Graeme Mitchison

Astronomy began when the Babylonians mapped the heavens. Our descendants will certainly not say that biology began with today’s genome projects, but they may well recognize that a great acceleration in the accumulation of biological knowledge began in our era.

Graeme Mitchison wrote those opening lines of our book Biological Sequence Analysis in Richard Durbin’s parents’ house in London. We four coauthors had borrowed the house for a month to write together, knowing that we had to get Richard out of the Sanger Centre or no progress would be made. The living room looked like a spy ring’s safe house, drapes drawn and full of improvised desks, computers, printer, and papers. We paired off in warring alliances to write, to cook, to argue, and to take long walks on the Hampstead Heath to cool down. At one point over a late dinner and wine, Anders Krogh proposed that one could make a hidden Markov model to recognize each of our writing styles. Richard proposed that mine could be recognized trivially by a high emission probability of the word “simple”. I recall snapping something back. I was struggling to draft our introduction and feeling defensive. At some point Graeme took it from me and in a few strokes replaced my clumsy efforts with the chapter that began with the beautiful lines above.

Graeme died, far far too soon, on Friday April 13th of an aggressive brain cancer. I was able to see him that Monday in Cambridge to say goodbye. My thanks to his sister Clare and her husband John for being so gracious to let an American they’ve never met into the house.

Graeme was a witty, elegant, brilliant, curious mathematician who you could talk to for hours and not notice time passing. He made everyone around him a smarter person. He worked with Francis Crick on the meaning of dreams, with Horace Barlow on the neuroscience of vision, with a group at Oxford on quantum computation, with Richard and me on computational genomics, and on plant development at the Sainsbury Laboratory.  He helped the novelist Ian McEwan write scientist characters, and he wrote the “Nobel Prize address” in McEwan’s book Solar. He was an adept concert pianist who was always too embarrassed to let me listen to him practice when I stayed at his grand old house on Midsummer Common. He was a fearless risk-taker who casually expected the same from others.  He made me climb out a high window to watch July fireworks on the Common from a perch on his steep slippery slate roof and I was sure I was going to die. He crashed a paraglider into the cliffs of La Jolla.

He came from the Mitchison/Haldane clan, one of the great British family dynasties. “My grandmother” meant Naomi Mitchison, “cousin Tim” meant Tim Mitchison, “my uncle” meant JBS Haldane. His subterranean kitchen was piled with books, coffee, and wine glasses, its cracking walls illustrated haphazardly with paintings done by his many visitors; two of his drawer knobs were painted with Schrodinger dead cat/live cat quantum bracket notation by Roger Penrose.

In the past few months, I have lost too many people I loved, including an inexpressibly dear grandmother who was much like Graeme to me in many ways. But she was 98 and wanted to go. Graeme was fine. Graeme was going to be around forever. Graeme was giving a lecture in January when he realized there was a terrible hole in his memory. His death leaves a terrible hole in my life.

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