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The Royal Society of Edinburgh A Discussion and Illustrated Lecture on the exhibition Plant Memory Victoria Crowe OBE,

RSA, Painter Professor David Ingram OBE, VMH, FRSE, Botanist Monday 8 October 2007 What follows is a commentary prepared by Professor Ingram and Ms Crowe. Professor Ingram opens: It began with a portrait Artists and scientists rarely have the opportunity to sit down together for long periods of time to talk about their methods and the philosophies that underlie their work. The painting of a portrait offers such an opportunity, and so it was that Victoria Crowe, artist, and I, sitter/botanist, came together in Cambridge for about a week during the early summer of 2003 following a commission from St Catharines College, Cambridge, to paint my official portrait as Master. This was not the first time we had talked, however, for before the formal sittings, Victoria and I had met in Edinburgh and Cambridge, where we had talked endlessly as she worked to understand the mind and the scientific work of her sitter. I had sent her transparencies and photographs relating to my studies as a plant pathologist, botanist and horticulturist. And she had spent long hours in my study, reading my books and writings. During the sittings for the portrait we talked frequently about our work. First, we established that as artist and scientist we shared a common goal: to interpret and, ultimately, to try to understand, the world about us better. This process is analysed most elegantly and perceptively from the standpoint of the scientist by the botanist and philosopher Agnes Arber in The Mind and the Eye (Cambridge University Press, 1954). Moreover, in the beginnings of our journeys of discovery we followed common patterns: the close and careful observation and recording of the natural world in all its manifestations. Thereafter, our paths diverged. As a scientist I used my observations, together with previous scientific knowledge and experience, and some insight, as a basis for asking questions and formulating hypotheses which were then tested by experiment. Depending on the results, further hypotheses would be formulated and tested, and so on. Progress would be slow, generally forward, but in a crabwise manner, since the unexpected, and therefore more interesting, experimental results would often change the direction of movement to one side or another, or even backwards. This process is, however, both satisfying and indeed beautiful in its own way. It is telling, for example, that scientists use the word elegant to describe the very best of their experimental designs. For Victoria, the artist, the observations would be internalised and then combined with countless other visual, sensory and emotional experiences to re-emerge, having undergone a sea change, as paint or printers ink on canvas or paper. I am reminded of Ariels song in The Tempest: Full fathom five thy Father lies, Of his bones are corrall made, Those are pearles that were his eies, Nothing of him that doth fade, But doth suffer a Sea change Into something rich and strange. So it is with Victorias paintings, in which her observations are transformed into pictures of infinite complexity and richness. This process might be contrasted with the work of a botanical illustrator, who observes and records plants accurately, as a scientific record. The images may be drawn or painted to create pictures of great sensitivity and beauty, yet they must always be an accurate record of the specimens, the very antithesis of the transformation that occurs in the artists mind.
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When complete, the portrait was a masterpiece of acute observation and understanding of me as a person and a scientist, interpreted in paint; not simply a portrait, but an image of the sitter transformed into a painting of great beauty and sensitivity, its structure profound and the use of colour subtle yet immensely rich. But something more than a sharing of ideas and a fine portrait emerged from the sittings; we also initiated a new train of thought that would find its expression in this exhibition, in which, to my eye, the theme of transformation is developed at every level. To understand how this occurred it is necessary to go back to images from my work as a plant scientist which Victoria studied during her preparation for painting the portrait. Many were incorporated, in a transformed state, into the background to the figure, adding a further layer of complexity and meaning. These included: the delicate internal membranes of a chloroplast, one of the microscopic disc-like structures in which plants capture the energy of sunlight; surrealistic impressions of the microscopic pathogens of plants and the symptoms of the diseases they cause, the basis of much of my teaching and research in Cambridge; a divided leaf of the ancient Chinese tree Ginkgo biloba, the maidenhair tree, that grows against the wall of my former laboratory; an experiment to extract DNA from plant cells that was part of a project I initiated called Science and Plants for Schools that continues to excite