Monthly Archives: May 2013

Nature Enslaved, Nature Embraced

My wife Gill, and I, have just returned from a long weekend in Paris, where we spent what used to be called the Whitsun Bank Holiday.  The weather, despite it being pretty much the last week in May, was far from ideal; in fact on the Friday, if it had been warmer, swim-wear would have been the appropriate attire for the day.  We had arrived, courtesy of Eurostar at about lunchtime, checked into our hotel and then started out for a walk.  The rain, rather than easing off, got heavier, and we looked for a convenient shop to shelter in; as luck would have it we found ourselves in the rue des Filles du Calvaire outside a shop-cum- gallery, called Chardon.  The owner, Gregori Ferret, very kindly ignored the copious amounts of water that we were dripping on his floor, and invited us to come in and view the works of art.  They ranged from stuffed and mounted mammals through fairly standard pinned insects to beautifully arranged and displayed Lepidoptera (all as far as I could tell correctly named, although of course not equipped with collection and determination labels as entomological purists would demand.  That aside, the displays were magnificent in a very Victorian way, reminding me of the very popular song-bird cabinet in the Natural History Museum, London.




There were also insect paintings, some of which included butterfly wings and most amazing of all, a Goliath Beetle, which had been taken apart and then partly reconstructed using fine wire.  A truly bizarre sight, but fascinating at the same time.  The art work in the gallery, including the Goliath beetle was the work of Christine Arzel K which unfortunately, I am unable to reproduce here.  If you are ever in Paris, a visit to Chardon is well worth the effort.  An interesting example of the way insects fascinate artists and, when presented in a non-threatening way, can be appreciated by the public, although of course as an entomologist, I would much rather they were appreciated in situ and alive.

On the Saturday we made our way to the flea market at Porte de Vannes where we were faced by the usual collections of what I call junk.  Oddly enough there were on this occasion, a plethora of insect collections, mainly single boxes of mixed insects, badly pinned, and very inadequately labelled.  There were the odd sets of themed boxes, such as a collection of carabid beetles, but without proper labels, so again entomologically worthless.  What was perhaps more distressing for me, was the large number of magnificent and detailed entomological prints on sale that had been removed from nineteenth century books and were being sold individually for anthing between €10-€20.  Vandalism on a grand scale; but yet again, an indication of the fascination that insects seem to have for people once safely dead.

On the Sunday we made our way to a great oddity, The Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature, just opposite the National Archives in rue des Archives.  [Click on the hunting horn for a musical introduction or if you want to avoid it go directly here].  This had been recommended by my colleague Tilly Collins who described it as a truly extraordinary experience.  It has been described, according to Wikipedia as quirky, astonishing, strange and eclectic .  It was all of these things.  It is a museum dedicated to hunting and its associated trappings including hunt and nature associated art, ranging from classical through to modern installation pieces.  It also houses an incredible collection of firearms and associated paraphernalia, beautifully decorated powder horns, shooting sticks, restorative flasks etc.  And of course, many,many stuffed animals, including in the Room of Trophies, Le Souillot, which is a wall-mounted animatronic albino boar head by contemporary French artist Nicolas Darrot, that speaks [snarls] to museum visitors in French.  The weirdest thing for me was the Owl Room, which appeared to be a composed of owl skins [I sneaked a photo].

Owl Room

The lighting was very odd too; in some places almost pitch black, which made the exhibits hard to see [perhaps mercifully] and the light fittings were also artistically sylvan

Museum lights

All in all a rather odd experience.  Interestingly enough, no insects!  Before you all condemn the practice of hunting (and I include fishing in this, although the museum did not) it is worth remembering that if it were not for the Norman Conquest and the fact that William the Conqueror loved hunting so much that he instigated the Law of the Forest, we would not have large tracts of what became Royal Forests such as Epping and the New Forest.  Given that and the fact that his ancestors and other members of the nobility from then and to the modern day, also loved hunting, shooting and fishing meant that rather than our forest cover being reduced to zero by the time of the industrial revolution, the UK still had 5% forest cover by 1899 including our much valued ancient and semi-natural woodlands.  Some of us may not approve of the ethics of hunting animals for pleasure but it did have positive effects for our wildlife and countryside [perhaps a subject for a future post?].  To this day, large landowners provide funding for the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust which carries out incredibly useful and important ecological research and helps make our countryside a better place for wildlife of all sorts, including insects.  In fact, in their former guise as the Game Conservancy Trust they were doing very valuable entomological work investigating the value of beetle banks and conservation headlands in the 1970s and 1980s.

