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In the Beat of a Heart: Life, Energy, and the Unity of Nature
the subject in 1866. Grandfather Joseph warned him not to be seduced by specialization: “The new fangled idea of subjects being so great that only parts must be undertaken by one man is a consummate absurdity.” Thompson got the money to attend Cambridge by winning a scholarship, but it wasn’t enough to live on, so he taught Greek and wrote for encyclopedias. Some of this work brought academic as well as financial benefit: One of his first significant scientific endeavors was to translate a German book on pollination. Charles Darwin—who had also studied medicine at Edinburgh before moving to Cambridge—wrote an admiring preface, but died before the book was published in 1883. Thompson had visited Germany in the summer of 1879 to learn the language—an essential skill for any zoologist, as the country was the center of biological science.
The biographies of Victorian scholars often make it seem as if people had more time, or energy, or talent back then. Besides making money and pursuing his studies, it was in Cambridge that Thompson embarked on the translation, in collaboration with his father, of Aristotle’s Historium Animalium. He was also active in university life, becoming a leading light of the university’s debating society. Despite all this, he seems never to have fit in, either at school or university. A contemporary at the former remembered him as “a queer fellow—there was always something about him we couldn’t understand,” and a professor at Cambridge once told him, “You know you haven’t got many friends.” Thompson was shocked, but on reflection saw the truth in this, and the feeling of friendlessness, of being apart from other people, remained with him throughout his life. But he also wore his loneliness as a badge of intellectual integrity, a pride enhanced by a belief that he had inherited the trait from his father. “He never hunted with the pack, nor barked, growled, yelped with them either,” he wrote. “And, thank God, no more do I!”
Thompson also inherited his father’s attitude toward work. Thompson senior believed it was impossible to reconcile ambition with integrity and that pushing oneself forward was, “[something] that a gentleman, a pukka Sahib, does not do.” Likewise, his son disdained the maneuvering that an academic career demands—being nice to the right people, publishing regularly on the right subjects—and often pro-