Portrait of the artist as a young man
I was bright and incredibly geeky at secondary school (that’s school for 11 to 16 year olds). I went to St Bede’s, a church school. This wasn’t because my family are particularly religious, but because I was ill at around age 11 and they wanted me to go somewhere with a good reputation for pastoral care, and wanted a school which was smaller than the local comprehensive. St Bede’s didn’t have a Sixth Form (that’s the optional bit of school for 16 to 18 year olds, which is sometimes provided by the same place that does 11-16, sometimes not), but after some to-ing and fro-ing, I got a place at Hills Road Sixth Form College.
At the time, Hills Road had a reputation for being one of the more academic schools in Cambridge. In retrospect, the environment was a bridge to university: the pupils had chosen to be there and were pretty bright, there was no school uniform or, thank God, compulsory Physical Education lessons, and a lot of the lessons were fairly traditional chalk-and-talk affairs, a bit like lectures.
I loved the place. I took A levels in Maths, Physics and Chemistry, and an AS level in Further Maths. The lessons were taught by university graduates in the subjects, often with PhDs. I enjoyed my subjects (although I started to get a bit bored of Chemistry later on) and responded to the enthusiasm of the teachers. In particular, Dr M, the physics teacher, had a great way of explaining stuff and made the subject enjoyable. I began to consider studying physics at university.
Hills Road had a good library, and I spent a lot of time reading books, stuff like Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid and Penrose’s The Emperor’s New Mind, as well as the print version of the New Hacker’s Dictionary. The latter introduced me to the idea that there were other people who found doing stuff with computers fun, and in fact, there was a whole culture associated with it. It wasn’t quite enough to sway me from physics, but it did show me I wasn’t alone.
Wondering where to go
I suppose I started to consider Cambridge after my teachers saw my results from the mock exams we did at the end of the first year and told me I should 🙂 For a state school, Hills Road sent a lot of people to Oxbridge, and they were well set up to provide the coaching for the entrance exams. Being fundamentally lazy (one of the virtues of a programmer), I thought I’d like to continue to study in Cambridge (we didn’t live in Cambridge, so I wouldn’t be on my parents’ doorstep), and that I didn’t really want to do any more exams than I had to. There was the business of picking a college, but Churchill seemed like a good idea: it was modern (so undergraduates could walk on the grass and didn’t wear gowns for meals), it focused on science and engineering (so there’d be lots of people to talk to about that, I thought), it was close to the Cavendish, and it didn’t use the STEP exam, only A Level results and interviews, to offer places.
I went to open days for other places, which occasionally involved a chat with the faculty, but it wasn’t much like an interview. Southampton gave me a two E offer (lots of universities would do that to Oxbridge applicants, hoping to catch someone good if they missed their A level grades), but I liked the look of York, so that was my second choice after Cambridge. I have vague memories of an open day at Churchill, but stronger ones of the interview, later.
Oxford and Cambridge were, and are, two of the few universities in the UK which interview applicants, rather than reading their personal statements on the centralised application form. Like everything else about Oxbridge, there were legends about the interview: the rugby ball thrown from behind the door, the interviewer who looked over his newspaper and said “Do something interesting” (the candidate set light to it), the quirky questions, slightly crazy dons, and so on. I was a little bit nervous.
There were two interviews in the course of the day, as well as lunch with actual students. The first interview was for your subject, the second was more of what, if it were a job interview, would have been the HR interview. I don’t recall much about lunch with the other candidates: as I was reasonably local I didn’t stay in college, so I didn’t meet many of them.
Dr G did the subject interview, which I actually recall enjoying. There were some questions on orbits and gravity, which went OK. Then he pulled out a Crookes radiometer and asked me whether I’d seen it before (which I hadn’t). So he shone a light on it and asked how it worked. Better than that, he asked me to ask him about it, as part of working it out. So I asked whether it works if the bulb is completely evacuated and he said “no”, so it’s not light pressure (which is actually far too small an effect, it turns out), and I noticed the vanes are dark on one side and light on the other, and so it went, until I got to the standard, not quite right, explanation. We talked about the Penrose book a bit, too.