Do I have a take-home message? What was the reasoning behind my choice of title for this post? I guess that what I have tried to say, hopefully successfully, is that despite our increasingly urbanised existence, a significant proportion of the human race still has a fascination for nature.  As ecologists it is our duty to see that this fascination is properly channelled; towards conservation, not just preservation and exploitation.  So rather than enslave nature we should embrace it and nurture it.

mother earth cartoon

Post script

Coincidentally just as I was getting ready to publish this post I came across a letter in The Daily Telegraph of 29th May, where the British Association for Shooting and Conservation was praised for its role in the conservation of British wildlife.


Filed under EntoNotes, Roundabouts and more, The Bloggy Blog

Letters from School – Two school boys write home in the time of William IV

This week is a family history week (entomology next week I promise).  I am privileged to own copies of  a number of old letters from my great-great grandfather John Wignall Leather and other relatives.  This joint letter was written by George Henry Leather (1815-1897)  (my great-great-great Uncle, aged 13, and his 18-year-old brother, John Wignall Leather (1810-1887) to their parents George and Sarah (Wignall) Leather.  It was posted on 25 May 1828 in Durham where George and his older brother John were at school.  [Comments in square brackets are mine.]

Letter from home1

Letter from home2

[This is not that easy to read in the original so I have transcribed it below.]

Durham, May 24th 1828

 My dear Parents

At your desire, I now sit down to write a few lines to you, and am happy to say, John and myself are both well.  Our journey to Sunderland was not so pleasant as I expected; the pleasantest day I spent was when John and I went about 4 miles along the sands and returned on the tops of the cliffs; that was the only time I was out of the town except once we went on the ocean, one of Mrs Hustler’s ships, about half a mile from the Pier; it was going to Miramichi in America [there is a Miramichi River in Canada], and the  wind  being  very favourable we did not go so far out as we otherwise should have done.  I liked the motion of the ship when she rose upon the waves, but when she went down again, it felt rather queer: we came back in a small boat, with oars.  One night from the pier, we could see not less than 63 ships.  I have got as far as simple Interest, [I remember doing simple and compound interest at school – how many of you do?] and am reading Ovid and Cornelius Nepos, all of which I like very well.  I am 4th in my class this week, I have got my Register [I guess that this was a school report] for last half-term, which (with the one for this) I will bring with me next Midsummer.

I am very much obliged to you for the 5s which you sent me before Easter.  I look forward with very great pleasure to the prospect of seeing you all so soon: Midsummer is now fast approaching: I expect to leave Durham in about 6 weeks or thereabouts, and I hope we shall find you all well.

Give my best love to Billy and Sam [his two younger brothers: Canadian readers may be interested to know that Billy, William Beaumont Leather (1820-1907) later emigrated to Canada and was the great-grandfather of that famous Canadian, Sir Edwin Hartley Cameron Leather (1919-2005) former Governor of Bermuda] and also to my Sisters Sarah Anna and little Bell; and accept the same yourselves from,

My dear Parents,

Your dutiful and affectionate Son,

 G H Leather

Certainly a better effort than the letters I used to have to write on a Sunday afternoon when at boarding school.  I have no picture of George as a schoolboy only the one below of him as a well-established factory owner in Bradford.

George Henry Leather

The letter below from John Wignall Leather, was written on and across the same letter form written by George Henry Leather above.  John Wignall Leather was 18 and in his last term at school.  The letter is addressed to Geo. Leather Esq, Park Terrace, Leeds and is endorsed by John Wignall Leather at a later date as being “from GH and self to our parents”.

