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Other interests: Cinema, music and my Desert Island Discs project


Other interests: Old coins and history
Aaron Klug Scientist
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When my son David, my younger son, had an interest in war games, he had an interest in ancient war games. They used to... I don't know if you know what war games are. You make little soldiers and then you re-fight imaginary battles. You can re-fight the Battle of Waterloo and whether it rains or not, or whether Blucher arrives in time, is done on the fall of a dice. If it rains, of course, you can't use cavalry. It's quite subtle stuff, and quite interesting. And I found that... I would have played it myself if it hadn't been infra dig for the boy to bring his father in to play his war games. So since one of his trials was to see whether the Macedonian phalanx, which was the great... Alexander's great invention, really, a new war machine with long spears and so on, could fight against the Roman legions who had short swords and so on, so he was fighting these battles to prove that, contrary to history, the Macedonian phalanx, or the success of Alexander, could beat the Romans. Well, then the Romans conquered all the Hellenistic Greeks. So I thought he had a birthday present, so I went to... I was passing the... I used to drop into the British Museum quite often when I was at Birkbeck, so I knew the place, and there were coin shops, but I couldn't afford coins, but by this time I had a bit more money, and so I passed a coin shop and I saw some coins... of Alexander the Great. They were bronze coins, which you could buy for £12, £15, £20, very common bronze coins. So I bought him a set of 12 bronze coins. I think I spent about £50, it was quite a lot of money. No more than £50, sorry, about nearly £100. So I gave him the coins, but by this time, he'd totally lost interest.

So I kept the coins, and so after that, I became fascinated by the coins because they represent history, so this was about 1988. It was when Mrs Thatcher reduced the income tax from 50% to 40%, so I suddenly had some more money in my pocket, so I began to... buy cheap coins, historical coins and Greek... of course, I can Latin, the Roman I could read, I still remember quite a lot of Latin. Greek, I never learnt Greek at school but I could read it, of course, and I could translate it, so I landed up being a collector of Greek and Roman coins. The ones I buy... there are auctions at which you can bid for them. These are auctions conducted by post, you simply write down your bid, but the... but also Spink's which is a very famous place have a tray of not so valuable coins where you can rummage around and pick them out, and so I can't afford the coins of Pompey or Caesar... Caesar you can buy, some are very common, but say Pompey... but I know the names of Pompey's generals, you see, and I know the admirals, I know that history pretty well, and so I find the coins and I buy them, and they cost... sometimes they cost as much as £50, which is quite a lot of money.

[Q] And Ptolemy, can you find...?

Oh yes, Ptolemy, I get the Egyptian coins as well. I haven't been able to buy a coin of Cleo... of the Cleopatra with Anthony, because there, of course, you see the public... the coins which are sold for a great lot of money are the ones the public has heard about, Caesar, Anthony and Cleopatra, but there are other Cleopatra's. It was a name, a Greek name, and Anthony I've got a lot of coins of, Anthony and Octavian and so on. And so I enjoy that, and I read, and there's quite a lot of actual hard interest in that, because the question is this, you know: how many coins do you... do you make, do you strike? Because as I've read about the Roman economy and the control of the money supply, you see how they control all that. There are learned articles on that. But again, it's... I always had been a collector. I collected stamps when I was younger, stamps of the British Empire, and so I keep things, so I think the coin collection is what I enjoy most. But it does give me a physical outlet for ancient history. I also collect Jewish coins, of which there are not many. I can read the ancient Hebrew. The Jews had independence under the Maccabeans from the Hellenistic rulers, this is Judas Maccabeus and the revolt. And they struck coins for about a hundred years, and then later again after the first revolt against the Romans. And these coins are quite expensive, but there are not all that many, but you can buy sort of damaged or partly... but you can see the inscription. It is written not in the ordinary Hebrew script, but an ancient Hebrew script which goes back a long while. It's not too difficult to learn if you know Hebrew. But they really... but they are always classified as part of the Greek coins because all these coins grew up either in conflict or in with Greeks and Romans in those days over a period of several hundred years, and episodes of Greek rule and Roman rule. So they regard those as part of Greek coins, so I find those pretty interesting.

Born in Lithuania, Aaron Klug (1926-2018) was a British chemist and biophysicist. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1982 for developments in electron microscopy and his work on complexes of nucleic acids and proteins. He studied crystallography at the University of Cape Town before moving to England, completing his doctorate in 1953 at Trinity College, Cambridge. In 1981, he was awarded the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize from Columbia University. His long and influential career led to a knighthood in 1988. He was also elected President of the Royal Society, and served there from 1995-2000.

Listeners: Ken Holmes John Finch

Kenneth Holmes was born in London in 1934 and attended schools in Chiswick. He obtained his BA at St Johns College, Cambridge. He obtained his PhD at Birkbeck College, London working on the structure of tobacco mosaic virus with Rosalind Franklin and Aaron Klug. After a post-doc at Childrens' Hospital, Boston, where he started to work on muscle structure, he joined to the newly opened Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge where he stayed for six years. He worked with Aaron Klug on virus structure and with Hugh Huxley on muscle. He then moved to Heidelberg to open the Department of Biophysics at the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research where he remained as director until his retirement. During this time he completed the structure of tobacco mosaic virus and solved the structures of a number of protein molecules including the structure of the muscle protein actin and the actin filament. Recently he has worked on the molecular mechanism of muscle contraction. He also initiated the use of synchrotron radiation as a source for X-ray diffraction and founded the EMBL outstation at DESY Hamburg. He was elected to the Royal Society in 1981 and is a member of a number of scientific academies.

John Finch is a retired member of staff of the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK. He began research as a PhD student of Rosalind Franklin's at Birkbeck College, London in 1955 studying the structure of small viruses by x-ray diffraction. He came to Cambridge as part of Aaron Klug's team in 1962 and has continued with the structural study of viruses and other nucleoproteins such as chromatin, using both x-rays and electron microscopy.

Tags: Roman Empire

Duration: 6 minutes, 5 seconds

Date story recorded: July 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008