Times Higher Education Supplement May 22 1998


This is going to be a good week. I only have to go into the University once and have four whole days at home to work. Bliss. Of course before I do any real work there’s some marking, letters, an urgent book review – but I might finish the pile today.

I don’t.

I should have known.

A journalist rings; doing a feature about psychic pets. Yes, there are alternative explanations. Aliens. No – we don’t have proof they’ve landed. Yes – people do believe in abductions but it could be sleep paralysis, when we wake up from dreaming sleep and cannot move. I sound like a sound-bite machine.

A TV producer rings. I have recently learned two really useful skills; to say no, and to ask for money. I finally know what I really enjoy in life – and probably always did – thinking and writing. You can’t think and write if you accept every invitation, every TV show, every lecture. I used to travel the world. After all, if someone is paying my fare, luxury hotel, inviting me to their important conference, how could I refuse? The answer is – just say thank you very much but I’d rather stay at home and work.


My daughter’s first GCSE today. Is it as awful for them as it was for us? Worse I expect, and certainly they’re more advanced. Her maths includes things I did at “A” level, and things I never did at all. I feel aged. I can’t imagine what the world will be like by the time they leave home.

I’ll really finish the pile today. I mark two psychology projects. If I do one a day I can get them all in by Thursday. I’m on target – just.

Then there’s a paper to referee. When you submit a paper to an academic journal it is refereed by at least two experts in the field. I expect my papers to be refereed, and naturally feel obliged to referee others in return. But when? Years ago I cut my full-time lectureship to half-time and recently to even less. The reason? Because I want to think and write and do research, and a modern university job just does not provide time for all that – or for refereeing. I make up the rest of my income (just about) from TV, radio and writing – buying my thinking time from the media. But the refereeing? Effectively I work at paid jobs to find time to referee other people’s papers. Strange world.


I am worrying about memes again. A meme is “A self-replicating element of culture passed on by imitation”. Songs and stories are memes; habits, skills and fashions are memes; in fact everything you’ve ever learned from anyone else is a meme. That’s most of what you know. But what exactly is imitation? I’ve just written a whole book about memes and I’m still worried about the definition!

My two PhD students come over. I argue that imitation is different from simpler forms of social learning. When blue tits learned to peck at milk bottle tops to get the cream, the habit spread across the country from bird to bird. But this wasn’t true imitation because they already knew how to peck. The students disagree – loudly. There’s another problem. A book of stories or scientific ideas contains memes, but we don’t normally call reading imitation. I argue it is. This keeps us going for an hour or two. This is fun.


My one day at college. It’s hot. My research assistant is running an experiment in our tiny combined office and lab. I give in the project marks and attend a meeting. I have a secretary one day a week and he helps me plough through the mail. Since my recent Desert Island Disks there’s been a lot. Some write to thank me for explaining about sleep paralysis – now they know they are not alone and are not going mad. I’m glad. Many send accounts of their extraordinary experiences. I feel inadequate to the task. I cannot read them all thoroughly, let alone write helpful replies. I try to pick up on the ones in distress but I probably miss some. My scribbled post cards are a poor response to life-changing experiences. Then there are those who know I’m wrong. There are psychic powers, there is life after death, explain this. …. I cannot. I hear them sneering. The art of knowing you don’t know is prized in science (and by me) but not, it seems, among the psychics.


Oh bliss. It really is true. The sun is shining. And I can work.

The kids leave at 8. Breakfast in the sun. 8.30 I’m at my desk. I see no one. The phone doesn’t ring (much).

I am starting a paper on memes and free will. If memes are replicators, getting themselves copied from brain to brain, then our brains will all get filled up with stuff, whether ‘we’ like it or not. In fact, our precious ‘self’ might be just a conglomeration of memes. On this view, the genes have constructed our bodies and the memes have constructed our minds. There is nothing left over for free will to do. I start writing (but who is writing?).

Coffee at 11 (exactly 11). If my partner were here we’d play table tennis. In ten minutes you can have a bit of exercise, stir up the brain cells, defeat the enemy (or not), and be back at your desk. I do 5 minutes weeding instead.

Lunch at one (exactly). They moved the Archers. I feel bereft. But it does mean I’ll be back to my writing that bit sooner and after all, that’s all I really want to do.