many young people about plants and their importance; the impressionistic shadows of the branches of one of the two great blue Atlas cedars (Cedrus atlantica Glauca) that dominate the garden of the Masters Lodge at St Catharines College, Cambridge; and a beautiful mauve pasque flower (Pulsatilla) which I had planted in the Lodge garden in 2000 when I first became Master, because it was especially associated with John Ray, once an undergraduate at St Catharines and author of the floras of Cambridgeshire (1660) and England (1670), the first largely vernacular, rather than Latin, floras to be written. A flora is a sophisticated scientific and diagnostic catalogue of all the plants growing in a region, as compared with a herbal, an early type of catalogue limited to plants of medicinal importance. We shall return to John Ray later, for one of the pages from his 1670 flora also appears in the present exhibition. It was, however, perhaps the most unpromising of the images incorporated into the portrait that was responsible for our new train of thought. This was of a herbarium sheet with a pressed and dried specimen of the tiny creeping perennial plant Sibbaldia procumbens, a member of the rose family. It is hard to believe that it is related, albeit distantly, to the blooming roses of a cottage garden, for its flowers are small and inconspicuous, and the plant grows only in the harsh environment of the mountain tops of the Scottish Highlands. Its significance for me is that it is named after Dr Robert Sibbald, co-founder in 1670 of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, the garden of which I was Regius Keeper from 1990 to 1998. A stylised version of Sibbaldia forms the Gardens logo. But the significance of this herbarium specimen in the development of Victoria Crowes painting was, I believe, that she found embodied in it that same tension between timelessness and fragility which is the hallmark of her work as an artist, and the reason for her fascination with the timeless, fragile beauty of Venice. Herbaria: the tension between fragility and timelessness Botanic gardens base their scientific, educational and conservation work on collections of plants. All, almost by definition, have a living collection of plants. Although primarily a scientific resource, the living collections are displayed in the gardens for the enjoyment of visitors. Most botanic gardens also have, associated with the living collection, a much larger collection of pressed and dried plants kept in special cabinets in a herbarium. These collections are carefully documented, and the plants in them accurately identified and labelled. Together they constitute a remarkable resource for studies of the naming, classification and evolution of plants, work that underpins all other research in plant science and conservation. The living and herbarium collections are further augmented by a collection of books about plants - floras, herbals, monographs - in a library and sometimes by associated collections of other kinds, such as fossilised plants, or wood specimens or microscopic fungi and algae. The reason why botanic gardens have traditionally focused their research on the naming and classification of plants, their taxonomy or systematics, is because in the seventeenth century the earliest such gardens - at Pisa, Padova, Leiden, Oxford and Edinburgh, for example - were established as adjuncts to medical faculties in their respective universities, as a resource for teaching
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students about plants of importance as medicines. In such circumstances, accurate naming and classification was, quite literally, of vital importance, and it was not until the late nineteenth century that an additional, experimental strand was introduced into botanical research. As the portrait progressed, we developed a plan for Victoria to have access to the Herbarium of the Department of Plant Sciences at Cambridge, rich in specimens collected by Charles Darwin and his mentor and teacher John Henslow, to study the collection of pressed plants and see where this might lead her as an artist. As will become apparent below, she soon discovered the fragile Iris specimens in the Cambridge Herbarium, gradually fading as they went further back in time, and realised she had found a new source of artistic inspiration. Following the delivery of the portrait in 2004 she was elected to a Visiting Scholarship at St Catharines College for three years, and the work which resulted in the present exhibition commenced. Victoria Crowe takes up the story: I had been using plant imagery in my work, really as ciphers and symbols within a greater whole. Initial information gathering was in David Ingram's own library, then the Plant Sciences and Herbarium libraries at Cambridge, and the library of John Parker (Director of the Cambridge Botanic Garden). Subsequently I went further afield: to the Royal Botanic Gardens of Edinburgh and Padua, the Marciana library in Venice, and to the Fortuny, and Mocenigo collections. After visiting the Sedgwick Museum of the Department of Earth Sciences in Cambridge, I started the work on fossil