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Studying mathematics and English


Futile Latin lessons at Eton College
John Maynard Smith Scientist
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I had the good fortune, in some ways, I suppose, of being regarded as rather a stupid boy at school, because I'm very bad at languages, I couldn't do Latin and Greek. I remember... I suppose one of the ultimate human futilities at Eton, you were given - somebody had gone to the trouble to translate Virgil from the Latin 'Down in the deep dark dale, sat an old cow munching a bean stalk' scansion, into English. And we were then told to translate it back into Latin. At the time it struck me as deeply futile, they'd got the Latin, why did we have to do it for them. But I remember that my method was to look up three or four alternatives of each word and then just do permutations and combinations. There had to be some way in which you could fit these words together in any old order, and as far as I could see, it didn't matter in Latin what order things were in, until you got the right scansion. But it was an incredibly futile activity, and I think I knew at the time it was futile. The one thing, as I say, they taught incredibly well, was mathematics, and I've... I have to be grateful to them for that.

The late British biologist John Maynard Smith (1920-2004) is famous for applying game theory to the study of natural selection. At Eton College, inspired by the work of old Etonian JBS Haldane, Maynard Smith developed an interest in Darwinian evolutionary theory and mathematics. Then he entered University College London (UCL) to study fruit fly genetics under Haldane. In 1973 Maynard Smith formalised a central concept in game theory called the evolutionarily stable strategy (ESS). His ideas, presented in books such as 'Evolution and the Theory of Games', were enormously influential and led to a more rigorous scientific analysis and understanding of interactions between living things.

Listeners: Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins was educated at Oxford University and has taught zoology at the universities of California and Oxford. He is a fellow of New College, Oxford and the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. Dawkins is one of the leading thinkers in modern evolutionary biology. He is also one of the best read and most popular writers on the subject: his books about evolution and science include "The Selfish Gene", "The Extended Phenotype", "The Blind Watchmaker", "River Out of Eden", "Climbing Mount Improbable", and most recently, "Unweaving the Rainbow".

Tags: Eton College, Virgil

Duration: 1 minute, 8 seconds

Date story recorded: April 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008