Wednesday, 19 June 2013


 Well, maybe not exactly my kind of town, but still a pretty good place!  We were very excited that the University of Chicago had invited Jenny and me over for a long weekend so they could present her with an honorary doctorate.

We've obviously known about this for a while, but had to keep quiet about it until about a month ago, and of course, I didn't want to blog about it up front, since that's just advertising the fact that our house was going to be empty for a while.

The motivating force behind all this was Mike Coates, Professor of Organismal Biology at the U of C.  He worked for Jenny as a post-doc in the early 1990's, digging out Acanthostega bones from the rock and discovering in the process that it had 8 digits on each limb.  He had proposed her and had asked me on the sly to provide him with her CV, which I was able to do without letting on to her what I was doing.

They flew us over on Thursday, she gave a talk on Friday afternoon and we attended a welcoming dinner for all honorands and their guests on Friday evening, then there was the ceremony on Saturday morning, followed by a buffet lunch.  This first picture is the view of the Chicago River from our 21st floor hotel room.

The only bits that were fraught were the flights, since I'd thought my ESTA (required for entry into the USA) was up to date, but in fact it had expired.  I'd been unable to check-in online, but the United Airlines website had not explained why.  We only discovered why when we actually got to Heathrow.  Fortunately there are pay-per-use internet terminals where you can apply for your ESTA, which only takes a few minutes.  Phew!

Then on the way back, the website checked me in OK, but refused to check Jenny in.  Turns out when I'd originally entered our personal information, the United website had concatenated our initials onto the end of our first names.  Why it checked me in anyway, but refused to check Jenny in, we have no idea, but again, it was only at the airport that we were able to sort it out.  You can do without that sort of stuff!

Everywhere we went on the official parts of the trip, we were whisked there in black limo's (not stretch, but plenty big enough!), including the airport pick up and drop off, which saved a lot of hassle.
 We had a wander around on Friday morning, and saw this amazing sculpture in Millenium Park.  It's called Cloud Gate and is by the British artist Anish Kapoor.  I took this shot deliberately to get some of the Chicago skyline reflected in it.  It is wonderful!

Jenny's talk at the University went well, though was rather poorly attended.  This is a strange thing about her talks - sometimes the place is packed, sometimes there's just a scattering of people, and you can't tell ahead of time which it will be.

Worst was that we discovered on Friday afternoon that none of her guests had actually been invited, so her friend and colleague Eric Lombard came up to congratulate her after the talk, and was surprised to find she was expecting him to be at that evening's dinner and at the ceremony the following day.  She'd also invited John Bolt and Neil Shubin, also friends and colleagues, but the University seems to have cocked up there.

The 7.15 am pick-up sounded ghastly, but in fact was not too bad as we were still pretty much on UK time.  Organisation was chaotic in the outdoor arena.  I was taken to the seating reserved for Jenny's guests, but she was just pointed across the park.  Should have been the other way around, of course.  Unable to find where she was supposed to be, she eventually made her way back to the entrance to the park, where she found someone willing to guide her to where the other honorands were gathering.  Then there was an hour's wait before things started happening.  I was OK, as I'd anticipated that and had my book!

While I was waiting, the woman you see on your left stood in front of me and took a series of photographs of the arena.  I thought her dress was simply amazing, so took several photo's of her, including this one when she just happened to be looking my way.  No doubt she looked at the photo later and saw me taking a picture of her!

There were about 1500 students being awarded a variety of degrees, but it was well organised, although the initial procession in was very slow.  There was none of this walking up onto the stage individually for the students - each bunch getting the same degree stood up in a block, got recognised by the president and applauded, then sat down, so all 1500 degrees were awarded in less than an hour.

The special folks, ie Jenny and about 10 others getting honorary degrees and a few medals, were all processed at the start.   It was all rather far away, though there were big screens where you could see what was going on better.  Sadly, when you photograph a screen like that, you don't get a decent photo, of course.

Jenny was in her scarlet Cambridge Reader gown, and the Chicago hood they gave her clashes dreadfully with it!

On Saturday afternoon we walked up the 'Magnificent Mile' of Michegan Avenue, but were not greatly impressed.  Got to the north end where we found a  sandy, white beach.  Quite unexpected.  Lake Michegan is vast, of course.  You can't see the other side from Chicago.

On Sunday, which we had all to ourselves, we visited the Shedd Aquarium, then took a boat taxi from there up to Naval Point, where the Chicago River runs out into the lake, walked upstream a bit and took an Architectural boat tour up and down the river for 90 minutes.

Chicago used to be built entirely of wood, but was largely destroyed by a fire in 1871.  Not long after that, builders started using steel frames for tower blocks, so our guide was able to point out buildings in a huge range of styles, from Art Nouveau through Art Deco, Classical, Gothic, Post-Modern, etc.  It was very interesting and she was extremely knowledgeable.

I did wish I'd had a hat, since my hair is thinner than I allow these days, and my scalp got sunburned.

And one last thing.  On Friday morning, I discovered a wonderful breakfast dish, so had the same thing every day after that!  Scrambled eggs, with apple, smoked bacon, cheese and hash brown potatoes.  I mis-read the menu, and expected to get apple-smoked bacon, but when I put it in my mouth I was delighted with the effect.  The hash browns were not like McCains hash browns, either.  They were essentially grated potato fried and crispy.  With coffee and orange juice it was just the perfect breakfast!

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