Artist spotlight – Marie Robinson

So I’m meant to start travelling this evening, and haven’t thought about packing yet, so what better way to distract myself/everyone else, than to draw your attention to some of the most awesome paintings I’ve seen in a long time.

Marie Robinson is a wife of a friend and fellow Morris Dancer, and she paints some astounding stuff, mostly in oils, always in intricate and perfect detail.  Myself, as someone with an aversion to paint and colour, I am astounded by what she can achieve with a few brushstrokes.  On her website, she has a variety of lovely collections, my personal OCD favourite is this pair of spoons.

Spoons - Jumble, Marie Robinson

Spoons – Jumble, Marie Robinson

Spoons parallel, Marie Robinson

Spoons parallel, Marie Robinson

I love the collections, and there are plenty more over at her website, check them out.

But what really, really, gets me going, is her landscapes.  Again, something I would never be able to attempt myself, they are breathtakingly beautiful in themselves, but what Marie has gone one step further and done something I have been hankering to see for a long time.  Modern landscapes.  Clouds and rolling hills are beautiful, but are not particularly representative of the skies we see every day.  Skies that are criss-crossed with contrails and modern views of rural landscapes are just as, if not more beautiful, in my humble opinion, than the flawless Constables and Turners.

The beauty of Turner’s work is owed partly to the global effects of the Indonesian volcanic eruptions between 1812 and 1815, and he captured a brief, beautiful period of time.  Marie is doing the same today with the effects of our extensive intercontinental air travel, and our gradual spread into rural England.

So, with her permission, I reproduce a few more of my favourites from her website.  I hope you too will be tempted to go and check them out, go to her exhibitions, and buy her beautiful paintings.

Cherwell Valley Rising Mist, Marie Robinson

Cherwell Valley Rising Mist, Marie Robinson

February Evening Flight, Marie Robinson

February Evening Flight, Marie Robinson

October afternoon - Aynho Wharf, Marie Robinson

October afternoon – Aynho Wharf, Marie Robinson

Marie can be found at

Radcliffe Camera in Pen and Ink – A tribute…

… to the last eight years of my life.  And it has taken me nearly a year to get round to finishing it, what with that pesky thesis getting in the way.  Anyway, in the vacuum-like calm of the post-thesis lull, I finally got round to tuning back into Radio 4 and picking up my Stabilo again.

Radcliffe Camera, Pen and Ink on paper

Radcliffe Camera, Pen and Ink on paper


The Radcliffe Camera, affectionately known as the ‘Rad Cam’, is one of the most iconic buildings of Oxford University.  It is a reading room of the Bodleian Library, being chiefly the home of antiquated law and sociological texts as far as I know.  As a result, I, as a scientist, was treated only to the subterranean delights of the Racliffe Science Library, and none so internally or externally picturesque as the Rad Cam.  Nevertheless, as an undergraduate I found several excuses to work in there whilst revising for finals.  The silence in there is oppressive, and personally not conducive to concentration, as I contemplated the changing pitch in readers’ footsteps as the perused the shelf.  At least I went there, and I spent many more hours working on it, than I ever spent working in it.



A Hidden Legacy of Robert Hooke

Oxford is well known for its exceptional copyright Library – the Bodleian.  But some of the better kept secrets of the university are the individual college libraries, often the first port of call for fresher undergraduates, and the preferred final resting place of finalists.  Owing to the antiquity of many of the colleges, many of these libraries contain hidden, ancient bibliographic secrets.  This week, I was lucky enough to lay my hands on one such secret – a first edition of Robert Hooke’s Micrographia.

St Edmund Hall, dating back to the 13th Century, houses one of the first private college libraries in a small room above the chapel.  The construction of the old library (the new library occupies a Norman church in the grounds) was completed in 1685, and was used to hold the collection amassed by the then Principal, Dr Thomas Tullie.  It is a small and unassuming room, with enclosed bookcases lining the four walls of the main floor and an upper gallery.  Small windows with heavy yellow velvet curtains allowed the spring light to fill the room.  The collection is large and varied.  Among the many eclesiastical tomes are books on natural history, travel in the Empire, even an instructional guide to Witches.  Some books are chained.  But of greatest interest to our little group of palaeontologists, was a rare first edition folio of Robert Hooke’s study of tiny objects through the microscope – ‘Micrographia: or, Some physiological descriptions of minute bodies made by magnifying glasses’.  Handling the book with white cotton gloves and weighted ‘snakes’ to hold down the pages, it was a magical experience, and one that I hope I can share with a few photographs, courtesy of my colleague Jack Matthews.