Letter from home3 Letter from home4

My Dear Parents,

I think I cannot do better than attempt to fill up the space which George Henry has left blank – this from the slackness of news: tis very much to be doubted how far I may succeed.  We had a whole holiday on Thursday last, the 15th inst. it being Ascension day; and I, accompanied with William from Gateshead the boy with whom we both stayed at Easter, set off on Wednesday evening after school, and spent the night and next day at his house in Gateshead.  On the Thursday we visited everything which he thought worth shewing to me in Newcastle.  There are very few public buildings but the library is really grand; the roof and cornice of this and the adjoining room (the Museum, which we visited) are in a style far surpassing anything of the kind I ever saw – and near the top of the former is constructed a kind of terrace, or gallery (with bookcases as below) which has also a very splendid appearance – it is a fancy cast iron railing with a three brick top or bar; the museum is not as good (in my opinion) as that of Leeds [being from Yorkshire nothing can be as good of course], and the birds or most of them seem to be very badly presented.  They are decaying away.  Oh! Mother you did not say whether you had got the owl back or not from curing and how it looked did you return my moth book [I was very pleased to see that despite becoming a very eminent civil engineer in later life, that he had not only zoological interests, but entomological ones.  I would dearly love to know exactly what moth book he had].

The Mayor and Corporation go on procession (on Ascension Day every year) down to Preston, and up the river again past Newcastle as far as Lemmington in barges, with a band of music; and are accompanied by numbers of small boats in this day’s excursion.  I had the pleasure of watching their departure from the mansion house and a very enlivening sight it was, tho I understand it much fallen off from what it was; but my time even if my paper would, does not allow me to enter into detail at present.

Friday the 19th was our bespeak, and as I had the whole management and conduct of the affair to myself this time I was kept very closely employed – but was very much gratified to find the pains taken was not in vain for I fetched them the best houses they have had for many years, the whole of the regular boxes were taken long before hand, and part of the pit, which was railed off for that purpose.  The receipts amounted to 42£ 16s – and it would have been fifty, but for the system they have of admitting schools at ½ prices.

I return many thanks to my Dear Mother for her short, but very kind letter – and hope to hear from her again very soon, when she is more at leisure to write longer.  Pray what do they call the six young ladies; how long are they going to stay; you say Maria wants to know whether I shall be at home as soon as she; without mentioning the time her vacation commences: I expect to be with you in six weeks, from yesterday, or so – but cannot say for certain yet.  I should have written to London last week but I was so very busy that I had not time; have looked daily for a letter from my Dear Father and cousin John [both also eminent civil engineers; his cousin John Towlerton Leather was the contractor for many ambitious projects including the Spithead sea-forts and was High Sheriff of Northumberland and had a house in Carlton House Terrace close by the Royal Society], I hope they will both write me ere long.  I learnt from the Newspaper that you would be at home in a day or two, and was happy to hear of your success – there will be no want of practice in the office for some time to come – which I will trust be of advantage to me – I have spoken my sentiments on this head to my Mother, and now repeat that I hope these will not be too much like warmness (if I may call it such) which it so unhappily represented in an elder branch of our family, but that arrangements may be made for me to be considered (in the office) in the same light as any other clerk, if any difference is made, may it only be an extra earnestness in seeing me do my duty, in instructing me – and directing my studies.  I think I can promise most firmly that no exertion shall be wanting on my part – as my ambition shall be not only to become an engineer, but (if possible) an eminent one [which indeed he did become].   I anticipate very great pleasure from the prospect of seeing my dear friends so soon – and of spending my future time in their society; under the guidance (and I trust) the approbation of those Dear Parents, whom it shall be my constant care to cherish and obey; In the hope of hearing from you both very soon – and with kindest love and every endearing remembrance of affection to all of you, I remain

My Dearest Parents

Your dutiful and affectionate son

J W Leather

P.S. Tell John to write.  Pray what business is it that calls you back to London.

