The Inverted Baked Alaska, and After

What lured me to the life of science wasn't so much the glamour of my out-of-date Children's Encyclopaedia (which had me longing at the age of nine for my own Bessemer converter) but the notion that scientists were wonderful and flamboyant people. Unspoilt by having invented relativity, they went without socks and stuck their tongues out at photographers. They leapt from bathtubs and rioted naked in the street shouting Eureka. When apples fell on their heads they cried not "Oh fuck!" but "F=GMm/r²!" It seemed a great life, apart from the one ever-present hazard dwelt on in my favourite literature, that of becoming a Mad Scientist: and even at fifteen I knew you could easily avoid this danger by steering clear of things with which man was not meant to meddle. Women, for example. My mother was increasingly lucid on this point.

The line of least resistance took me to Oxford, the horrors of the physics honours course, and three years amid the real scientific eccentrics. There was Roaf, an exponent of the classical lecture technique whereby you write the entire Greek alphabet in an unlikely order on the blackboard, whispering a mathematics lecture to the forbidden symbols even while shielding them with your body from the gaze of the impure. (In a Worst Oxford Lecturers poll circa 1972, Roaf lost by a narrow margin to Christopher Tolkien, son of the more famous.... The question on every physicist's tongue was, what on earth could Tolkien's lectures have been like?) There was Dr Altmann of the extraordinary accent, whose genially and incomprehensibly imparted truths never made the tiniest fleeting contact with our actual syllabus. (His fondness for trendy red plastic furniture and artful spotlights looked a bit odd in a college room full of ancient oak panelling.) There was Rosenberg, whose tuition in solid-state physics might have been most informative if my obsessive tutorial partner Warren hadn't (after staring under the desk for a full hour during our first confrontation with the Solid State) developed an outraged theory that "I'm Sure Rosenberg Shaves His Legs You Know." I spent the rest of that course nervously trying not to look. Peach was our own personal tutor at Brasenose College, and was famous for his labour-saving ways, grading essays between finger and thumb ("Bit thin this week, Langford") and skipping whole chunks of syllabus which fell outside his own field of far-out radioastronomy: "This week I want you all to... learn electronics. And when you've done that, read the first six chapters of Zemansky's Heat and Thermodynamics, and then...." Finally, a fellow of Brasenose but never unlucky enough to have to educate Langford personally, there was the amazing Professor Kurti.

Kurti fitted with eerie precision into one of the classical Lovable Eccentric Scientist poses. He was plump and bald as an egghead, his eyes gleamed behind the sort of pebble glasses which would allow normal people to spy on the sex-lives of bacteria, and he had a strange, morbid addiction to bow ties. The plumpness was possibly because the Kurti approach to science invariably led to the nearest kitchen. Imagine a discourse on heat conduction, in a Mittel-European accent impossible to transcribe, which suddenly takes on new enthusiasm with the words, "And so from this we can see that the cooking time of the steak is not proportional to the mass. No: it varies instead as the square root of the mass. So! Of course the calculation is only valid when we have the perfectly... spherical... steak. In practice this is not so. And so we must solve a very... complicated... differential equation before we can cook the steak."

As part of his lecture, and for no discernible reason, Kurti was particularly fond of demonstrating how to make high-tech meringues. At one end of the bench would be a mass of weatherbeaten apparatus from the Clarendon Laboratory – dingy glassware, oily tubing and vacuum pumps; at the other, a surgically clean array of kitchen equipment. The egg-whites would be beaten with perfect laboratory technique (also, of course, with a beater), the sugar added as cautiously as one might assemble a subcritical mass of plutonium. Finally, the uncooked meringues would be sealed under a glass dome amid the sordid scientific stuff, the dome evacuated so they could swell yeastily to an unprecedented lightness, and the infra-red heaters turned on. I never worked out what scientific principle this was supposed to instil, but the results – flung randomly to students in the front rows – were considerably tastier than those of, say, Rutherford's experiment on the scattering of alpha-particles.

There was a rumour that Prof.Kurti was secretly experimenting with egg-white whipped in an atmosphere of helium to produce meringues lighter than air. His pork tenderizing process was no rumour: advancing on the unfortunate meat like Dr Moreau on his prey, he would stab it to the very gristle with a hypodermic. In the syringe would be a murky fluid extracted at hideous cost from the vital organs of... well, actually, pineapples. It had to be fresh living pineapple that was fed into the liquidizer's awful maw; the secret of making grotty pork melt in your mouth lay in the enzymes.

