes a moment to compose himself before saying:
“We don’t know, Kilian. There are lots of models that...”
“But Bob, like, what happens dude?”
Kilian tries again.
“Say I have a rock, and, like, you know, I throw it, like where does it go man?
WHERE DOES IT GO?”
At this point, Stephen and I are crying.
Bob calmly continued to explain. “We don’t know Kilian, no-one has been there. There are models of an infinite universe, obviously the edge of the observable universe is constantly expanding at the speed of light, so you’d be hard pressed to come up against an observable edge. It’s possible our universe is toroidal, or self contained, so no such hard ‘edge’ exists….”
Stephen and I see our opportunity to shine, and jump in, after we catch our breath from our hysterical laughter. Stephen says something clever about Relativity. I say the word ‘epistemology’.
Neither is very effective.
Kilian tries again
“But Bob, what happens man?! Like that’s so weird to think about.”
Then he stops.
“OK fine, we should probably get back to the questions”
And just as surely as Kilian’s curiosity spiked, it faded. Bob resumed his explanation of the question. It took me and Stephen considerable time to compose ourselves.
And that’s how many of our supervisions went.
5. Backwards man
I could have easily filled this list with moments exclusively from my antics with the Cambridge Impronauts, but in the interests of a broad spectrum of moments I have picked but one.
It’s the second night of my first long-form improv show - Improvengers Assemble - and I’m in my first term of third year.
This was a superhero-themed show. Each evening we asked the audience to write down a superhero of their creation. After warming the audience up, we would take two suggestions and ask the audience to vote on which one they wanted to see. We would then, for the next hour, invent an entirely new superhero story.
The first night had gone OK, but we had been a tad punished by the suggestion chosen. The superhero of the first night was called McDreamy, and their power was “every hour on the hour they fall asleep for 8 minutes and dream about ferrets”. Furthermore, we tried to do it in the style of Ant Man. Personally, I was nervous as hell throughout the performance and wasn’t too happy with how I did. In fact we were all a bit down because, although the show hadn’t been bad, we felt we could do much better.
Roll on the second night, and the audience are voting on suggestions again. The superhero they choose is.... “Backwards man: Does everything (including talking) backwards”. As soon as one of us read out the suggestion we all groaned and looked at each other in despair. Of course, the audience were already in hysterics at the thought of one of us doing a show backwards for an hour. It quickly became apparent that Backwards man is what the audience wanted to see – in the style of the film The Incredibles.
The lights go down and all of us are sitting at the edge of the stage.
No one really wants to be backwards man.
It felt for a crushing moment we were going to have to deal with an exceptionally difficult suggestion once again.
Then the man, the legend - Joel Lipson - stood up, walked backwards onstage and started imitating being beaten up in reverse. After this, a scene in which me and Ed Elcock, who played the ruthless Dr Chronos (I was his assistant/romantic interest), talked about how we had messed with the flow of time to make Backwards man...well...backwards.
In the next hour, time went forwards and back, alternate timelines and entropy were traversed. Weird action scenes and self-raising children (they were made of bread) all entered the show. It was stupidly fun and, I feel, absolutely hilarious. After the show we all rushed backstage and group-hugged Joel because, for that night he really was a god-damn superhero to us.
I still remember it as one of the funniest shows I’ve ever done. Not everyone agrees. Peter Cuthbert, who was doing tech for the show, that it was the best piece of Improv he’d ever seen. However, the very experienced Impronaut, Helena Forrow, described it as entirely average.
After that, the rest of the shows we did were all super strong, satisfying and memorable – at least in my view.
I was from then on I was truly hooked on improv.
4. The Jesus preacher
In the centre of Cambridge, roughly between Christs and Sidney Sussex college, it’s common to encounter preachers of some denomination warning of impending hellfires and promising salvation.
Walking through here regularly, one will come to recognise some recurring characters. One in particular I encountered in my first year. I made eye contact with the man in question and he began telling me how I would definitely be going to hell unless I sought salvation in Jesus. I can’t quite remember the specifics of what I said, but it was something smug and smart-arse like Hell sounded more like my kind of place - filled with more interesting people. I barely broke my pace and walked on.
Using the potent combination every Londoner knows of a brisk walk, no eye contact, and keeping a 10 metre radius, I successfully avoided any potential further contact with this gentlemen or any of his associates for the majority of my Cambridge career. That was until a lent term in my third year.
I was feeling pretty tired and had foolishly entered the 10 metre radius, unaware I was doing so. The very same man met my eye and began to tell me much as he had done years prior.
This time I stood there and listened.
And it dawned on me that, what this man was doing made some degree of sense, at least to him.
Take this thought experiment – suppose you knew (not believed, but knew) that everyone had a disease that would bring them acute suffering in the near future. Further, you have a cure, but it requires them to accept that they have a disease in the first place for it to work.
What would you do? What could you do but try desperately to tell everyone and save as many as you could? You’d be yelling it from the top of your lungs everywhere, in pubs and clubs, to your friends or perhaps even out on the street.
Imagine the frustration when no one listens. You’re laughed at. Dismissed as crazy. Even though you know what’s going to happen and you just want to help.
And this guy was still here, year after year. Having received all sorts of snarky, dismissive comments from the Cambridge student population. I realised he wasn’t trying to sell me anything and there was no sense of any malice. Here was a man just trying to do what he thought was the right thing.
So I stood and listened. I tried to see this encounter through his eyes.
I spoke to him, and said: “you’re really just trying to save as many as you can here – right? You know something they don’t, and you’re desperately trying to get them to realise this. You’re just trying to help?”
Clearly not used to being engaged in this way, the man was startled. He paused, his tone changed, he relaxed and he replied “well, yes, that’s exactly it…” his expression softened and I continued:
“Look, mate, I’m too far gone – I’m ridiculously agnostic. I appreciate the fact that you’re trying to do what you see as the right thing. This is wasted on me. But uh, good luck”.
He smiled and shook my hand and simply said “Thank-you”.
I meekishly added as I departed “and, erm, God bless”. It seemed like the right thing to say.
Cambridge is a highly competitive environment. There are many bright people working intensely, and often trying to one-up each other. I could have dismissed this preacher with an ‘educated’ comment, laugh at him and walk on. As I had done, in my first year.
Isn’t that arrogant? Do I need to try make myself feel superior at the expense of this poor bloke? I don’t have to accept this man’s philosophies to understand and appreciate his intentions. With a culture of Richard Dawkins’ atheism brutally smashing any theological suggestion it’s easy to follow the same sharp path.
Maybe I’m naïve and he is trying to scam people. And perhaps there is a time and place for the snarky put-downs of theological suggestions.
It’s also possible, I guess, that everything he says is true. I could well go to hell because I haven’t accepted Jesus into my heart (it belongs exclusively to ….. but that’s another story).
In any of those scenarios, isn’t it better to choose a kinder, gentler option when you can?
As I walked away I had this rare feeling that I’d actually matured a little as a person.
And because of this I’m better than most of you.
Third part coming soonish