(in haste).  JWL

Note that to save postage, as letters at the time were charged by the number of pages, John has written both ways across the page; quite hard to read but apparently common practice. Again I do not have a picture of John Wignall Leather as a school boy but do possess a picture of him with the plans of one of his engineering achievements (the Crown Point Bridge Leeds) on the desk, plus a photograph of him in distinguished middle-age.

 John Wignall Leather portrait  John Wignall Leatherr

Crown Point Bridge

The Crown Point Bridge, Leeds

I realise that I am incredibly lucky to actually have something as personal as a letter from my great-great grandfather.  So many people don’t even have photographs of  their more distant ancestors.  Personal letters like these are almost as good as a time machine; you can almost hear them speaking and almost certainly with a Yorkshire accent!


Filed under Roots

Ordeal by Inaugural

I gave my inaugural lecture last week, 9th May, which was a very interesting experience indeed and one that I seem to want to share.  Some of you may be wondering exactly what an inaugural lecture is.  Theoretically an inaugural lecture or address is the first lecture given by a newly created Professor.  In reality, they are usually given some months, or in some case a year or so after appointment.  They are a long-established feature of university life and are highlighted as being events of some consequence to the university or Department of which the ‘newly’ appointed Professor has become a part.

They are very much regarded as being celebratory;  here for example from the University of Sheffield’s School of Health and Related Research  The School’s Inaugural Lecture series provides an opportunity to celebrate these achievements with each lecture representing a significant milestone in an academic’s career.

The normal format is for a lecture of about 45 minutes followed by a celebratory wine reception.

And here from University College, London

Lectures will be followed by a reception.
Inaugural lectures are an opportunity for UCL professors to exhibit to the wider UCL community, and the public outside UCL, a flavour of their intellectual activity and research. For professors appointed from outside UCL, an inaugural lecture is an opportunity for colleagues to welcome them to UCL. For newly promoted professors they are an opportunity for colleagues to recognise and celebrate the achievements that have led to their promotion.

And here from my former Institution, Imperial College London

  • For new professors, the lecture provides an opportunity to present an overview of their research career so far, update colleagues on current and future research plans, and introduce their research to wider audiences.
  • For Departments, the event is a chance to recognise new Professors and host a celebratory event to bring Department staff together. It also provides an opportunity for Departments to engage with broader audiences inside and outside College, to establish new collaborations, strengthen existing relationships and catch up with alumni.

I could go on, but I think that this is enough to give you the idea.  Basically a chance for me to celebrate my appointment and to highlight to my new colleagues and the outside world what I am all about.

I was of course delighted to become the UK’s only Professor of Entomology, here at Harper Adams University last September, but at the same time felt a little frisson of fear at the thought of delivering my inaugural.  I have never found it that easy to blow my own trumpet (I was rather a shy child), so the thought of standing in front of an audience and doing just that was a little daunting to say the least.  I do, however, feel that one should always take the opportunity to publicise entomology a possible so agreed to give it a go.  Those of you know me, will know that suits and ties are not my thing; desert boots, rolled up sleeves and blue jeans are my usual attire and have been for the last 40 years.

Simon Leather - expedition to Trinidad & Tobago 1975     Simon Vortis

Although I have of course, had to dress somewhat more formally for events such as graduation ceremonies.

Simon Leather graduating Leeds 1977    Graduation 2010 011

It was thus a great relief to find out that unlike the University of Limerick  whose inaugural lectures are a ceremonial occasion, and academic robes are worn by the inaugural professor and the rest of the platform party. Those attending the lecture do not wear academic robes, Harper Adams had a more relaxed attitude to dress.

Once agreed, events took on a life of their own.  I had to draw up a guest list of a couple of hundred people; who to invite, who not to invite?  I needed a title for the lecture to go on the invitations and also to decide what sort of food and drink to have and when to have it.  Luckily we have a fantastic Events Team (thank you Sarah and Sandy) at Harper Adams and this all went very smoothly.