plants which has come to fruition in paintings, prints and the hand made artists book. There were two parallel ideas in my mind before I started working in the Herbarium at Cambridge. First, the Hugo van der Goes' Portinari altar piece, (Uffizi, Florence) where the traditional vase of lilies in honour of the Virgin and Child includes iris - black and white ones; lily symbolism is associated with the annunciation, signifying purity, but why the iris? Perhaps muddled translation is the reason: iris in German was known as spear lily, linking biblical prophecy ....a spear will pierce your heart. Second, the poem of Kathleen Raine, a former botany student at Cambridge, entitled The Moment, which has stayed with me for many years, and was used in the background of my portrait of Kathleen in the National Portrait Gallery, London. The fifth stanza sums up the underlying concerns of many of my paintings: The sun that rises Upon one earth Sets on another. Swiftly the flowers Are waxing and waning, The tall yellow iris Unfolds its corolla As primroses wither, Scrolls of fern Unroll and midges Dance for an hour In the evening air, The brown moth From its pupa emerges And the larks bones Fall apart in the grass. (From Kathleen Raine Collected Poems 1935 1980, published by Allen and Unwin, 1981). So, the things I first began looking at in the Cambridge Herbarium were the vast Iris collections. Gradually, the specimens selected themselves by virtue primarily of their visual beauty, abstract arrangement and contrasting scale. There was an element of poetry of nomenclature and description
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that drew me to certain ones. I decided to draw the selected specimens purely with watercolour, not using a pencil outline but just building up the structure with thin washes, trying to understand the layering that had occurred and to limit a literal rendition. The watercolours work, for me, as abstract, very meditative experiences. Professor Ingram continues: The specimens that Victoria painted and drew are the following: Iris halophylla (a Henslow specimen); Iris sibirica (1956 specimen); Iris germanica; Iris arenaria; Iris sisyrinchium (1890 specimen & classification; now a member of the genus Sisyrinchium); Iris albicans Lange; Iris scorpioides (Kingdom of Naples 1839 Prof. Gasparini); Iris verna (1810 specimen, visually beautiful ; gathered on the plains of Leontine, where frequent); Iris kochii Kerner; Iris orientalis Mill. (garden of 54 Cambridge Road, Impington, Cambs, collected by P.D. Sell.) Iris, which was so attractive to Victoria, is a fascinating genus with complex winged flowers specially constructed to promote cross fertilisation rather than self fertilisation. The flowers of violet (Viola), which she also painted are similarly constructed. Iris species and hybrids have been used, variously, as: garden plants; to decorate the Sphinx (known to Thutmose III, 1501-1447 BC); to make the violetscented powder orris root; as a fixative in pot pourri, and for powdering wigs and hair in the eighteenth century; to decorate Muslim and Christian graveyards; as fodder for yaks and horses; as a purgative, when steeped in ale; as sources of black dye and ink; and as a coffee substitute. (See The Plant-Book by D.J. Mabberly, 2nd edn, 1997, CUP.) On later visits to the Cambridge Herbarium, she painted images engendered by the Great Fen Project: Liparis loeselii, fen orchid (specimens 1836); Senecio paludosus, fen ragwort (three contrasting specimens - before 1830, 1852 Babington and recent Murrell & P.D. Sell); and the violets Viola stagnina,Viola canina and Viola persicifolia. The Great Fen Project aims to recreate in Cambridgeshire thousands of hectares of wash reed beds and wet grassland - once the home to rare species of plants, birds, butterflies, dragonflies and other insects - which have gradually been drained (improved) by merchant adventurers and farmers over the past 400 years. It is worth noting at this point that Victoria was undoubtedly influenced by the fact that it is a transformed landscape. One cannot but be moved by the knowledge that these great tracts of fertile agricultural land producing potatoes, carrots and grain, lie below sea level and were once home to Hereward the Wake and his kinsmen, productive of eels and other fish, teeming with wildlife, and also home to ague, the fenmans malaria. Even the newly drained farmland is fragile, however, and subject to change: erosion of the peat by shrinkage, oxidation and windblow; or restoration as wetlands through the enthusiasm and drive of naturalists and conservationists. But through all this change, the herbarium specimens of the great fen orchid slumber on in the Herbarium at Cambridge, always there to stimulate botanists, conservationists and artists alike. Transformation: another continuing theme The herbarium specimens drawn by Victoria had already passed through a series of transformations, even before their images entered her artist's mind. The plants had been removed from their natural context by the collector, so were no longer part of a diverse community, but had to stand alone. They had then