Research planning: an adventure

The Comoros are an archipelago composed of 3 islands (formerly 4, but since 1975 one of them, Mayotte, is part of France) in the Indian Ocean, just above Madagascar and facing Mozambique. Despite their very diverse and rich culture – usually referred to as ‘islamo-bantu’, that is, a traditional Islamic society, yet very tolerant, but which speaks a language from the family of swahili, the most widely spread language of Africa – they have received very little academic attention. The oral literature of the Comoros reflects these different influences from Africa and the Islamic World but is also characteristic of the Indian Ocean traditional folklore. During the French colonisation, the Comoros have been exposed to other genres of literature, especially written ones. The first Comorian novel was published in 1985, and my research examines how novels written in French by Comorian writers are used as means to reinvest traditional oral narratives and especially folktales. Very little has been written about the Comoros so far, and I knew from the start that my research would involve a lot of planning in order to share the work between the two summers of my research and to go there by myself.
 
I didn’t expect the extent to which planning the trip would be an adventure. There is almost no internet in the Comoros, and when there is, people hardly ever look at their e-mails – including hostels, so that 2 weeks before the date of my flight to the other side of the world my accommodation was still not sorted out. Most of the story-tellers, scholars and specialists I contacted never answered to my e-mails, which was quite depressing. Fortunately, the ones who replied – sometimes a month later – were quite helpful.
 
Finding appropriate secondary literature was also a challenge: even the Inter-Library Loans service of the University failed to locate and get hold of the little number of related books that I had identified. This is where my treasure hunt began – I was this week in Paris trying to find where the books I was looking for were. It was quite funny: many librarians were surprised by my unusual research topic and I now have a lot of library cards! Next week, I will try to establish a full bibliography of works related to my research, which will include their location, and link the different versions of the same tale together.  

I spent some days in the beautiful Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, in Paris.

What I surely had not expected was the amount of paperwork I would need to do before undertaking my research. My initial plan was to interview people, and any research that involves exterior participants needs ethical approval. The ‘Ethics Form’, which became my best friend, was quite difficult to fill in, even with the help of my supervisor. The risk assessment form and travel fund application also took me a while, just like the numerous e-mails I sent to Comorian people that remained unanswered. Similarly, I needed to submit a full application to access ‘rare’ books in Paris. My advice to prospective Laidlaw scholars would definitely be: focus on the paperwork first and try to get hold of your resources as soon as you can – you will be really relieved once it is done.
I am flying to the Comoros on the 15th and I am really looking forward to it.  So far, this internship has strengthened my desire to do a career in research. I would like to thank once again Lord Laidlaw for this incredible opportunity and the Laidlaw team at St Andrews and my supervisor, Professor Nicki Hitchcott, for their advice and support.

In the steps of revolutionary women in Lima

The freedom of the Laidlaw scholarship to navigate between disciplines is what allowed me, a student of Classics, to work on a project falling under the school of Social Anthropology. My subject, in a nutshell, is about the role of two women in an indigenous revolt in Peru during the 18th century: virtually nothing has been written about this revolt, which my supervisor, Dr. Sabine Hyland, is working on. I became interested in the role of these two women as I wanted to understand more precisely what their role and sort was at the end of this revolt, especially in the context of viceregal Peru.

My first two weeks spent in St Andrews consisted of gathering enough back up information: understanding the context of the revolt of course, but also trying to find as much information as possible about the beaterio (“community or house of women living under informal religious vows”[1]) where the two women were sent after their trial. The variety and diversity of documents I went through was greater than I expected, as I read historical essays, official decrees, perused 18th century maps of Lima and spent most of my time deciphering copies of manuscripts from Peru and Spain.

Close-up from an 18th century letter from the Archivo Arzobispal de Lima

I thought finding the name of the beaterio would be the most difficult process: Peru and its capital Lima, where the beaterio had existed, rarely demolish churches and convents, and unless an earthquake had brought it down, I was almost sure I would find it under some form or another today. But that is where my research shifted a bit: the beaterio seemed impossible to find today in its original form, and sources online or of in the few books I had dealing with it had little information about it, and even less from the time where the two women were sent there. The task was made even more difficult with the fact that the beaterio had had several different names at the same time (going from “Beaterio de las Amparadas” to “Casa de las Recogidas”). It was almost by a stroke of luck that I found that, while the institution had disappeared (after a complex story of being relocated, disappearing for almost a century before passing down under the state’s authority), the building in which the two women had stayed still existed but housed today the Peruvian school of Fine Arts (Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes del Perú).

