(un)natural: Ideas about naturalness in public and political debates about science, technology and medicine


Published 30/11/2015

Booklet cover
Naturalness quotes


It fell to me to manage his affairs.
The Eames went to his daughter,

the mini water cooler—a gift from
the faculty—served as a shrine till

mildew made a cleaner throw it out.
His papers were couriered over night

to his alma mater where he concluded
his early work into the nature of nature

before taking up a research fellowship
in the Department of Natural Sciences

(a short-lived post from which he resigned
amid pressure from a smear campaign)

It is not for man to question the nature
of things read one of the banners

held aloft at a rally outside the gates
of the university’s central library.

The story kept local news outlets ticking
over for several weeks, indeed it was

The Mercury who secured the quote
that is in now our departmental credo

A journalist caught the professor
in a moment of openness outside

Perkins Tea Room and Sandwich Bar
What do you say, Professor, to those

who say that the work you’re doing
is against God? To which, he quipped

I am certain of nothing and will keep
asking questions until I can prove it.


In spite of a subtle gift for allusion evinced in the twists and turns of his lectures, skilful bon mots woven, always, into the thread of his sentences, his coinages rarely caught-on. At one stage, when several students in his supplementary seminar let their membership lapse, he started hiding cryptograms in the undergraduate course pack (awarding extra points to those among us who took the time to solve these little problems). This, and his wilful disregard for the letter of the syllabus, was how I came to be working as a research assistant on the project for which he is, perhaps, most famous. The breakthrough came by accident and, in truth, wasn’t seen as a breakthrough at the time. There was an anomaly in the numbers, who can say, now what caused it but for months our work was to find out why. Specialists in the field consulted with the team regularly and it is from this period of not-knowing that we found some of the most valuable data. Many of us still remember the briefing at which the first inklings of a new idea gathered steam. There was something in the way we spoke that day, as if each word were being re-made in the moment of speaking, as if its meaning might any moment scatter like seeds in a stiff breeze coming to land in a strange place and finding a home there where they had no business being.


In the right backstreet you might chance
on a perfect specimen he’d say, testing me,
I see now, for my future role as custodian
of his mutant cache. When I saw the bequest
I thought of selling but the Professor wished
for the collection to remain here in his old
office. Such collections are a niche concern
these days, anyway. Besides, I wouldn’t like
to meet anyone who’d keep such creatures
as these. Mostly I clean the glass, a distraction
from my marking, making sure to take extra care
over the rat, intact in formalin, his pearl
of great price, in vitro, slit open to disclose its
unusually large young—hanging like a question
in that clear space between two shining panes.