‘Rhan. Do you know anything about rowing?’ They had just sat down at the workbench in the electronics laboratory after cycling through a chill morning.
‘What’s that got to do with this practical, George?’ she fired back to delay answering the question. ‘Now pass me another diode and hold it while I solder. Oh, come on, pay attention! For this logic gate, we need the yellow one. If you read your brief, we are supposed to complete this old circuit board before we can get onto the second half of the practical, which entails plugging in the silicon chips. What did you say about rowing?’
‘Well the rugby season is coming to an end, so they are restarting the Rugby Rowing Eight. I’ve been invited to try for the crew. I’m going for it – I think I would prefer to be in the Rugby Eight than the first fifteen! We have two coaching sessions this week but we only have a cox for one of them. I offered to sound you out as a temporary cox for the second day.’
‘I have never coxed before, I am too heavy and I have better things to do.’ Rhan sniffed and wriggled her nose, holding the solder in one hand and an old soldering iron in the other.
‘You should get interested in rowing Rhan; the bump races in Torpids this term and the Eights week in the summer sound really cool. About a dozen boats in a division all set off at the same time, one behind the other with a short space between and if your boat can touch or bump the boat ahead, you swap places. Actually, Torpids and Summer Eights have slightly different rules, but you get the gist. It would be great to be involved. You’re really strong and I bet you’d be better at rowing than most of our college women. Go on, please help out as cox this week?’
‘OK.’ She sniffed again and sucked her top lip, trying not to laugh.
‘It doesn’t really matter if you have no experience, and Danny’s going for it if…’
‘I said yes. Now pass a resistor over and hold it steady in the tweezers this time.’ She was fully absorbed in the delicate soldering operation as George wiped her nose with his left hand.
‘Share!’ he muttered in a quieter voice, appropriate to the way they sat soldering with their heads close together. This was the term they used when enjoying their intimate weekly lunches in Rhan’s room before their maths tutorial.
‘Talk about invasion of personal space! What was that about?’ Rhan demanded.
‘Sorry,’ he replied, embarrassed, looking around to check that no one had noticed. ‘Are you really pissed off?’
‘Not sure,’ she said, looking at him suspiciously. ‘Just tell me you don’t do that to your girlfriend!’
Her heart beat slightly faster as she recalled a previous conversation in a practical, but that seemed long ago.
He looked shocked, and the turn-up of his nose told her everything, even before his reply.
‘No, we snogged and did things that normal couples do.’ He looked abashed as he added, ‘I wouldn’t ever do that with any other girl.’
She laughed, saying, ‘OK, it is weird, but I’m not angry.’
It was later in the practical when George returned to the subject of his girlfriend.
‘I’ve never mentioned it, but it was clear from her visit last term that she wanted out,’ he reported with a wry smile. ‘So it was no surprise that I was effectively dumped when I got home for Christmas. I got off lightly.’
‘So why the secrecy?’ Rhan asked, unsure of her feelings and also ambivalent on the merits of his discretion. George was so different from David, whose private life Rhan knew all about, and the complete opposite of Danny, who had so much more private life than Rhan cared to know about.
‘Well, you wanted to be able to just carry on without people pointing a finger, so she’s still a useful shield…isn’t she?’
The task of coxing the heavy clinker beginners’ boat was both fun and dreadful at the same time. The wide boat allowed Rhan to move around, but she got very cold just sitting in the stern. As everyone expected her to know nothing about rowing, she offered no advice. The rugby crew had a coach with a bicycle on the bank who gave all the instructions, leaving Rhan with little to do but steer.
After the first session, George – who had now been on the water twice – and Simon, the captain, who had a few months’ experience under his belt from the previous summer, sought to compliment her.
‘Thanks for coxing, Rhan,’ the captain started. ‘You picked it up extremely quickly. Please could you cox again on Saturday afternoon? Torpids is approaching for the other boats and we have been warned that practice on the busy river will get more difficult.’
‘You’re a natural, partner!’ George added, using his new nickname for Rhan.
‘I suppose so,’ Rhan responded hesitantly, knowing that she was booked to row with her Gloucester friends at lunchtime on Saturday.