The next three weeks of my projects where dedicated to research in Lima itself, where, except for my trips to several archives to find more information about the two women, most of my search focused on this elusive Beaterio: I had become very intrigued with it, and what had started as simple backstory to my research became a much more important part of it. I had the fortune to receive a lot of help and assistance from PROLima, a branch of the Lima City Council which works for the protection and renovation of the historical center – a district the beaterio is part of. Being able to talk with several architects and historians about the building itself and its history was very enriching – and motivated me even more to work on the story of this beaterio. I was also able with their help to get into the Bellas Artes (usually only partially open to visitors) and see the original colonial patios, which were the only parts of the building that had not been drastically changed (all of the cells have now been turned into classrooms and the former church now houses an auditorium). Walking around the same patios and corridors as the subjects of my research once did in made all the readings and archival work much more vivid, and helped me understand the space of the beaterio, now a major focus of my study, much better.

One of the patios in the former beaterio and today’s school of Fine Arts of Peru

This is probably the main aspect I will remember from these first five weeks of the Laidlaw program: research might not advance the way you first pictured it, but sometimes unexpected results will lead you to a new approach and new visions for your project. I am for sure excited to go over all the information I gathered in this first summer and prepare for the next one, as well as the next Laidlaw events coming up before it! I am very grateful to Lord Laidlaw for this opportunity as well as the CAPOD team for their support, not to mention my supervisor Dr. Sabine Hyland and the staff of PROLima for their invaluable help.

 

[1] definition from Nancy Van Deusen (2002) Between the Sacred and the Wordly: the Institutional and Cultural Practice of Recogimiento in Colonial Lima, p.267.

All pictures are my own.

What? Why?

What made you first question the significance of your existence to the world and to yourself? Was it a reminder of your mortality – how fragile we are and how easy it is to die yet how fiercely we fight against the inevitable? Or maybe it was the realisation of how complex the Universe is and how little we actually know about it? Perhaps you were just walking down the street and you looked up at the sky, or you were in the middle of the ocean, with nothing but more and more water in sight; and at that moment it struck you how tiny you really are and how little you mean to the Universe. Or, probably, you were just lying on your bed staring at the ceiling when there was a sudden moment where you ask yourself, ‘What on earth am I doing here?’

For people who lived through World War II or was born in the aftermath prevailed by suffering and hopelessness, it was probably the brutal and painful truth of the human condition. What did we fight for? What did we die for? What made us do so much to have a slightly better chance at survival when we might die any second? Now what? What binds us to life now? For my research, I have been studying literature in East Asia since World War II. It was a period of disillusionment, and with works of western philosophers’ translated into various languages, existentialism had never been more prominent in Chinese and Japanese literature. A girl who inherited a mansion from her Mom but chose to sleep in a garage with nothing but a few blankets and empty applecart as furniture; villagers who thought she must be crazy because they were too busy working and studying non-stop to think about how ridiculous and pointless their life was; a boy who eventually chose to embrace the mundane life of working at factory because there is no escape from monotony anyway; a man who did not answer to his wife in a flood to take care of a woman he had never met before because he believed one should only live in the moment and at that moment he felt responsible for the sick person. These are only a few of the characters from novels and novellas I have read. Existential notions are not always explicitly spelt out but are undoubtedly a fundamental concern to the authors in the characterisation of every single person – or dogs – that appear in the story.

As thinkers, it is not uncommon for us to ponder on the meaning of our lives. I hope this post is not a trigger of an existential crisis – that is far from the intention. This post, as well as my project, aims to examine the value of our lives and not to escape from the question by too quickly deeming life unworthy or by blindly believe in an inherent meaning. Perhaps you think, ‘Why does that matter? We are living right now and whether we like it or not, tonight we will still set up an alarm clock so that we make it to work on time tomorrow, then spend the day writing emails or looking at numbers so that we can afford food and an alarm clock, so that we can make it to work on time…’ However, I believe addressing the issue and living with a full awareness of the meaninglessness of life – if that is the conclusion you reach – is essentially different from living with the illusion of meaningfulness.

