Monday 5 October 2009

Nicholas Farrar Hughes, (17 January 1962 – 16 March 2009)

Another tragic chapter was appended to the Plath family history when Frieda Hughes announced on 16 March that her brother Nicholas Hughes had taken his own life. He had been battling depression intermittently since his father Ted Hughes' death in 1998. Nicholas features prominently in the work of both his parents.
A friend recalls that once at school a teacher told the class that skin was the only connective tissue that played a role against fighting infection – Nick piped up “What about blood?” The teacher conceded “Blood and skin are the two connective tissues …”[1]
Nick received his BSc in Zoology, from Oxford University in 1984 and his MA in Zoology in 1990, during this time he also assisted with research in Alaska. In 1991 he earned a PhD from the University of Alaska Fairbanks in Biology and continued working in various positions in Marine Biology institutes in Alaska. He held a notable position due to his contributions to research on why fish prefer one position over another, his research suggested a combination of water flow and stream-bed acting as guides in the way nature influences the individual behaviour of fish – Hughes, who shared his passion for fishing was particularly proud that he grew up to be a marine biologist and for his intelligence. Nick's favourite Ted Hughes poem was about woodpeckers, it contains the lines:
When woodpecker's jack-hammer head
Starts up in dreadful din
Knocking the dead bough double dead
How do his eyes stay in?
A biological conundrum (the scientific answer to which is that it keeps its eyes shut and warps its tongue around the base of its brain whilst its beak goes at it at 1300mph, on impact):
The beak of the woodpecker rapidly strikes at such points upon the trunks of trees where it locates the presence of worms by acutely listening to their crawling movements. It begins to strike so rapidly that hundreds of strikes are powerfully made in a second which scare the worms out of their hideout for the woodpecker to scoop them up with its long elastic tongue. It is so fast that humans cannot distinguish between different strikes which appear to them as a single blur. That functional availability is exceptional among birds. More exceptional and unique is the system which protects the brain of the woodpecker from being damaged by the impact of extremely powerful shock waves produced by the striking beak.
           Between the beak and the brain there is a separating impact absorbing tissue which
prevents the shock waves reaching the brain directly. No other bird can strike at such a rate and no other bird is provided with such a protective device. This is another example of how animals are protected against the possible harm of their own specialized functional abilities. We wonder if any naturalist could suggest any random methodology to explain how natural selection could have chanced upon this.[2]
Nick resigned from UAF in December 2006, continuing his work independently and to spend time as a potter, setting up a pottery at home, making clay pots and creatures.

On 16 March Nick had afternoon tea with his girlfriend Christine Hunter and then told her “It's a good day” and that he was going for a walk. She went searching for him when he hadn't returned by 4pm and discovered that he had hung himself in his cabin with a thin nylon cord tied to an exposed ceiling beam.

[1] Saxton, Joe Saxton.  'What suicide gene? My friend Nick was brilliant, passionate & fun'. The Sunday Times, 29 March 2009.
[2] Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad – Khalifatul Masih IV. Revelation, Rationality, Knowledge & Truth(Islam International Publications, 1998). 505.