Robert Hooke's Micrographia, first edition

Micrographia was the first published book of the newly established Royal Society (founded just around the corner at Wadham College), appearing in 1665.  Robert Hooke, who studied at Wadham, developed his own compound microscopes with which to study microscopic objects, and he figured them in Micrographia as exquisite copperplate engravings, some as large fold-outs.  Micrographia is best known for studies of biological objects, and it was here that the word ‘cell’ was first used to describe living biological units, alongside intricate drawings of cork.  Pollen grains, seeds, and many insects are figured, and the large illustration of a flea has become and iconic image for science in this golden age.

Flea illustration from Hooke's Micrographia

But Hooke was a true polymath.  His work strayed well outside the biological.  Just like everyone does when given a microscope and some free time, he put everything he could find under there.  Textiles, the point of a needle, the edge of a blade, a lump of oolitic limestone, hair (complete with hair louse).  It is a wonder he didn’t draw his own fingernails, only it was probably too gross.  And his drawings weren’t just limited to things he saw down the microscope.  He included schematics of the microscope itself, light refraction and reflection in different systems, as well as a view of craters of the moon along with discussion of whether they were caused by impacts, or by volcanoes.  He came to the conclusion that they were volcanoes, but we can forgive him just this time.

The book itself is beautiful.  You can pick up a recent printing of it for barely anything these days, but there is something special about this fragile first edition.  Leather bound, with cord binding, and marks to show it had once been chained,  the pages gently discoloured, with mysterious bequeathements and catalogue numbers handrwitten – testament to its arrival in the very earliest days of the Library.


Record of Hooke’s Micrographia in the catalogue of St Edmund Hall’s Old Library

The library had many more secrets to give up – including a second edition print of Newton’s Principia, and an early geological and palaeontological tome by Corpus Christi geologist Dr William Buckland.


Illustration of a Crinoid fossil by William Buckland

It is wonderful to know that these treasures are there to be found on our own doorstep, and are being preserved just as they always have been.  Long may their presence be preserve to the deep scientific legacy of the University as a seat of learning.

Many thanks to Jack Matthews for the photographs, and to Vicky and Blanca for showing us the collections.  Martin Brasier, Alex Liu, Linhao Fang, Jack Matthews and Jonny Baker-Brian shared the magical experience.


Yours truly with Micrographia in the Old Library, St Edmund Hall

Your PhD: A Nipple on the Surface of Human Knowledge

So I have finally (more or less) finished with my wanderings for the summer.  Back among my fishbones and unfiled papers, and ready to start the last year of my PhD.  Scary stuff.

I won’t lie. Doing a PhD is (as I am sure anyone who has been through the mill as well will agree) both delightful and exasperating by turn.   Having come back from fieldwork, I am filled with motivation to do things and the pressure to do it before I forget what the rocks looked like, but this is coupled with an inescapable exhaustion from an intensive week of camping, hiking and battling midges in the Highlands.  The same Catch-22 goes for just after conferences, meetings with my supervisor, or watching science documentaries where ‘scientists’ are all busying around being busy.

All in all, I think it is pretty tricky to keep perspective on the world when you are in the middle of a PhD.  I say this primarily from personal experience, but recently I stumbled across a fabulous infographic, from which I can only conclude that I must not be the only one.

This artistic rendition of a doctorate in persective was conceived by Matt Might, Professor of Computer Science at the University of Utah, and it was brought to my attention in this article on Gizmodo.

Because I have been away from the drawing board for 6 weeks, because I have itchy fingers (like itchy feet, but with less wandering), and because I wanted this fabulous concept in a single image, I have reproduced Prof. Might’s circle of human knowledge, and the ‘nipple’ produced by three years of hard work, with slight edits and additions….

Your PhD is a nipple on the surface of human knowledge. Concept by Prof. Matt Might, image copyright Leila Battison 2010

I’m not entirely sure how this is meant to make me feel.  At times, when it is easy to lose faith, it can make all the effort seem so pointless.  At other times, when you worry about the little things, it is a refreshing perspective, and one that can help show you that life, and no doubt research, will go on.  After all, even a nipple is a nipple we didn’t have before.

So I will tell myself, in the words of Prof. Might himself, that to make that all important, tiny nipple on the surface of human knowledge, you just have to ‘Keep Pushing’.