My research has led me to explore a wide range of fiction and essays. With guidance from my supervisor, I have thoroughly enjoyed the project, for which I would like to thank Lord Laidlaw for making the resources available. I also owe my personal development to the coordinators, speakers and everyone I have met in this programme. I feel genuinely honoured to be part of this.

Going solo

Hi again, it’s Zoe – I wanted to talk today about an aspect of my research project, which is at the same time the most exciting and the most daunting. First a little bit about my research.

My project is titled ‘Reclaiming space: how Scandinavian female artists remodelled the domestic sphere in the nineteenth century’ (try and say that three times fast). The domestic sphere is usually seen as feminised, and has been for centuries. Men embodied the outdoors, the hunters; women the indoors, the nurturers. These are typical associations that have been played out in wider society, and thus of course reflected in visual culture too. Take Pieter De Hooch’s work ‘the messenger’ c.1670, quite a typical Dutch genre scene, a woman is to the left of the composition, further into the interior and just out of the light which floods in from the door’s touch. The male strides directly from the outside, most importantly bringing information from the outside world in to the scene. Even unintentionally perhaps, but the division is visible just as it was in society. Most importantly than this, it is a male painter depicting the interior, describing a setting which is not his ‘sphere’.

Pieter De Hooch, The Messenger, 1670

Cut to 200 years later, more and more women were becoming professional painters, and we begin to see the domestic sphere described through female eyes. The woman is now publicly conveying her perceptions of what this assigned place is, and what her experiences of it are. So, I am exploring how some woefully under-studied female artists from Finland, Sweden and Norway reveal a through-the-keyhole glance into the most private physical spaces. Scandinavia particularly, because during the turn of the century these painters were contemporaries of home-economics theorists, who were publishing their thoughts on how a home should be, how a child should be raised, the ideal environment. So, simply, I just want to see how these painters respond to this literature, and if we can learn their perceptions of what a home is, and most importantly, if they’re happy with the sphere they’ve been assigned. That took longer than I thought!

Elin Danielson-Gambogi, After Breakfast, 1890

The wonderful thing about the Laidlaw Scholarship means that I have been allowed to go and see these gorgeous works in the flesh. That’s right folks: three countries, thirteen days, and a whole load of galleries. Could you find a better way to spend a fortnight? I am desperate to get started, but as I said before, it’s also pretty daunting. I’m not starting my research until August and that’s something I’m quite relieved about because I have a LOT to work out. I have never even travelled anywhere by myself before, so I thought I’d share a couple of things I’ve learnt so far in planning and researching for my big adventure:

  1. Air BnB is a god-send: The thing is about Scandinavia is that it is pretty expensive. I worked out pretty quickly that it’s the same price to stay in a 12-bed mixed dorm in a hostel (maybe great for big groups but I don’t think my mum would be too pleased if I went alone) as it is to rent a room in someone’s house on this glorious website. In all of my cases, I’ve got full use of the kitchen, homely double rooms and very friendly hosts that you can message to ask any questions before you go. Also, I can’t guarantee this for every home but my flat in Stockholm has a Cockapoo puppy. 100% win.
  2. Don’t overload your days: especially with something like a gallery, you have no idea how much time it’ll take you to go around. There’s nothing worse than rushing through each room, feet aching and paintings blurring because you need to fit in two more before they close. In Art History we’re told that spending around an hour on the painting of your focus is about right – it sounds excessive but you’ll be amazed. With more compositionally elaborate pieces, you can see a tiny spaniel hiding under a chair in the background you were sure wasn’t there a second ago. Don’t cram your brain – you’re meant to be enjoying yourself.
  3. Have copies of everything: A picture of your passport, copy down your flight info, have the booking confirmations for everything, know where the embassy is, and it’s probably a good idea to send all of it to a trusty friend at home too. There’s no such thing as playing it too safe when you’re by yourself (and as paranoid as me!)