I remember nothing of the other interview, with the college’s admissions tutor, other than that he asked what I’d say to convince him of my enthusiasm for physics, and didn’t seem that impressed that I’d read a few books. He can’t have been completely unimpressed, I suppose.
A little later a letter turned up informing me a had a place at Churchill, conditional on three grade A’s at A level. When the A Level results came out that summer, I knew I was off to Cambridge. I remember having some misgivings about it. Like many of the big transitions which for which we get some prior warning, I couldn’t imagine what it’d be like on the other side. Still, I was hardly going to back out now.
Tired because the programme for first year Natural Sciences students was punishing: lectures typically started at 9 am (including Saturdays), and they’d be followed in the afternoon by laboratory teaching. Supervisions and doing problem sheets in preparation for them fitted in around this, maybe a spare afternoon or evening. Lectures weren’t compulsory, but unlike the arts subjects, in Natural Sciences they more or less covered the exam syllabus for that year, so they seemed like the best way of learning the material.
Lost because for the first time I was a small fish in a big pond. I wasn’t the best by a long shot, sometimes I felt I was struggling to keep up. Most of my friends had been to state schools, but some people on the course had done more maths than me (vital for physicists), and some had further tuition from their private schools.
Most of my reasons for choosing Churchill turned out to be mistaken. Being near to the Cavendish wasn’t helpful, as the lectures were in the centre of Cambridge that year (it came into its own in the third year, where the lectures were at the lab). Few people at Churchill wanted to talk shop in the precious moments when we weren’t actively engaged in our courses. In my group of friends, we’d start an earnest parody of a customer/shopkeeper conversation if one of our number started doing it: “Hello Sir, What Can I Do For You?” “I’d Like A Pound Of Apples Please” “Certainly, Sir” etc. (this sort of thing partly explained why we found it so hard to meet girls, I suspect, the more important reason being that there weren’t that many of them at Churchill, a side effect of the science/engineering bias I’d not considered). I did like the informality of the place, but I envied the sheer Hogwartsness of the older colleges in the summer, as we punted by them on the river. Still, at least at Churchill we didn’t have to go across a freezing quad to go to the loo.
Things started looking better in the Christmas vacation (Cambridge, like America, refers to time away as a vacation). We’d been given past exam papers to do, and to my surprise, I discovered that with enough sleep and free from the stress of the NatSci schedule, I could do them. I returned with renewed confidence that they probably were right to let me in after all.
The improving weather lifted my mood and made Churchill’s overwhelmingly brown architecture look less grim. At these times, even Christians find their thoughts turning to women in floral print dresses. Previously, we’d tended to socialise in a largely male group of Churchillians, going to the Union Society (where I first heard Richard Dawkins speak) or to my friend PJR’s room, as he tended to accumulate the latest and greatest music and video (I remember a couple of examples: my envy that he had a laser disc player that took discs the size of LPs; and my initial scepticism when he said he was a fan of Kylie Minogue, as I’d not realised that she’d just re-invented herself). One day, though, my friend APW recommended ballroom dancing in no uncertain terms: “You get to hold women”, he said. The rest is history.
Summing up and application
For me, getting in to Cambridge was an illustration of what the very best of the UK’s state school system can do for you. Hills Road was so good that I knew people who’d come there out of the private school livredor went to, their parents presumably calculating that there was no point paying for something they might get for free. I was also lucky in having parents who could help financially. This was in the era after grants, when you needed a loan to live on (I left in debt, but not as much as I would have otherwise).
I was aware of people there who matched the upper-class twit stereotype, but as a scientist in an out-of-town, brown-brick college, they didn’t have much to do with me. I met a mix of people. I was lectured by some people I’d heard of. Most importantly, I found a niche outside of my college and subject, which is an important trick for staying sane (a couple of niches, in fact, the Christian Union and the dancers). Cambridge is huge and full of bright people, some a little shy or strange, trying to make a place where they fit. I am sure there are people who don’t find a such a place, but from my experience, you’d have to try quite hard.