There was no coach with the Rugby Eight on Saturday. Rhan sat glumly for ten minutes putting up with the appalling rowing. The boat rocked all over, and everyone seemed to be on a different rhythm. The crew kept up a barrage of advice to each other. Rhan surrendered to the inevitable and took charge; she had to shout because the old clinker had no sound system.
‘OK, ease the oars! Hold, Number 7! Take two strokes, Number 2! Now try to hold the bank, Number 1!’
Some of the crew turned round to look at each other and to raise an eyebrow. There were smiles, but no comments as Rhan, now dressed in a tracksuit and head scarf, suddenly became a new authoritative referee.
‘So this is what I want each of you to concentrate on. Number 1, pull right to your chest! Number 2, reach further forward so your arms are straight for the catch! Number 3, you are not in time with stroke, so speed it up! Number 4, good rowing but keep your eyes and head looking forward in line with the back of the rower in front – I do not want to see your face again, it upsets me and the whole balance.’ There were laughs from all at Gareth’s expense.
‘Take two back strokes, Number 7!’ Rhan called out to straighten the boat against the bank before she continued her advice.
‘Number 5, you are too fast up the slide and are therefore totally out of sync – there’s no point in being early so watch stroke at all times, not the girl crews! Number 6, make sure you twist your hands as you lift out. Number 7, keep your shoulders and head up. Number 8, feather the blade slightly earlier and slow down the stroke so everyone has time to follow you. Now concentrate on those specific items, but learn from what I said to the others.
‘Push off, Number 1! OK, two strokes 1 and 2.
‘Now, together, take one stroke then hold to get the balance until I tell you to take another stroke! Now go…and hold…now balance the boat…raise your hands a bit Number 7…stroke…and hold! Come on, act together!’
‘I thought you knew nothing about rowing, Rhan,’ Simon asked on behalf of them all, once Rhan had completed the orders and had helped to stow the heavy clinker on its rack. ‘I’m beginning to think you’re a bit of a dark horse.’
‘Well I have seen how to cox on plenty of occasions,’ Rhan explained evasively. They were now walking back to college along the riverside. To change the subject, she asked the question she had been dying to ask of the third-year Geography student.
‘Can I ask you again about climate change? You said previously that there may be something in it, but there are other causes that would invalidate the common assumptions.’
‘That’s right,’ he replied cautiously. ‘I mentioned the natural cycle of the sun, the tilt, energy emitted, the inclination of the earth, and its position in the solar system.’
‘You also said that we still don’t know everything that caused major shifts in climate in previous epochs on a geological timescale.’
He nodded uneasily.
‘I am trying to find out if uncertainty is behind the lack of action. Is everyone waiting until we know all the facts, and isn’t that risky?’
‘Well most think the risks are less dangerous than the inconvenience and risks of suddenly taking action. I have to head off now. Thanks for coxing.’
‘Why the hell do you insist on making a complete idiot of yourself, Rhan? No one else wants to know.’
‘That’s my problem George,’ she replied emphatically. ‘I am sorry I asked while you were within earshot, but I still need to know why people think differently. The facts indicate the physics, but the perceptions are also important even if I cannot understand views like those. I do not feel able to follow your lead and obediently defer like you did with our tutor – effectively agreeing that climate can be considered a taboo subject. I may get to the stage when I will let the whole climate thing wash over me and what will happen will happen. Yet I have the feeling that it is a critical subject for our generation, even though – or perhaps just because – hardly anyone will admit the impact it will have on their lives. People have now spent decades denying global warming, yet surely it is becoming more real each year.’
The conversation stopped while George and Rhan had to separate as they passed a troupe of tourists. When they could walk together again, Rhan was ready to resume.
‘People who carry on denying the laws of thermodynamics and who doubt the obvious risks like Simon – well, they indicate the scale of the problem.’ She looked at George until he nodded his reluctant agreement. She then continued her argument.
‘If geography students are as stubbornly ignorant as engineering students, then we are running into the problem with our eyes shut. I have a nasty feeling that floods, wars, famine and so much more will have secondary impacts that will hit everyone. Suffering will just harden hearts, cut off aid and exacerbate the slamming of doors and frontiers. I need to know what can be expected and when. I suspect that official advice is just wishful thinking.’
‘OK, but can’t you keep climate change conversations for consenting adults? And, to change the subject to something even more secretive and dramatic…’
Rhan looked at him in surprise both at his capitulation and in what he might say next.