So, wish me luck! I know it’s going to be incredible. I’d like to thank Lord Laidlaw and the CAPOD team for allowing all of this to be possible. I’ll be sure to keep you all updated with how I get on, including pictures of the cockapoo.

Untangling the Web

I began my research in May, when I visited Heidelberg University to attend a conference hosted by members of the association of European Women in Mathematics. An aim of my project is to understand more about the gender imbalance in Mathematics, and the conference provided a really interesting insight into how the subject is perceived across Europe. It was a fantastic experience, and I would definitely recommend a trip to Heidelberg – it is a beautiful city!

Next week will be the last of my 5 weeks of research this year. It has been a steep learning curve, yet very rewarding, and I have learnt a considerable amount about both research and leadership. 

I am creating an open-source database which will be made freely available to the public to view, query and expand. My project departs from the convention of tabular databases, and enters the relatively undiscovered world of linked data. Although little is currently understood about these methodologies, they are revolutionising the web. Data can be openly shared and used across the internet with the help of common vocabularies, and new facts can be inferred from existing relationships.

It has occurred to me that the way the internet works is greatly under-appreciated. When you hit the search button on Google, the subsequent half-a-second process which takes place to produce a list of search results is more complex than you might imagine, and it is fascinating to discover the depth behind an interface which over half of the world’s population use on a daily basis.

Leadership has been integral to my project so far, in situations ranging from coordinating and leading meetings, to responding to issues and grasping opportunities to expand my network and deepen my knowledge. Over the past 4 weeks, my research has thrown up several unexpected challenges, such as spending my first week simply installing the required software. Yet from challenges arise opportunities, and in overcoming this particular hurdle, I learnt valuable lessons in general installation methods and ways to interact directly with a computer system, which I am sure will be of use to me in the future. 

I would like to thank Lord Laidlaw for this opportunity, and also the Laidlaw team at St. Andrews. I have so far benefitted greatly from this experience, and I look forward to continuing my research next year. 

 

Me? A leader?

Hello from an unusually sunny St Andrews! I’m Zoe, a Laidlaw Scholar for the school of art history, and I will be uploading a few blogs this week. For my first post, I thought I’d focus on the leadership aspect of the programme – an aspect that I was perhaps a bit tentative in undertaking.

When describing myself, ‘leader’ is not an adjective that springs to mind. As an art history student, when somebody says the word leadership, my mind cannot help but conjure up images of Delacroix’s ‘Liberty leading the people’, or David’s

Liberty Leading the People, Eugène Delacroix (1830)

‘Napoleon Crossing the Alps’ ( 19th Century France really enjoyed paintings of people dramatically pointing). Someone noble, magisterial, somebody – well, pointing. Of course I have assumed some roles of authority in the past, but I couldn’t really compare myself to Napoleon. You can imagine therefore that I felt unprepared, to say the least, when we went on our first Laidlaw Leadership Weekend to Hospitalfield in March, and I am sure that I can vouch for quite a few others in my cohort as well. It was with great relief – and amazement – that on the first full day, I was given a very official-looking document that explained that I was a leader, that we all were, and gave twenty pages of detail explain exactly why and how. Brilliant!

Napoleon Crossing the Alps, Jaques-Louis David (1800)

This impressive document to which I am referring is the ‘Everything DiSC® Workplace Profile’, a tool that for over thirty years workplaces have been using to analyse the characteristics of individuals, and uses this to suggest the motivators and stressors that can affect the way you might cooperate in a team-based, project-led environment. Not to say that it is 100% perfect, however this little booklet, with the help of Alex, Cat and Eilidh’s deciphering, allowed us all to realise that the image of a leader Delacroix and David were imagining was more of a mythical creature best left immortilised in oil paint. Leaders can be quiet, not in a position of power, or are just one person of a group. A leader is, actually, somebody who conveys their purpose clearly but not overbearingly, who accepts and builds upon what other people contribute, and through communication blends both of these into a common, attainable goal.