And at private dinners he served his pride and joy, the Inverted Baked Alaska. Kurti owned the first microwave oven seen in barbarous Oxford – but of course – and was swift to see its potential. For example, the microwave frequencies used are absorbed strongly in water and still more so in alcohol, but not very well in ice. (Which is one reason why the "defrost" setting never seems very efficient. One day someone will produce a special defrost-only oven for rich cooks, its microwave output tuned to the strongest absorption bands of crystalline ice. Or did Arthur C.Clarke invent this in 1945?) You can imagine the rest, and I can imagine Kurti's toothy smile. Slicing into the innocuous slabs of ice-cream on their plates, guest after guest at the Kurti table suffered alarm and first-degree burns as (insulated in meringue and selectively microwave-heated from outside) a gush of scalding, brandy-laced marmalade burst forth. It was like sticking a spoon into Iceland and getting an eyeful of magma.

To this day, all over the world, there must be eminent academics and scientists who reveal their training at the Kurti table by cautiously investigating ice-cream with long probes and pyrometers.

I last encountered Kurti in the letters page of New Scientist, discussing Count Rumford's forgotten slow-cooking technique which produced meat of unbelievable tenderness over a period of days or weeks – the only snag being the need to pre-sterilize your roast in an autoclave. Otherwise the highly desirable environment (for certainly extremely small organisms) ensures that the meat finishes rotting rather before it finishes cooking.... By that time my own scientific momentum had taken me out beyond the cosy orbit of Oxford into extramoral space at the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, which is run as a branch of the British civil service. There were no flamboyant eccentrics any more: just civil servants and security police. The five-year experience was so depressing and ill-paid that I was happy to escape into freelance writing (causing a wide-eyed Greg Benford to ask "Why did you quit Big Science Biz?") – at last giving me a chance to publish the nuclear farce which was my exorcism of all AWRE's horrors, The Leaky Establishment.

Such was the end of my scientific career. I couldn't be an eccentric (i.e. a security risk) at AWRE, but I can now, and Kurti himself might be pleased by my researches into freezing our vast autumn crop of maggoty pears. "But you don't freeze pears," I hear you say. "The ice crystals rupture the cell walls, and when the pears thaw they'll be all mushy and disgusting." Precisely. With a little pressure these dripping, squidgy objects yield mindboggling quantities of rich juice. A few months later comes a pear wine almost as deadly to life and limb as the Inverted Baked Alaska. Big Science Biz is dead; long live household science.

SECRETS OF THE LITERARY LIFE: ...There are times when I wish I hadn't been so understanding about the appearance of The Space Eater – and had (a) broken into the Arrow office by dead of night and burnt the cover original ("Ugh," I enthused. "Sorry, we're stuck with it now," explained hero editor Richard Evans); (b) suggested, nay, insisted that Arrow slap MULTIPLE HUGO NOMINEE on the book in huge red letters. I used to have my pride, but not any more.

Soon it was Timescape's turn. David Hartwell there had made encouraging noises, asking only for a few little changes in every sentence, and Richard and I had concocted an elaborate system of page-renumbering and crossings-out in heavy felt pen (with the original bits written in again, above) to give the illusion of sufficient dynamic change. As far as I know, it sold moderately well over there despite the efforts of Timescape – who kept the godawful cover (perhaps Americans like that kind of thing), omitted the biography of Great Langford Achievements and all the ecstatic review quotes I'd carefully garnered at their request (even now I blush at what nice Brian Stableford wrote, and amazingly cheap he came, too), and finally put out a publicity flyer so horrifyingly off-putting that Malcolm Edwards rushed me a copy with more than usual glee. Perhaps the Jerry Pournelle comparisons were just the thing to sell The Space Eater to far-right Reaganite Americans like Avedon Carol, but I couldn't help detecting a certain lack of adman's nous in the opening sentence: "Okay, we all know the hardest thing in the world to sell is a first novel by an unknown author...." What a compulsive hard-sell, to be sure.

(Imagine equally inspiring openings from the same pen: "OK, you're fed up to the teeth with all those stories Ursula Le Guin keeps churning out, and here's yet another collection of them." "All right, we know most people would run a mile to avoid reading another novel by Chris Priest, and unfortunately a Priest novel is what we're lumbered with. But look on the bright side....")