Inaugural invite front

Inaugural invite back

Of course when I started to prepare my lecture, I found that the title I had chosen was far too restrictive.  Having taken quite a long time to achieve my Professorship, I had a lot of work to discuss and a lot of students and collaborators to acknowledge.  So, in the end I decided to change the title and go for the prosaic exactly what it says on the tin approach.

inaugural title page

Even so, I still has to leave some things out such as my saproxylic insect work (sorry Ig and Sarah). Then I was faced with the real challenge.  How to make it accessible to my audience which was very mixed, ranging from relatives, non-scientists, former colleagues, ex-students and scientists from a variety of disciplines.  Panic began to set in, but as a keen family historian and lover of history in general, I have always found it interesting to know where people have come from and how they got where they are, so I started with my ancestry

ancestry slide

and my childhood and how I got interested in entomology in the first place.

Jamaica slide

Then I talked about a bit my early research, reliving the days of hand-drawn figures in papers as exemplified by my first real publication (I really should have used Letra-Set and not a stencil for that figure) and then worked my way on from there

First paper slide

highlighting and acknowledging as many people as possible e.g.

Keith Day slide


Biofuel slide


Forestry slide

and of course not forgetting the roundabouts

Roundabout slide

before eventually a final section dealing with a slightly more in-depth summary of my more recent work.

Organic slide

I then ended by outlining what I had planned for the future.

Future slide

Eventually after a couple of months and much heart-ache I had a lecture of 95 slides, and only 55 minutes to deliver them in!  Actually at an average of 30 seconds per slide just about right. Then I began to worry about getting the level right and having to resist the temptation to keep tweaking things.  As the day loomed, the tension began to build.  I have to confess that I agonised and stressed over this lecture more than any I have ever given, including my first ever conference talk.  It was the thought that I might forget to thank people and that my audience might find it boring that really worried me.  I knew that I couldn’t actually mention everyone by name so compromised with a mega-thank-you slide at the end for all my students, past and present.

Thanks slide

The big day arrived and guests began to roll-up for the pre-lecture food and drinks, and very pleasant it was too, although I didn’t actually eat and drink very much, having to make sure I was sober enough to deliver a coherent lecture.  The lecture theatre was full and I knew how to work the AV equipment and had also run through it a couple of times to get the timing right so was all geared up to go.  Then our Vice-Chancellor introduced me and blew my trumpet for me, which was embarrassing and pleasurable at the same time, but which actually increased my nervousness. Once I got going it seemed to go alright although I know I was nervous as I almost drank all of the glass of water that I had made sure was to hand.  I always tell my students, don’t be afraid to have a drink of water when giving a talk, nobody will think the worse of you, and I certainly took my own advice that evening.  Then it was over, except for having to answer a few questions and then the traditional humorous

Simon Inauguarl q&a

micky-taking vote of thanks from ex-colleague, collaborator and friend Professor Denis Wright, followed by puddings and cakes and more wine.  I forgot to say the whole thing was filmed so I have that to look forward to; I guess I will be able to send a copy to my Mother who was unable to attend.  Thank you Janine @JanineHarperVJ for making that possible and for taking some great photos.

In summary, a bit of a trial, a definite rite of passage, but really nice to see old friends and colleagues and all in all, actually a great experience, although I don’t think I would want to do another one.

I should also thank everyone who sent me emails and tweets before and after the event.  I greatly appreciated your kind thoughts.  And finally, many thanks to all those who attended and laughed in the right places.  Thank you for a great evening.


Filed under The Bloggy Blog

Are PhD Examiners really ogres?

I read with some incredulity an article in The Times Higher Education Supplement of 25 April 2013 by Elizabeth Gibney which painted a picture of PhD external examiners as anachronistic sadistic ogres out to fail the candidate at any excuse.