The DiSC® Profile is a simple way of understanding this; there is D (Dominance), i(Influence), S (steadiness) and C (Conscientiousness). Your given dot can fall in or between these categories, giving twelve possible letter combinations, and the position of your dot towards the inner or outer edge of the circle shows how strongly you adhere to your section. They make it very clear though, that of course every person contains a little bit of all four; this is just your natural inclination. However, it did become eerily obvious just how accurate some of these descriptors were. I came up as a CD, with my dot right in between the inner and outer edge. This means that I am mostly conscientious, with a tendency to be dominant. Me all over. Now the reason why I thought I couldn’t be a leader, and something typical of the ‘C’ type, is that I really thrive on independent work, and (more often than I like to admit) I have problems letting others take on responsibility. For others who received the ‘S’ bracket, they tend to be accommodating to others and more indecisive; ‘i’ are sometimes quite impulsive and disorganised; ‘D’ can be impatient and insensitive towards group morale. So, none of us are perfect.

DiSC Profile, with my CD dot. All credit to John Wiley & sons, Inc.

But in recognising these limitations and understanding our strengths, I think we all began to feel a lot more confident. Not just in being more aware of how we react in goal-orientated situations and how this affects the larger group, but in that we all had inherent qualities that are essential to leadership. I might need to work on being overly critical and sharing the workload, however I also have a meticulous emphasis on quality, love learning from others’ expertise, and have pretty good common sense. What I gained form the leadership weekend is perhaps the most important trait that a leader needs: self-awareness. I don’t know what made me more relieved; knowing that being a leader was something much more attainable than I imagined, or that I don’t have to practice my pointing anymore.

 

Image credits to the St Andrews image database system. The Disc Profile is a registered copyright or John Wiley & Sons 2012

Graham Priest: A True Leader

President, Australasian Association for Logic; Chair of the Council, Australasian Association of Philosophy; Elected Life Member, Clare Hall, Cambridge… With more than 240 papers published and 6 books, the list of his achievements never seems to end. The distinguished Professor Graham Priest has had an impressive academic career, to say the least, but what differentiates him from most people is far from an impressive award, it is the example he sets, it is his natural and wise leadership that really makes him stand out and, ultimately, the reason why you are now reading a post on what he represents.

Graham Priest [2]

Graham priest is exactly the kind of person that defies the stereotype, held both outside and inside of academia, that a great academic cannot be a well-rounded person, that a man that is capable of producing research at the very edge of knowledge does not have the time to be well read in many other fields; that he cannot understand the complexities and intricacies of art if he has spent too long thinking about mathematical sciences or that he cannot possibly have the time to exercise on a regular basis or practice tai-chi. This common belief comes from the apparent fact that the cost of being a renowned expert must have been that you only had time to specialise in that one thing and nothing more. It partly comes from a western idea that developing the body antagonises the goal of developing the mind. And it comes from the thought that if that you, by any chance, have the highest academic goals, then you must give up all those other hobbies and interests that you enjoy and take up a good part of your day because they are a waste of time.

I think this is exactly the wrong way to approach life and that Graham Priest is a valuable leader because he sets a path for many to follow that illustrates how to go about getting rid of this dangerous stereotype. Graham Priest is a leader that inspires me on many fronts, the academic is only one of them. He clearly has achieved academic excellence, which I think is admirable in itself. But the kind of excellence that he brings to the table is uncommon. He is an integral academic, one that is not afraid to cross boundaries between subjects like mathematics, philosophy, politics, psychology and after graduating from a maths degree at Cambridge he went on to spend almost the rest of his life exploring all the sorts of philosophy areas one could think of. He dares not vow to the traditional canon of overspecialisation; instead, he takes initiative and links ideas together in a creative way. People have only recently started to realise the importance of interdisciplinary richness and how an unexpected piece of knowledge in one area might spark a brilliant idea in some other.

Graham Priest and his caption saying:  “…and the Scottish water was bloody freezing” [3]

Priest challenges stereotypes, thinks outside the box, brings together fields that most people often categorise as completely separated and disjoint: mathematics and philosophy, eastern and western traditions, philosophy and martial arts… These are all examples of things he has combined as if they were not that different to begin with (they probably are not). Priest is a leader that shows originality and lives a congruent life, he has great influence through his work and yet he is never pretentious. His humbleness is one of his main virtues when we analyse why he is a great leader. Moreover, he leads a healthy life and remains approachable and friendly (which I know from my personal experience). As the pre-socratic philosopher Thales once said: “What man is happy? ‘He who has a healthy body, a resourceful mind and a docile nature’.”[1] I suggest the reader one must learn from Thales, remember to never be content with just a resourceful mind and aspire to all three.