‘…why did you pretend to be running rather than rowing? I presume you learnt with another college?’
She laughed nervously, glad that the ruse had finally run its course.
‘Well yes. I needed to be able to let my hair down, literally, so it seemed a good idea to have separate lives. Sorry not to tell you, but I was waiting for you…’
‘You thought you needed to get away from me?’ he asked, clearly hurt.
‘Well you were playing rugby most afternoons so you weren’t even there,’ she argued. ‘And yes, it would have been stupid just basing my whole university life on you and this college.’
‘But you’ve been out in the mornings,’ George protested.
‘So you can hardly complain. I was hoping that you would just ask or notice, especially when you saw the Gloucester Hall rowing kit that you have been kindly washing for me!’
He rubbed his forehead with both hands before replying with a half-smile.
‘So you really wear that skimpy outfit without your track suit over the top? He laughed. ‘My God, what have I been missing?’
She laughed again, feeling more relaxed by both his ludicrous reaction and by how unnecessary the deception over her rowing had been.
‘Well you can watch us row in the Torpid bumps in a few weeks. You can come and see how it’s done.’
The next day after lectures, they were having coffee in his room, and starting to tackle their first maths question. George brought up the subject that was clearly worrying him much more than rowing.
‘Look, I’m really regretting getting you wound up about global warming. It was fun to see your reaction, but it’s all pointless. You must see that no one wants to know. It’s better just to accept it; otherwise, you’ll end up like my old man – boring everyone and pouring effort into a void. Please, could you let the subject drop?’
He was close to her at the desk, looking at her anxiously, waiting for her reaction.
‘No way!’ Rhan stated emphatically. ‘I owe it to my parents and grandparents to discover the threat. You can complain all you want, but how can you expect me to turn a blind eye, or even two blind eyes to the biggest event of mankind’s history? Does this mean my promised trip to your house and a discussion with your father is off?’
‘No! Of course not. If you mean it, I’ll confirm it with my parents. They’re dying to meet you – when? The end of term, so we can travel together?’
‘Not the first or last weeks of the holiday,’ Rhan said, relieved that the argument appeared to be over.
‘Fine, the second week of the holiday it is.’ George now happily booked her, yet continued with his tirade in a serious tone. ‘But you’re not getting round me so easily. Why have you so quickly latched onto climate change as a major thing to obsess over? I was indoctrinated from an early age, so I know it’s a waste of effort.’
‘Surely it is obvious why I have an obsession, as you call it,’ she explained, waving her hands for emphasis while the coffee cooled and their maths waited. ‘Warming appears to be the ultimate elephant in the room – it’s the very denial that poses the biggest threat, to us and our families. It is the definitive threat to Syria, much worse than the civil war or any religious or political strife, which are perhaps just symptoms. You know life here in Britain may change drastically, so why not take an interest? The shock is that I never bothered to look before. You can’t begin to understand how stupid I feel to have missed the lies that are so blatant once I start to think about them.’
He was looking through the window at the sky above the college and across the quad, shaking his head slightly at her response, but said nothing, so she continued.
‘Can I just tell you about the first time I heard about carbon dioxide – at my school in Aleppo when I was around ten years old, before we set off for Iraq. It was a small school, with no real science facilities – not compared with many schools here, but the science teacher was good. Anyway, we were talking of gases in the air, with 20 percent oxygen and 80 percent nitrogen. Is that right?’ Hearing no contradiction, she continued.
‘We had done that experiment with a lighted candle and a glass bowl over it, set in water. We watched the flame gradually die down while the water was sucked up to around a fifth of the volume of the air in the bowl as the oxygen was used up.’ He nodded, not wishing to interrupt her mesmerising, deep and old-fashioned voice.
‘Anyway, the teacher then mentioned that a tiny fraction of the atmospheric mix was carbon dioxide – well he may have mentioned water vapour, I don’t remember. He burnt a wooden splint to show that the timber had effectively disappeared, but he explained that wood was a hydrocarbon. The burning process involved the hydrogen atoms being oxidised to water vapour, H2O, and the carbon being oxidised to form CO2.
