Cambridge ! A city where the unknown manifests into the known; where visions become reality; aspirations strive for perfection & the divine intervenes for realisation… The birthplace of many a revolutionary thought backed by concrete action that has impacted the whole of humanity…
Considered one of the most academically selective institutions, Cambridge is ranked the top university (along with Oxford) according to Times World University rankings 2017 and is the 4th oldest university in continuous operation (founded in 1209).
From Sir Isaac Newton to our own Srinivasa Ramanujan the list of ‘Cantabrigiensis’ who have impacted the world to be a better place is awe inspiring… Sri Aurobindo, President Fakrudeen Ali Ahmed, Sarojini Naidu, Jawaharlal Nehru, Jagdish Chandra Bose, Subramanyam Chandrasekar, M.S.Swaminathan, Mohammad Hidayatullah, Charles Babbage, Charles Darwin, Stephen Hawking, Niels Bohr, James Maxwell, James Watson, Francis Crick, Bertrand Russell, A.A. Milne and so many many more… Walking down the lanes of Cambridge has been so potent…
The famous Cavendish lab (above) housed the department of Physics from the time of James Maxwell (Maxwell’s equations unifying electricity and Magnetism) until it was moved to newer labs in West Cambridge. This is the historical place where James Watson & Francis Crick discovered the double helix structure of the DNA (1953). It was also right here at Cavendish laboratory that John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton split the atom for the first time in 1932! Traditionally, a statue of the building owner holding a miniature is part of every building entrance. This one (on the left) is Cavendish !
The first public announcement of having ‘discovered the secret of life’ (the structure of the DNA) was made by Watson & Crick at The Eagle (originally called Eagle & child) pub just outside of St. Benet’s church to the patrons at lunchtime on 28th February 1953 ! The Eagle (right) also has a rather interesting history of American airmen ‘burning’ graffiti on the ceiling with cigarette buds during the World War Two.
The St.Benet’s church (above) is the oldest building in Cambridge built in 1020. This place was the centre of learning provided by the parishioners when students who revolted from Oxford ended up at Cambridge in 1209. It will celebrate it’s 1000th year 3 years from now (I visited Cambridge in September 2017). Fun fact: Can you guess what those two holes on top were for? Not for shooting ! They were for Owls – Pest control from 1020 to keep the mice away and protect the precious manuscripts!
The King’s Parade is a historical street in central Cambridge with the King’s college on the west end (above) and dominated by the King’s College Chappel on the East end (below), even as the street continues North as Trinity street.
One of the highlights of my visit to Cambridge was climbing the 123 steps to the tower of the Great Saint Mary’s Church opposite the King’s chapel – a 114 feet climb to a panoramic view of Cambridge. (The above photograph is from the tower). Incidentally I learnt the difference between a Church and a Chapel here! A Church is run by priests or clergymen while a Chapel is a private worship space.
The clock on the Great Saint Mary’s Church tower was installed by the University in 1793. The chime is called ‘Cambridge Quarters’ and was composed by two undergraduate students at Cambridge.The number of chime sets matches the number of quarter hours that have passed. It literally became world famous as the ‘Westminster Chimes’ when it was adopted in the 19th century for the clock tower in the Palace of Westminster where the Big Ben (London) hangs!
The King’s parade leads on the north to the Trinity street that houses the renowned Trinity College (not to be confused with the Trinity college of London!). It is here that Srinivasa Ramanujan & Sir Isaac Newton among so many other brilliant scientists were housed during their Cambridge days.
At Cambridge the Academics for all its 31 colleges are under the direct University department faculty. The colleges on the other hand is the place a student is housed and participates in a social life. So students across colleges pursuing the same degree will meet for common lectures under respective academic departments, while the welfare & social events of students across various subjects is taken care by the college they belong to…
Between the King’s parade and Trinity street, resides the Gonville & Caius College where Francis Crick was housed during his PhD. This is also the college where William Harvey who made contributions in anatomy and physiology studied. Harvey was the first known physician to describe completely and in detail the systemic circulation and properties of blood being pumped to the brain and body by the heart.
The Senate house situated between the King’s and Gonville & Caius Colleges, is where all graduation ceremonies of the Cambridge University are conducted. At the University of Cambridge, each graduation is a separate act of the university’s governing body, the Regent House, and must be voted on as with any other act. At the end of the academic year, class-lists for most degrees are posted up on the outer wall of the building. In recent times, some administrators suggested a change in tradition of not posting the results publicly on the outer wall. However, the student community reiterated that they were absolutely willing to fall in line with the tradition and keep the results public! What else can we expect from the creme of society’s students?