My Laidlaw research has led me to work extensively with philosophy of mathematics, a field Graham Priest has led for several years. In particular, his two books In Contradiction and Non-Classical Introduction to Logic have been extremely useful in my research. He is someone I truly look up to but not just because of his intellectual achievements but because of who he is and how he lives his life. To me, that is exactly the kind of legacy that I look for in a good leader and not just an example of how to be good at one particular thing but an integral example of how to lead a superb life altogether.


I would like to thank Lord Laidlaw and everyone that took part in this joint effort to make this scholarship happen. Overall, I think I have made really good progress and I feel fortunate to be learning so much through my research project and the leadership workshops.


[1] As quoted by Diogenes Laërtius. Accessed from Perseus Digital Library: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/

[2] Graham Priest. Photo by Maureen Eckert. Accessed from http://grahampriest.net/

[3] Graham Priest by the North Sea in Scotland. Accessed from http://grahampriest.net/

My Global Minimum

I’ll start by introducing my research, but I don’t want to lose my good audience so I’ll keep it brief. I’m just over two weeks in and, despite some rough debugging, I have by now settled into a fairly comfortable tempo. I’ve been working with machine learning algorithms, the same kind of techniques used by the likes of Facebook and Google to target ads on the internet, and applying them to solve problems in physical chemistry. The hot topic of the day in machine learning is the deep neural network, which aims to mimic the way animals and people learn (in a much simplified way) to find patterns in vast amounts of data. The network is taught to recognise some particular feature in the data using a training algorithm.

If you think of the variables in the network as defining a landscape, with hills and valleys, then the algorithm learns by running downhill. It’s chasing after the lowest point, the so-called global minimum, where it has learned everything it possibly can from what it has been given. I picture the algorithm as a little hiker trying to find its way home, traversing a perilous path over towering mountains and gaping ravines. Every leap carries with it a risk that the numbers will suddenly explode away to infinity and the hiker will lose its way forever, but if it is too timid it can get stuck in the safety of a local minimum, lacking the courage to make the jump over the next hill. With every improvement added it’s almost heartwarming to see it develop into a confident navigator of this unpredictable terrain.That it can learn to replicate the complicated and often unintuitive results of quantum chemistry – with no guidance but the raw data – is a testament to its flexibility, and although it’s really a simple model I get a kick out of musing that it sheds light on the process of learning in general. I even wonder if there is not a (somewhat strained) comparison to leadership in there somewhere. One recurring theme in the leadership sessions seems to be that in order to improve as a leader you too must have the bravery to push yourself over obstacles when those around you might hesitate. It may be some great challenge in your work, or one as small as being the first to make a suggestion, and both can be daunting, but as you improve your techniques and add new tools to your repertoire the challenges that seemed frightening or insurmountable before can become familiar, even enjoyable.

 

I’ve really had a blast with this project so far and I’d like to thank Lord Laidlaw for making it possible as well as the CAPOD staff and speakers who run this fantastic scholarship. Your time and effort is well appreciated.

The King and The Cyclops

Frederick the Great was furious. It was 1747 and construction had just finished on Sanssouci, the Prussian King’s summer palace and personal retreat. The showpiece was to be a spectacular fountain capable of jetting water over thirty metres. Not a single drop ever rose above the basin. The pipes kept bursting under the enormous pressure and the costly project was abandoned. The man who Frederick blamed was Leonhard Euler, his “cyclops of a mathematician”. The disparaging sobriquet was a reference to Euler’s ailing sight, he would later go blind. “My mill was constructed mathematically, and it could not raise one drop of water…Vanity of Vanities! Vanity of mathematics!” Frederick later complained to Voltaire. In truth, Euler had warned the architects that the pipes were not thick enough and the project would fail should they go ahead. This advice seems never to have reached Frederick, or he chose to ignore it.