It wasn't these rarefied, artsy-fartsy, literary points which most struck me. It was more a certain financial je ne sais quoi; a sensation of existential emptiness in the bank account. Where was the Timescape advance? Subtle probings at Arrow ("Tell me all, Faith Brooker, or I pour this depilatory fluid over the head of your pinioned boyfriend!") revealed that Arrow hadn't sent any money because they'd received none from Timescape. Timescape hadn't been scattering largesse because the contract binding them to do so hadn't actually been finalized – partly because of contractual quibbles, but mostly because dear old Richard Evans, euphoric about his imminent escape, spent his final months at Arrow gazing dreamily at the ceiling and exuding a faint aroma of canned lager, while the Langford contract languished in a drawer. Despite my laughably antiquated notion that without a contract Timescape couldn't publish the book, they'd had it in print and selling for eight months, cutting clean through all that fussy red tape about advances and royalties.... [1983]

FUN THINGS TO DO WITH WOODLICE! (i) Admire the fond, gregarious instinct with which they crawl lovingly up the wall behind your typing desk. (ii) Appreciate their interesting texture, barefoot in the hall as you go for the morning post. (iii) Laugh delightedly at their tiny, fun-loving young as they spill in hordes from the home-grown pear you've just bitten into. (What is that tickling sensation in your throat, accompanying the bit you swallowed? Don't ask.) (iv) Reverently fish their leggy little corpses from the carefully filtered and sterilized pear-juice you have pressed in hope of making wine. (v) Amuse yourself by removing 177 of the friendly chaps from your cellar walls in a single merry quarter-hour. (vi) Lift any stone or leaf in the garden, and hastily jump back. (vii) Wonder if next door's hens would appreciate a more varied diet, and whether the result might be legs in the eggs.... [1984]

THE YELLOW PERIL and other clerihews

Piers Anthony's
English and not Cantonese:
His novels have (apart from dropsy) a
Dose of critical Xanthopsia.

Theodore Sturgeon
Allowed his emotions to burgeon:
On sighting a friendly visage, he
Always attempted syzygy.

Jerry Pournelle,
When his Mote in God's Eye wouldn't sell,
Asked friend Larry to cure its failings
By putting in some aliens.

Marion Zimmer Bradley
's fan club doesn't do badly,
Since founded and urged to carry on
By Zimmer Bradley (Marion).

Christopher Priest, in a finite void,
Had an infinite hyperboloid
On which a peripatetic town
Was somehow short of Lebensraum.

James Branch Cabell
Rhymed his name with rabble,
And frequently consigned to hell
The myriad fans who said Cabell.

[1980, 1987]

DO-IT-YOURSELF GASTRECTOMY: Have you ever played Jacks, that game which evil Kevin Smith keeps suggesting in the small hours of conventions (for players other than Kevin Smith)? Skill, speed, daring and the ability to bluff are all equally useless in Jacks. The rules are simplicity itself. A smallish number of cretins sit round a table and a well-shuffled pack of cards is dealt out to them, face up.

When the first jack appears, there is a horror-filled pause, and the person who got it must... name a drink. The unwritten rules demand that this be deeply revolting: Guinness-and-Pernod is a popular choice. The deal then continues until the second jack, whose recipient must go to the bar and buy the chosen drink. When ready, this concoction is duly admired. ("Mark how the purple bubbles froth upon / The evil surface of its nether slime!", as Max Beerbohm so beautifully put it in "Savonarola Brown".) The deal continues, and the duty of the next jack-winner is to taste the drink.

Finally... but you'll have guessed the rest. He or she who gets the final jackpot prize must drink the drink, every last suppurating drop, while the others watch in awe. After an understandable pause, the cards are reshuffled and the game resumes. Try it some day. "There is always the possibility," Kevin gloats with wicked gamesmanship, "that the very same person will get all four jacks, ho ho ho...." [1982]

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Hazel's Language Lessons

The most popular item in Ansible tends to be Hazel's Language Lesson, culled from her awesome collection of weird dictionaries (with a little extramural help from time to time). When I assembled earlier ones into an article for Knave, editor Ian Pemble responded: "I think I will give the more arcane accents the élbôw (an Editorial term from the upper reaches of the Kilburn – a little known river in North West London – meaning, to touch somebody reprovingly with the joint of your arm and say Goodbye)." After contemplating the morass of specialist dots, bars and squiggles so lovingly reproduced in old Ansibles, I've decided to do the same here....

AFRIKAANS: dit reent oumeide met knopkieries, it's raining cats and dogs; literally, grandmothers with knobkerries.... (CM)

AMHARIC: tagabba, (1) to be married; (2) to be infectious.

