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Life Biography

Early Years

I was born June 11, 1952 in Bolton, Lancashire, a town near Manchester in northern England, to father Ahmed Toufik, and mother Mary Jean.

At the age of two I moved to Manchester, taking my parents with me. We lived in Fallowfield, a district of Manchester about 3 miles south of the city centre, and I grew up there until leaving for university at the age of eighteen.

I attended St. Paul's Primary School, a small and rather beautiful primary school in Withington, Manchester. On a recent visit I went by my old primary school, and discovered to my sorrow that the lovely old building I remember has been demolished, to be replaced by a more modern set of buildings.

Manchester Grammar School

I went to high school at Manchester Grammar School, a wonderful and venerable school, founded in 1515, with an imposing set of buildings surrounded by extensive playing fields. This was where I first began, at the age of 12, to learn about the world, and I absolutely loved it. For the first time I was exposed to a whole set of miraculous new things: physics and chemistry, mathematics, geography and history, French and Latin. It all made complete sense to me, and in this environment I flourished.

A few things stand out strongly in my mind from this time. I remember one of my very first chemistry classes, where we were learning about the elements, and our chemistry master rolled in a cart, laden with samples of many of the elements. He described each in turn, and handed it to the end boy in the first row, and the samples then made their way, boustrophedon, to the end boy in the last row, and each of us had a few moments to commune with these truly elemental substances. Many contained in glass jars, but many also to be held naked in our hands: the flat plates of copper, bendable leaves of tin, a ribbon of magnesium, the weighty lumps of iron and lead. And in their jars the non-metals: the blackness of pure carbon; the startling yellow brilliance of sulphur; the darkly enigmatic iodine. And gold, the most lustrous of metals, the most bewitching; and many others: aluminium, antimony, silicon, nickel, zinc, silver. I loved the names, like the names of gods.

And some not to be held at all, but only viewed from afar in the teacher's hands: the incendiary phosphorus held within its water prison, sodium in its oily one, the mysterious molten mercury, rolling back and forth in its sealed glass tube.

And the gases, colourless inside their jars, sealed with greased glass lids. Apparently no more than air, but proven to be otherwise before our eyes: one, touched with a lighted taper, that would burn with a blue flame; another that would make the taper itself burn furiously; a third that would extinguish it instantly.

Of course I knew that my world was filled with stuff, but this was something really new and startling, that everything I knew, everything, was made from these mysterious cosmic substances, forged in the stars, and now come to our hands.

Another very early memory is of one of my very first biology classes, where the master showed us a chart, with the skeletal anatomy of a human arm, and a horse's foreleg, side by side. And he showed us the complete isomorphism, from shoulder to fingertip, bone for bone, between our limb and the horse's. All the way down to the horse's massive hoof, isomorphic to the fingernail on our own middle finger.

Again, I knew there were horses, and I knew there were people, but this revelation was absolutely stunning. This was evidence like no other, and I knew right there, what this evidence had to mean.

And the elegance of mathematics, and Newton's laws of motion, and learning a foreign language, and parsing out literature—it all made sense. There was an order in our universe, and in our world, and it was being unfolded before my eyes.

These years were an absorbing and happy time of life for me, and I believe I even knew it explicitly at the time. I remember going to a school dance at the age of 17 or so with my girlfriend of the time, and we took time to walk hand-in-hand through the deserted and darkened upper halls of the school, with the muffled bass notes thumping up from the dance hall, and I stopped and put my hand on the wall, and told her how much I loved this ancient school. (Are you there, D? Do you remember?)

University of Cambridge

Narrative to be continued...

Created by sa-20071
Last modified 2009-12-23 06:04 PM

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