The Parker library which belongs to the Corpus Christi College houses one of the world’s greatest collection of rare medieval and renaissance manuscripts. Named after it’s greatest benefactor Archbishop of Canterbury Mathew Parker, the collections include the 6th century gospels of St.Augustine and the oldest manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon chronicle. The St.Augustine Gospels is the oldest surviving Latin illustrated gospel book from the 6th century. It was traditionally used for the swearing of the oath in the enthronements of new Archbishops of Canterbury – a tradition that has been restored since 1945 with the librarian of the Corpus taking it for every ceremony.
The Wren library of the Trinity College houses some of the greatest treasures including Isaac Neuton’s first edition copy of Principia Mathematica with hand written notes for the second edition, a collection of autograph poems of John Milton, Ramanujan’s lost notebook and A.A. Milne’s manuscript of Winnie the Pooh.
To mark its 600th anniversary in 2016, The Cambridge University Library displayed some of its greatest treasures – the annotated first edition of Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica and Charles Darwin’s notes from before he published his theories on evolution. Today, most of the rare manuscript collections at Cambridge have been digitised by them and are available online: Cambridge Digital Library
Outside the Taylor Library of the Corpus Christi College, is the Corpus clock – a £1 million invention of Dr.John Taylor, an alumni of Corpus Christi College. Unveiled by Stephen Hawking (yet another illustrious alumni of Cambridge) in 2008, the corpus clock has no hands or numerals! The grasshopper on top is called by Taylor as Chronophage – Greek for Time eater. As it moves the grasshopper literally eats away time and blinks with satisfaction occasionally. Here is the best part – the clock is accurate only once every five minutes! In Taylor’s words – “Basically I view time as not on your side. He’ll eat up every minute of your life, and as soon as one has gone he’s salivating for the next.”
For those who may not know – the Newe College was founded in 1636 in present day Boston USA by four alumni of the University of Cambridge, even renaming their town Newe Towne as Cambridge, Massachusetts. Two year later, the bequest of yet another Cambridge scholar from Emmanuel College, John Harvard, prompted the Newe college to be renamed to Harvard College.
The King’s college (above photo is a view from River Cam) was one of the first all male colleges to admit women into their fold in 1972. Conversely, the first male students arrived in 1973 to Hughes Hall (right) making it the first of the all-female college’s at Cambridge to admit men.
The Girton college was established in 1869 as a college for women. However, it was classed only as “recognised institutions for the higher education for women”. They formally began awarding degrees to women only 78 years later – from 1947! The Magdelene college of Cambridge was the last Oxibridge college to admit women as late as 1988 – and even then there were protests by some students!
The River Cam is the main river flowing through Cambridge. Though Cambridge is most famous for its historic university, the town is far older than the university. Visitors and students enjoy Punting on the river Cam. Punting refers to boating in a punt – a flat bottomed boat used on shallow waters. The punter generally propels the punt by pushing against the river bed with a pole.
The first album of Pink Floyd was written here in this riverfront restaurant ‘The Anchor’. Members of the band were born in or lived in Cambridge. Many a spot in Cambridge was were they rehearsed before they became world famous. Pink Floyd formed in London in 1965 and became one of the most successful groups ever.
The mathematical bridge across river Cam is fabled to have been built by Sir Isaac Newton, though actually was built by James Essex in 1749, 22 years after Newton died in 1727. It is an unusually sophisticated engineering design – it appears to be an arch though composed entirely of straight timbers arranged in tangents.
The main way of transport at Cambridge is bicycles! With separate tracks all over the town for bicycles, special green light cyclist signals and even uniquely designed infant carts (left), bicycling across the city with the cold wind literally blowing at your face is an experience not to be missed!
One interesting ancient practice I discovered was at the Cambridge & Country Folk Museum. Can you guess what the image on the right is? It’s called a ‘Baby Runner’. In most homes with children, a central pole was fixed from the floor to the ceiling with a pivot at the top. The wooden hoop was fastened around the waist of the child. While this baby runner may seem cruel from today’s perspective, at that time when houses were heated by open fires, it was vital to keep the smaller children safe. It reminded me of Yasoda tying Krishna to the ural !
I have hardly scratched the surface for every stone, every side walk, every inch of Cambridge has a wealth of history and the promise of future to share. As I witness with awe the magnitude of this tiny town’s impact on the vastness of life, I sigh with a smile! Every Cambridge scholar’s footprint leaves an indelible mark on the sands of knowledge shaping the cumulative evolution of human tapestry!
Written By Gita Krishna Raj in October 2017