She further suggested that an alternative to our current system could be one similar to the European system where essentially the thesis is a bind-up of published papers, usually at least three and sometimes up to seven.   To be fair, she did, however, outline some of the shortcomings of the European system.  Her description of the UK system is totally at odds with anything I have experienced in a 35 year-career as examinee and examiner, both external and internal.

To date, 52 of my students have been examined and received their PhDs.  Most have had minor revisions, a couple had major revisions, and not one has failed.  In all cases, they were treated with courtesy and respect, even the candidate who when asked why she had repeated an experiment that had been done twenty years previously, replied that it was because the original experiment was deeply flawed, seemingly unaware that her external examiner was the experimenter in question.  I have to admit that I almost gasped out loud, especially as the external in question had, many years before, been my supervisor.  He, however, took it in stride, smiled and passed her with minor revisions.  This does not seem to be an example of the vindictive ogres painted by Elizabeth Gibney.

My own PhD viva, took just under two hours and was conducted in a very friendly manner with plenty of opportunities to put my own views across.  At no time did I feel threatened or under pressure.  In fact I felt that I was having the opportunity of life-time in that I was able to discuss what I had been doing for the previous three years with someone who seemed to have a genuine interest in how and why I had done what I did.

I don’t see a PhD viva as a gladiatorial contest; rather a friendly, but searching discussion of the methods used, a critical discussion of the analysis of the results obtained and an opportunity to understand how and why they interpreted the results as they did.  I always begin by telling the candidate how much I enjoyed reading their thesis and tell them not to worry unduly about the Post-it notes festooning the sides of my copy of their thesis, most are usually typos and many are in the references section where students seem to become incredibly careless.

Thesis with post-its

As I tell them if you can’t be bothered to format your references properly, what message am I to take home about your experimental procedures?

I always ask the candidate what they did before and why they ended up doing the PhD that I am examining. I try to make the discussion a mixture of general wider-reaching issues and consideration of the material in each chapter. At all times, even if I feel that there is a fault, I approach the matter in a supportive and advisory role.  This is characteristic of all the external and internal examiners that I have observed over the years.  I feel that my role as an external examiner is a) to make sure that the PhD and candidate are up to scratch and b) that the material presented has the best chance of seeing the light of day by being published.  I think it is a terrible waste of three years’ work to leave it to languish in a thesis that is likely to be unread after it is placed on the university library shelves or electronic archive.  I thus always ask them where they intend to publish, if they have not already submitted some of the work.  I will also suggest what I think would be suitable journals for them to submit their work to, and which chapters will be likely to be publishable. Many students including my own try to have at least one paper in press or published before they submit.  I consider this a very good strategy, both for improving their employment prospects and ensuring an even smoother ride through the viva process.

Yes a candidate may be nervous and a bit apprehensive before their viva, but the job of the supervisor and progress review panels is to make sure that candidates should enter the examination room with a very reasonable expectation of passing with only minor revisions.  It is in no one’s interest to allow candidates with little chance of passing to get as far as the viva.  As far as I am concerned the system works well and is not broken, but perhaps it is different in other disciplines?

Today (7th May 2013) I conducted my 50th face to face UK PhD viva (21 external, 29 internal).  Reader, we passed him with minor corrections.

Simon new web page

Ogre, I hope not!

Post script 

To those of you who have not yet had your viva.  First, do discuss the choice of external examiner with your supervisor.  Most supervisors like to give their students some choice in the matter.  You may have a particular preference, but your supervisor will know if they have any particular quirks that may not make them the best choice for your thesis.  Once you know who the external is, make sure you include some of his/her references in your thesis.  It may seem petty, but it helps get you off on the right foot.

When you get to the viva, be confident, but don’t go in as if you owned the world.  Remember you have spent at least three years researching your particular subject, but your examiner will have spent many years researching the general area.  In terms of detail you should be pretty much the world expert.  You do, however, need to be able to put your knowledge in a wider context and that is the added extra that the examiner is looking for.  Work hard, think hard, embrace the wider picture, make sure those references are formatted correctly and don’t waffle.  Good luck.


Filed under Bugbears, Teaching matters