been pressed and dried, a process which almost but not completely transformed them from three dimensional to two dimensional objects, thereby altering the relative positions and orientation of the plant and flower parts. Moreover, much of their colour would have been lost, leaving only soft, subtle, muted but often exquisite background colours, dominated by brownish shades. This process would have continued as the specimens aged, some eventually starting to disintegrate. In addition, they had been attached with strips of gummed paper to the herbarium sheet of special paper, and often artistically arranged, for many botanists have an artists eye. A label will have been attached to the sheet, often beautifully handwritten or perhaps typed on an eccentric machine from a bygone age, giving the date and place of the collection and the name of the collector. The collector will probably have added notes about the plant community in which the specimen was found and its colour. Thus context and colour will have been restored to the plant, albeit in words, sometimes of poetic beauty, for botanists love the plants they study and care greatly for them. Those who studied the specimen
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subsequently may also have added their notes, comments and conclusions. The specimen will thereby have been continually enriched as years went by. The plant will have been named and classified, to the best of the ability of the collector and the current botanical knowledge available to him or her. It may have been identified as new to science, in which case it will have been used as the basis for the published Latin description of that species, and designated a type specimen. The name of the botanist first describing the species will have been appended, in abbreviated form, as will the names of others who may subsequently have proposed reclassification and/or a new name. And here it is important to note that the language used by botanists for naming and describing new species is Latin: to all but the classicist and biologist a dead language, but for the latter a language that is truly international, often exquisitely poetic and of immense value as a descriptive tool (see the classic book Botanical Latin by W.T. Stearn, 3rd edn rev., 1990, CUP). For the artist it adds an exotic dimension and is a further example of the creative tension between fragility and timelessness. Finally, the herbarium sheet will have been placed in a folder, designated by a special colour such as red if the specimen was a type specimen, and placed in a cabinet in an appropriate part of the herbarium for that species, or Family of plants. It will not have been alone in its cabinet, for with it and about it will have been countless other specimens demonstrating the great diversity of species within a Family and the great, but more subtle genetic diversity within the species. And there the specimen will have remained, slowly changing and ageing over the years, until it was removed by a botanist for study, or perhaps by an artist wishing to paint it. It may have been examined often, or only once in a lifetime, but will always have been there, as a record, and will continue to be there long, long into the future. Modern plant science has made one more transformation possible. The word transformation has a very precise, technical meaning for a biologist: the insertion of a piece of DNA from one organism into the nucleus of another, where its genes are then expressed, using the technique of genetic manipulation (GM). Herbarium specimens are, in a biological (but not artistic) sense dead, yet some contain DNA that has not completely decayed. This can be extracted and analysed. Such analysis has given the modern botanist another tool for refining the naming and classification of plants, and of understanding their evolution. Moreover, it is theoretically possible for the DNA to be used to transform another plant: a new plant would not be re-created by this process, but a small part of it would be given new life. As the work progressed, Victoria also began to work in the Herbarium of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. The collection of some two million specimens is housed in a white, Italianate building just off Inverleith Row. She painted two species and made: six watercolour studies of Lilium candidum (over two pages 40.5 x 100 cm), the Madonna lily which grows wild in the Balkans, Israel and Lebanon; and five watercolour studies of Polygonatum (= P. odoratum; P. x hybridum; over two pages, 40.5 x 100 cm), a form of Solomons seal which is said to have healing properties, especially in the treatment of bruises. Victoria comments, I made the Lilium candidum studies to record forms of this flower in addition to the art historical lily and the real three dimensional plant. The specimens I chose were unexpected in that the information about leaf structure, the grouping and the faded brown flowers of the specimens made the impact and strangeness more telling. In art these lilies are used as symbols of purity and peace in association with the Virgin Mary, but before that they were symbols of the