ARABIC: namuayyu kuhli, he's a heavy sleeper; literally, "his mosquito net is dark blue." (KO)

CHINESE (classical): wan, a small mouth. Some say a large mouth. t'han, to pretend to look near whilst cherishing distant views. ch'huen keih seang kwei, to bore a hole in the wall and peep at each other. chen, to stand still. To gallop at full speed. pee, a dog under the table. A dog with short legs. A short headed dog. mang, a species of bird with one eye and one wing, two of which when joined together are able to fly. kheih iaou, various tribes of barbarians unacquainted with marriage and knocking out the teeth. wang jen, to side with anybody or everybody. (JB)

DYIRBAL: gunaginayginay, totally covered with faeces.

ENGLISH (c.1811): nimgimmer, physician/surgeon, particularly those who cure the venereal disease. owlers, those who smuggle wool over to France. cobler's punch, urine with a cinder in it. silver-laced, covered with lice. (JB)

ESPERANTO: fibopatriningo, a container into which you insert one end of an unpleasant mother-in-law. (JB)

GERMAN: Ansatz, ear, lug, projection (anode), deposit, incrustation, sediment, attachment, added piece, shoulder, insertion, ingredient, mixture, scaffold (of a blast furnace), recess, mouthpiece, start, formula, expression, formulation, statement, charge, obstruction, extension, prolongation, tail, run (in series of parallel experiments), side arm or appendage (of a bulb or tube), adapter (phot.), relation, loss, nipple, setting into action, sending into battle, estimate, evaluation, rate, price, quotation, wing, root, bulge, sortie, assumption, disposition, arrangement, article, method.... (MH)

GREBO (or, First Aid in South-West Liberia): pea gyie, finger rubbed in pepper or medicine which is put down the throat to induce vomiting. kye~ di gobo, grasshopper used for getting rid of hard spots on the skin; salt is sprinkled on the spots and the grasshopper eats the salt, also the spots. saa, peppered water forced up the nose of children either as a punishment or as a medicine.

GREEK: raphanizow, to thrust a radish up the fundament; a punishment for adulterers in Athens (VC); koriázo, I am full of bedbugs (JB).

HAUSA: 'yan garkuwa, professional beggars living by threatening to do obscene acts unless given alms. (Esp. in Bingley?)

HEBREW (for convention Masquerades): shokoh, to wander around lasciviously. (EW)

HINDUSTANI: dhauncha, number from the four-and-a-half times table. chhanga, man with six fingers. battisi, 32 of something. sankh, 10 billion; 100 billion; a conch shell.

IBO: okbokba', handing child to another and going off to work without saying "have newborn child to look after (but cannot stay)". olo', clay eaten by pregnant woman.

ILA (Seshukulumbwe): ing'ombe-muka, a kind of beetle used by the Baila to tie into their hair to catch lice.

JAPANESE: uguisu no tani-watari, (1) a nightingale jumping back and forth over a narrow valley; (2) one man in bed with two women. (IW)

JAPANESE (ADVANCED): sakasa-kurage, (1) an upside-down jellyfish; (2) a one-night-stand hotel. (IW... see note at end)

KIKUYU: komaria, to touch somebody reprovingly or threateningly with a stick and say "wee!" tombora, to press a squashy object all the way through something. ruuka, to become uncircumcised.

KIKUYU (ADVANCED, FOR BANANA REPUBLICS): rindithia, to have bananas wrapped up so that they may ripen; kigoko, hard nutty crust on a roasted unripe banana; karara irugu~, to make an incision in a raw banana skin before peeling it; mukori, strip of green banana bark as left by cattle after they eat the trunk; mundithi, mashed boiled bananas taken on a journey or to eat during the time of meat feasting; ngimithi, soft fibre of banana bark used as a loofah or brush for rubbing the skin clean after a mud-bath; kururuka, to slide down a slope on a sledge of raw banana bark; thataniria mihuko, to spoil one another's bananas by uncovering them.

KLAMATH: sawyasga, puts a long object in front of one's genitals. (CF)

KURDISH: berdirkane, party given on occasion of wearing a new suit of clothes for the first time. binêsk, what remains of a tablet of soap when it is nearly used up. kingexishê self-propulsion along the ground on one's buttocks. (NR)

MALAY: tahi tikus, mustard; literally, mouse-turd. (English-Malay Dictionary, Sir Richard Winstedt, 1952: AB)

MARATHI: baccedha, the bother, fuss and vexation attendant upon the bringing up of children. (They have a word for fandom, too:) avlyachi mot, a term for a gang of fellows united by some present and common but evanescent interest. A very loose and patched-up union based on no consolidation of interests and with an ever-present tendency to separation.