‘Someone asked – I used to talk in those days and at that school, so it might even have been me – whether the fraction of carbon dioxide would rise if we burnt things. The teacher had categorically replied “no” – that all the carbon dioxide would be absorbed by plants. Even at that age, I remember thinking, “I doubt it. No system works that well. He must have it slightly wrong!”
‘I now know that the system is far from perfect and cannot possibly cope with the amount of carbon dioxide that we are putting out there. Only around half of the carbon in that splint would have been reabsorbed and recycled, and each year a smaller fraction of any splint burnt will return to the earth. Some of the carbon dioxide from that splint will be hanging about in the atmosphere, helping to trap the heat and ruining our lives and destroying our children’s future.’ She stopped and waited for George’s response.
‘There is no point in you being a smart-arse!’ he said. ‘You may see the problem, but no one else will see it. It does you no good. I don’t know why, but no one will believe you – they’ve never believed scientists.’
‘But why not? I found out that more than a hundred years ago, scientists discovered that CO2 allows high-frequency energy from the sun to pass through the atmosphere to the ground, but stops the low frequency heat waves from escaping back out to space. So why is there such denial now? There are books that refuse to admit that carbon dioxide is even a pollutant!’
‘Yes, I know. It’s the “inconvenient truth”.’
’Yet you will do nothing about it?’ she accused.
He sighed and shrugged before explaining.
‘There is no desire in any country around the world, apart from low-lying islands, to do anything about global warming. Not even those countries or states that will be turned to sand have any desire to lift a finger to stop it. As David pointed out the other day, most people would prefer to die fighting for the right to turn their country into desert, rather than listen to environmentalists on how to stop it. Hardly anyone cares if we ruin the earth. The vast majority are passionate about not changing their lifestyle. Better dead than green!’
‘But wouldn’t most people do anything to protect their family and loved ones?’ Rhan asked.
‘Well clearly not,’ he replied slowly. ‘Given the choice between driving their children to school or letting them catch a bus or cycle, how many parents think it safer for their little dears to be driven? Nearly all. They aren’t going to acknowledge that their children can’t survive if the planet takes the plunge over a cliff edge, are they? The role of a parent is to safeguard children today, not in a few decades’ time. Parents simply assume that someone, somewhere will do something, sometime. Perhaps parents are programmed not to worry about the future of children more than a few years ahead! I suppose that’s why it’s all so hush-hush. If we deny that there is a problem, we don’t need to worry. That’s why winding up our friends is just not worthwhile.’
She nodded slowly, not wanting to disagree.
‘Sorry Rhan, but we have to ignore climate change for at least the next few hours. We have to get to grips with partial differential equations, whatever they do. They are clearly more important than climate change!’
‘Alice, please can I have a word?’ Rhan had promised the porter that she would row for the college in the summer, so she had two reasons to approach the college rowing captain. ‘I now have some experience at rowing, so if you are still interested in recruiting college rowers for the Summer Eights, then I would welcome a trial. I am rowing with a Gloucester Novice Eight for the Easter Torpids, if you don’t mind?’
Rhan was slightly taken aback by Alice’s lack of enthusiasm.
‘Well Rhan, I am pleased to hear of your interest, but I’m afraid we already have a great crew and could hardly change for Torpids anyway. I don’t mind at all you rowing elsewhere. We are in the division above Gloucester’s First Eight so your input with them would hardly interest us, never mind their Second or Third Eight, so please carry on. We can discuss a trial once we start thinking of the summer.’ Alice’s tone suddenly brightened a little. ‘Oh, hang on…next Thursday, Jane has an interview, so that would be an opportunity for us to take a look at you. You certainly have the height, and you could be quite strong. Can you row at Number 1? That’s on the bow side.’
‘No problem; that would be great. Thanks. As you say, you won’t want me for Torpids, so please can you sign me off to row for the Gloucester Novice Eight?’
‘I hear your trial for the college Women’s Eight didn’t go too well,’ George commented on the Friday after Rhan’s trial. They were applying horizontal shear forces onto a sand box during a soils practical, to measure the angle of friction of various granular materials while applying vertical loads.
‘You can say that again!’ Rhan replied, colouring at the humiliation. ‘Nothing went right. There would be just so many complications having me in that boat. But Alice gave me permission to row for Gloucester Hall, which was the key item. So actually, it went really well…I suppose.’