It’s hardly surprising that the two men failed to get along. Frederick was often seen as a bold and brilliant character, more an admirer of poetry and philosophy than the “sterile field” of mathematics. Euler, on the other hand, was an outwardly unremarkable man, not much interested in the flummery of court life. In the annals of history Frederick is by far the favoured subject, but to disregard Euler would be a mistake. He was not only the most prolific mathematician to ever live, many also regard him as the greatest. It was said that he “calculated without apparent effort, as men breathe, or as eagles sustain themselves in the wind”. Hardly any area of mathematics or physics remained unaffected by his work. At a young age he offered a solution for the Paris Academy’s annual Prize Problem, to determine the best placement of masts on a ship. Euler was born in landlocked Switzerland and had never seen a ship in person. He placed second, beaten by “the father of naval architecture”. Showing characteristic resolve, he went on to win the prize eleven more times. Such stories are typical of his extraordinary career.

[1][1]

Despite the animus between the pair, Euler and Frederick did have something in common. They were both, in very different ways, exceptional leaders. In the mind of the military historian, or the ambitious statesman, Frederick the Great was a model leader. He was decisive, courageous, and an expert tactician. In military campaigns he led personally and faced the enemy at the side of his men, having six horses shot from under him during battle. Napoleon admired Frederick so much that he had a bust of him made for his bedroom cabinet. Frederick personified the Romantic image of a great military leader, a man whose character and brilliance alone were enough to inspire devotion and confidence. Euler possessed none of these qualities. He never fielded an army, raised a nation to pre-eminence, or gained an honorific like ‘the great’. Nonetheless, Euler had ambitious designs and inspired others to seek their fulfilment. He did this not by command but by example, as was fitting for his battleground. Euler led mathematical science during his lifetime and paved new paths for future generations to follow.

If Frederick’s style of leadership was martial, Euler’s was intellectual. History has seen an abundance of leaders like Frederick and, regardless of what they bring about, demand hardly seems to wane. Recent trends, however, suggest a change in this situation. Already one is more likely to see the face of Austen, Smith, or Watt rather than Churchill when reaching for their wallet. Personally, this is a welcome shift in focus. They might not be good at leading armies, or getting fountains built, but the world could benefit from a few more leaders like Euler.


I hadn’t thought much about leadership before becoming a Laidlaw Scholar, these reflections were prompted by some of the things I’ve learnt about leadership since then. I’d like to thank Lord Laidlaw for creating and sustaining this excellent program and the superb team supporting us at St Andrews.

[1] Left: Handmann, Jakob Emanuel, Portrait of Leonhard Euler, 1753Kunstmuseum, Basel. Right: Camphausen, Wilhelm, Portrait of Frederick the Great, 1870. Both accessed from commons.wikimedia.org.

Battling the Hump

The bright Scottish sun taunts me from my glistening window pane, calling me to step out from the lonely cell I call my room into the salty embrace of the beach; the lush scents of Lade Braes; the cheekiness of a pint . . .

Diverging from a scheduled curriculum and jumping head first into undirected, independent research, above all, tests my will and self-motivation to do the research. I’m lucky enough to have my area of interest chosen for this amazing programme, and to have gotten a supervisor who is interested in my research topic who is also inspiring in his passion in his own field of research (Shoutout to Mr Duncan!). Alongside with the hard work and encouragement of the Laidlaw team, these factors help me to persist with my research on days where I feel monotonous and uninspired.

I think getting started with reading secondary materials (on theory) has been the most difficult part for me as I’m more excited over the conferences to attend and banned plays to read that can only be informed with theoretical knowledge. With the research topic of “How the Singapore theatre reflects and shapes the queer cultures in Singaporean society”, a good understanding of queer and theatre theories are pertinent, and so far, my reading on different theories and their nuances and implications have fascinated and captivated me. A wider knowledge pool of theory has made me even more excited to do hands-on research and inputting my analysis on the plays that I read and watch. I have the Queer Asia Conference in London that I am attending at the end of June, and this gives me the opportunity to hear from a large pool of experiences and knowledge that are specific to being Asian.

Beginning the journey into research through this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and with a supportive team that helps me to develop as a researcher, a leader, and as a person, is something that I would eternally be grateful for, and all I can do is hope that my contributions to the programme and society make an impact, no matter how small.