Last Friday Sophia and I finally made it to Oxford to have dinner with Dr Mark Roberts, winner of the Fluorine Zone in June 2010. Mark and his girlfriend Elsa had joined us for our post-event party in Bristol. As a way of saying thank you for a night out with cider-swilling, tapas-munching IAS staff, he invited us to dinner at Lincoln College.
A tour of his Biochemistry Lab gave us a sniff of what he does during the day. We saw some rather specialised state of the art equipment including inverted microscopes, Ultrasound machines to break down cells, and -80°C freezers. We also saw some distinctly low-tech gear such as a VHS recorder (thankfully now used to prop other equipment only) and a French Pressure Cell Press which breaks down cell walls through sheer brute force.
As interesting as that all was, the magic moment was still to come.
We walked back to Lincoln College and went for a pre-dinner sherry in the Senior Common Room. A bell rang in the distance and Mark asked us to follow him. In my mind I had envisaged a nice cosy dinner in some staff common room, so I was a little surprised to turn a corner and find a hall full of students standing behind benches waiting for us to take our place at the top table. Grace was said in Latin for a couple of minutes and dinner was served.
It was fascinating to hear, see and feel the history of the College. Founded 1427 by the Bishop of Lincoln (Oxford fell within the Diocese of Lincoln at that point apparently), benefactors and more recently valued staff adorned the walls and a wooden plate from the 15th century was used to let the serving team know we were finished.
More interesting was the conversation about the nature of the college system. Is the rather unusual Harry Potteresque dining set-up a good thing or an alienating practice? It’s certainly different from most people’s dining experience but the communal eating experience has benefits. The small size of the college, 300 undergraduates, is appealing, as is the multi-disciplinary nature of the students and staff. Our table was graced with a Biochemist, an English lecturer (apologies for incorrect terminology) and a Mathematician.
It was a fabulous, unforgettable experience. Thank you, Mark. Thank you very much.