goddess Isis, and subsequently the Black Madonnas. The Polygonatum is again a Marian symbol. Its a plant I have used in many still life paintings in its three dimensional dried form, now colourless, and I wanted to find some refreshed imagery. Before moving on to the paintings themselves it is interesting to note that, either by subconscious selection or by chance, almost all the subjects Victoria chose to study were members of the great subgroup of flowering plants, the Monocotyledonae, which have only one seed leaf (cotyledon), flowers lacking outer bud leaves (sepals) and somewhat lanceolate leaves with parallel veins. This group compares with the Dicotyledonae, which have two cotyledons, flowers with sepals and usually leaves with reticulate veination. Also, most of her chosen plants were geophytes, vulnerable to

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extremes of weather yet possessing an underground storage structure such as a rhizome or bulb that enables them to survive adverse conditions to re-emerge, transformed, to grow and flower again. Victoria Crowe takes up the story again: The paintings Iridaceous sequence I developed three mixed media pieces from the Iris studies: in 'Iridaceous Sequence', thinking of the black/white reference in the Portinari Altarpiece, I wanted to create a flow of images fairly monochromatic yet very rich - dense dark areas butted against flows of transparent neutral colour and silver leaf providing a dramatic tonal contrast. Ive played around with scale too: the tiny Iris sisyrinchium becomes the large dark flower against the silver and the Iris orientalis is greatly enlarged to show its structure. The labels and descriptions are used as a column of concrete poetry. I wanted the amalgamation of these aspects to animate the long horizontal format so that the viewer would scan the surface, be drawn in by scale or word or surface, look again and have to look again. Arcobaleno relates to the flows of translucent colour and the many hued petals of the iris group. In Greek mythology a messenger, Iris, came to earth via a rainbow - hence arcobaleno - an arch between earth and the heavens, man and gods. Ive reassembled the herbarium Iris sisyrinchium pages to present a long line of tiny images with intricate differences, and contrasted them with I. albicans and I. orientalis which has assumed a sinister silhouette against a pitted gold paper. Iris Traces, contrasts the beautifully elegant Henslow specimen of Iris halophylla which has lost all colour, with colourful /blowsy Iris albicans. For me the greatest, lasting, most satisfying image of Iris is the blown, fragile, broken Henslow specimen - qualities of the image transcending the actual plant rather like the poem - i.e. label description - which now seems to exist independently of its starting point. I spent a week in the Herbarium looking at plants which were becoming, or were thought to be, extinct in the fens: fen orchid, fen ragwort and fen violets. Visually, the fen orchid, Liparis loeselii, had all the intimations of fragility, all the questions of permanence that the other works have. I used the beautiful 1836 sheet from the Herbarium to develop the painting In Great Plenty. There were many sheets which left just an acid stain where the plant had been - the material of the leaves as thin as a wash of watercolour. Notes speak of plentiful collecting in the Victorian age. The title of this work comes from a chilling quote from Swaffham Prior Naturalists Society in 1835: Liparisfound in great plenty 400 to 500 specimens were brought home the bulbs scarcely in the ground we picked them out with our fingers. In the painting Sign and Symbol - Herbarium Pages Ive used a collage of paper, applied linen and thickened the primer with pumice powder to split up and distress the surface, making some areas very absorbent, others very crisp. I used the iris watercolours as a basis, treating each individual image very differently - sometimes drawn, or as a thin stain on an absorbent part, scratched with gold leaf like Byzantine paintings, made into a linear pattern or silk screen printed. Scraps of labels, descriptions, a books frontispiece, botanical cross-section are all there. They have become a kind of poetic subtext and the plants, far from reality now, have become ciphers or hieroglyphs. On the last visits to the Cambridge Herbarium I painted the following specimens collected by Charles Darwin on the Galapagos islands during his voyage on the Beagle: Sicyos villosa Hooker fil.; and Desmocephalum inelegans - holding something world extinct in my hands was a powerful feeling. In World Extinct I the Sicyos villosa is juxtaposed with the image of the world from the Mappa Mundi, the thirteenth century map of the world owned by Hereford Cathedral. In World Extinct II Ive used fragments, of Desmocephalum inelegans - root system, leaves, tissue stains and label all contained within a single drawn circle, representing maybe the world, the moon, or a microscope field. I made two paintings from the Edinburgh Herbarium - Lilium Candidum I and Lilium Candidum II. Both are mixed media pieces, similar to the large Iris pieces in their assemblies of ideas. In the first, the leaf clusters and structures are juxtaposed with a Renaissance drawing of a lily, and a medieval image complete with bulb. In the second work, the same components are arranged with rather more emphasis on the flower head. This time the Renaissance lily, is drawn/scratched in black ink over
