The Intellectual Princess and the Nobel Prize Winner

The Somerville community has enjoyed the generosity of some extraordinary international figures in the past ten days.

On 25 February HRH Raja Zarith Idris, Princess of Johor in Malaysia, came to speak to the annual winter meeting of the Somerville Association on the topic “We are like you. What Muslims have in common with other communities around the world”. Princess Zarith read Oriental Studies at Somerville from 1979 to 1983, and has stayed in touch ever since. She has led an extraordinary life since returning to her native Malaysia, where she is married to the Sultan of Johor, and leads efforts to improve the lives of ordinary people, especially women, in Malaysia. She publishes regularly in the Malaysian press and is Chancellor of The University of Technology Malaysia (whose Vice Chancellor accompanied her). Her fellow citizens know her as “the intellectual princess”. Addressing a full audience of Somervillians of all generations including current students, she paid tribute to the ideals and international outlook of Daphne Park who was Principal in her time. She then spoke movingly about the similarities between people of different faiths, and gently deplored the demonisation of Islam that followed the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York on 9/11 2001 and the bombings in London in July 2005. She reminded us of similar attacks that killed large numbers of Muslims in SE Asia, and talked about her own fears for her family, and the fears and anxieties shared by people in all parts of a world afflicted by unpredictable violence. The extremists who believe in jihad, she reminded us, comprise less than 1% of all people of Islamic faith, and yet the western press too often portrays them as representative. A halal dinner that evening for friends of the princess and members of the Islamic community at Oxford was enlivened by memories of her undergraduate days; essay crises, challenging tutorials, friendships and all. It was one of the most convivial private dinners I have yet hosted in College. Come and visit us again soon, Princess Zarith, Somerville is honoured that you are one of us.

A few days later the College was privileged to receive another illustrious guest, this time the Nobel-prize-winning scientist Dr Venki Ramakrishnan, who came to give our annual Dorothy Hodgkin Memorial Lecture. Last Friday a crowded lecture theatre at the University Museum of Natural History heard him describe “How antibiotics illuminate ribosome function and vice versa”. Dr Ramakrishnan (recently knighted, he prefers not to use the title “Sir”) opened with a slide showing some of the great figures in the past who died tragically young from infectious disease: Mozart, Keats, Schubert, Orwell, Kafka and Ramujan. Had they lived in the late twentieth century, their illnesses would have been curable; so have we moved into an era when infections can all be cured by modern medicine? Leading us elegantly from the discovery of penicillin to the rise of resistant scourges like MRSA, he used breathtakingly complex moving images of his crystallographic discoveries (and those of others) to illustrate the emerging science of ribosomes, and suggested some of the diseases to which this science holds out hope of a cure. Dorothy Hodgkin developed her Nobel-prize-winning crystallographic breakthroughs in an era when computer imaging and other cutting-edge techniques of today’s science were unavailable to her. Even so, some of the more recent discoveries described by Dr Ramakrishnan have taken decades and billions of dollars to bring to fruition. Meanwhile resistance to antibiotics grows through the modern trend to over-prescribing medication and through the negligence or worse of agricultural techniques such as fattening animals on antibiotics-laced feedstuffs. Our speaker reminded us at the end of his talk, of how scientists can use their fame for good, as Dorothy Hodgkin did by encouraging younger scientists in the developing world and bringing them to work in her laboratories. Dr Ramakrishnan himself, born in India, now an American citizen working in Cambridge England and winner of some of the most prestigious international prizes in the world, has clearly inherited similar ideals and personified them for us brilliantly.

…. And shining a light on Somerville’s special qualities
In the middle of the month another redoubtable Somervillian, advertising star and founder of internet start-ups Cindy Gallop, dropped in to talk to groups of students about their views of the College and how to promote it. She drew out from them exciting definitions of the ideals Somerville stands for. And after returning to her base in New York she has been putting together ideas to help us mould a new image for the College, using social networking and all available media. “If you want to change the world, come to Somerville”, we say. Dorothy Hodgkin changed the world with her path-breaking scientific discoveries, and then set about changing it some more, campaigning for nuclear disarmament and working with scientists all over the world. Princess Zarith Idris is using her position in Malaysia to change her corner of the world too. We must spread the inspiration.

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