NUPE: gbakókó pitingi, a salutation for the rank Ndaeji [Prime Minister]; literally, a bat's stomach.

PIMAN: ba'agchuth, causing to become an eagle. (PR)

SESUTO: malito, something which a person lets fall and which his cousin can pick up and keep if the owner does not say ngaele. (ngaele: not listed in dictionary.)

SINHALESE: akshauhin¡, a complete army consisting of 109350 foot, 65610 horse, 21870 chariots and 21870 elephants. atura, tying coconut trees together from the top, to enable toddy drawers to walk from one tree to another without descending when they are extracting toddy. miyuru, peacock; liquorice; frog.

SWAHILI: hatinafsi, used of a person taking an action without consulting anybody because he thinks they may try to persuade him not to do it. ngama, (1) the hold of a vessel; (2) the faeces passed by people (also animals) sometimes when in extremis, or which is forced out when the corpse is being washed preparatory to burial; (3) a kind of whitish clay.

TAMACHEK (Tuareg): arennenas, a camel with the habit of neighing for joy when it sees something very agreeable. enerregreg, a camel which roars mournfully when it becomes separated from its master or from another camel with whom it has been grazing.

TIBETAN: gos-kyi yab-mo byed-pa, to beckon by waving one's clothes. dkan-guyer, the wrinkles of the roof of the mouth. (And a Useful Phrase:) Yugs-sa-moi dor-rta des gza srun, rmala la pan Wdn, the middle part of a widow's drawers prevents epilepsy and heals wounds. (Tibetan-English Dictionary, H.A.Jaschke, 1881.)

URDU: Beecham Sahibki gooli, Master Beecham's Balls (found on packet of Beecham's Pills... CP).

YORUBA: konko, the sound of a knock on the back of the hand with the shell of the snail.

ZULU: inkulungwane namakhulu ayisikhombisa namashumi ayisishiyagalolunye nantathu, 1,793.

Omitted lessons, expunged from the histories, featured words deemed to be Dubious or Not From The Right Kind Of Dictionary. It was Stedman's Medical Dictionary which gave us candiru, "a minute fish in the Amazon river and its tributaries which has been said to dart into the male urethra when one urinates under water while bathing." And the implausible Lexicon of Love (ed. Samuel Roth, 1950-51) offered sarist, "male who, to his twentieth year, has not grown at least two pubic hairs"; trichotillomania, "morbid desire to pull hair"; tumtum, "Talmudic name for a person of undetermined sex"; and the very credulity-straining snapper: "Vagina with a nervous twitch powerful enough to enable it to grasp the male, pull him and continue to agitate him until he is completely spent. In certain eastern countries a woman in possession of such an organ is immediately promoted into the nobility, and her marriageable sisters with her. Called the nut-cracker in French." Such dubiety has no place in the happy, clean-living world of Hazel's Language Lessons.

Extramural contributors: JB John Brunner, AB Anthony Burgess, VC Vin¢ Clarke, CF Colin Fine, MH Malcolm Hodkin, CM Chris Morgan, KO Keith Oborn, CP Chris Priest, NR Nigel Richardson, PR Peter Roberts, IW Ian Watson (whose Advanced Japanese lesson is explained by the fact that "naughty post-1945 inns catering to occupying Yanks and their Japanese girlfriends all bore the hot springs sign on their doors, whether they had hot springs or not." – see below), EW Edmund Wilson.

ADVANCED WELSH: Toiling up through the Marches and the torrid zone of bilingual road-signs, into a landscape of mountains intermittently visible between the sheep, I took notes for a long-planned but never written article on Welsh as she is wrote. The Welsh are eager to confuse the vile Saeson or English, but (unlike the similarly disposed Irish) are hampered by having a virtually straightforward language. Translating the town of Wrexham into Wrecsam seems mere perversity, and few Saeson are likely to be confused by a tacsi rank, a double-decker bws, a walk on the seaside promenad, an eighteen-hole cwrs golff, or a drink at the clwb snw^cer (necessitating a visit to the toiledau). In Caernarfon (trans: Carnarvon) Castle, the historical bits included such conundrums as William I (Y "Concwerwr") o Dapestri Bayeux. Spoken Welsh is something else, and every evening a hotel TV would gush incomprehensibly: well, almost. "Llanfairpwyllgwyngyll telefision gogerychwyrndrobwll social security llantysiliogogogoch...." [1986]

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