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silver ground. Some leaves remain linear; others are solid according to the paintings abstract, compositional needs. The Mixed Media Open Book works The exhibition includes twenty mixed media pieces. Each is formed as an open sketchbook, the cover and spine of which are etched. The pages are all unique, drawings, watercolours, paintings or collages. In each work, the plants have been seen in a different way, sometimes classically presented, sometimes ironically, as with Very Common. One of the pieces based on the Madonna lilies includes the annunciation angel, lily in hand, and Isis Madonna refers to the lily in Egyptian art. Two pieces, Fossil leaves and Preserved Skeleton Leaf and Fossil, came from studies at the Sedgewick Museum, Cambridge. Two other pieces are based on medieval artefacts: Outside Eden, the stained glass window showing Adam after the Fall, against sharply defined leaves, and Medieval Mind, based on a drawing of the Chatsworth Hunt tapestries in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; the medieval mind saw Nature as a great forest of symbols Others in the series are comments about my own fascination with, and joy in perusing, medieval manuscripts and later herbals in Venice, Cambridge and Edinburgh. A wonderful exhibition in the Marciana Library, Venice, highlighted the history of the Lazzerati or Plague Islands, and included examples of herbal medical books and lists of curative plants. This provided the stimulus for Antidotes, Bitten by Venomous Creatures, To Ease Snake Bite & Scorpion Sting (showing an evil looking black leaf) and Lay the Leaves Down (a direction to relieve those that piss with payne). Professor Ingram again: All these pieces have tremendous vitality, and for me as a botanist conjure up a lost world of myth and magic, of superstition and earthy humour, rather than science. The fossil pieces stand out as being different, of course, and return to the theme of the tension between fragility, here preserved in stone, and survival. (See also the painting Stone Poem.) Another piece, Marked Pages, has a special resonance for me and takes us back to the start of this project. It shows on the left hand page the title page of a first edition of John Rays flora of England (Catalogus Plantarum Angliae et Insularum Adjacientum, MDCLXX), once the property of Abr: Pryme, who paid four shillings for it in 1694, and now in my own library, thanks to the generosity of a colleague. It is, however, in much better condition than the much aged depiction in Victorias piece. John Ray, having first studied at St Catharines College, became a Fellow of Trinity College, with a brilliant academic career ahead of him. He was a deeply religious man, his sympathies being with the Puritans rather than the Cavalier Parliament. In 1662 the Act of Uniformity was passed, to which Ray could not subscribe. He resigned from the College at the age of 35 and returned to the village of his birth, Black Notley in Essex, apparently a failure and dependent upon Providence and good friends. One such, Francis Willughby, a friend from Trinity days with a common interest in the study of plants and animals, came to his rescue and enabled him to continue his work as a botanist in exile. Amidst all these images, then, is a message of hope, a reference to a botanist of conviction who suffered for his beliefs, but rose above adversity to continue with his work as a scholar. This brings us to a work which is the summation of many of the issues raised in this project: Victoria Crowe once more: The Hand Made Artist's Book My book exists as an object somewhere between a diary, a missal, a sketchbook and a book of hours. There is no didactic logic to it - it evolves and is held by visual and symbolic links, not by information. Its a tactile experience made with about twenty handmade papers ranging from fine tissue through to deeply embossed. It has been assembled using conservation grade glue and acid free papers, and hand bound in Venice. It is meant to be precious - to be a contemplative experience - an antidote to the form of knowledge presented through a plastic screen and a cold text. Its images are, hand drawn, silkscreen printed, collaged or etched, each book subtly different.

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Professor Ingram concludes: This is a rare and precious work (only ten copies exist) that draws not only on what I have described above, but on Victoria Crowes lifetime of experience as an artist. There is nothing more to say - it must be seen and enjoyed for the unique visual and tactile feast that it is. David Ingram Victoria Crowe Burton in Lonsdale, 2007 West Linton, 2007

Opinions expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of the RSE, nor of its Fellows