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In Memory of Bill Hamilton

Memories by Marco Archetti

The coevolution theory of autumn colours was born, or at least first discussed, in Oxford in Spring 1996.

I had gone to Oxford (I was an undergraduate visiting student) to meet Prof. W.D. Hamilton to talk about a vague idea I had had on recombination and the evolution of sex. As a member of a College I was supposed to have weekly tutorials, that is short, rather informal meetings with members of the Zoology Department to discuss certain topics, but I had soon discovered that Prof. Hamilton did not teach to undergraduates.

Not particularly interested in the other tutorials that I was assigned to, I soon gave up attending them and started wandering around the Department asking if someone else could help me to develop my interests in theoretical models of evolution. The usual answer, if there was an answer, was that they had no time, that yes but please come the next month, that no you should ask your college, or that they sometime perhaps could arrange some tutorials with some of their postdocs. One of them (today a very famous Professor at a very famous University) asked me, first of all, 'who is paying for your tutorials?'. In fact, now I know,tutorials are arranged (and paid) by the College you belong to.

So, there was no reason for William D. Hamilton, Professor, Fellow of the Royal Society, that was not supposed to teach at all to undergraduates or give tutorials, to behave in a different way. Having nothing to lose, however, I wrote a letter to Prof. Hamilton, asking him if he could give me some tutorials about theoretical biology, and explaining (I though it was a good idea) that I would arrange them through my College and other formalities.

The next day there was a conference by a famous Italian population geneticist at St. Hugh's College, just where I had a room. When I arrived at the porter's lodge, I saw a rather familiar figure, with ruffled grey hair just leaving on his bicycle. Only after few seconds I realized that the figure that was cycling northward among the flowering trees, was W. D. Hamilton. He had not come for the conference, which was just about to begin, but to leave a letter for me. The letter contained a warm invitation to contact him the next day during the coffe break to discuss. It also contained a final advice that having an idea that puzzles you is more important than learning any theoretical method. It did not mention at all the bureaucratic side, tutorials, Colleges, the fact that he did not teach to undergraduates. And he had cycled to bring the letter himself.

This was actually Bill Hamilton, 'Professorial Fellow of the Royal Society in Oxford', 'the greatest evolutionary biologist of our century' and one who 'lobbied for a cracked eugenical Utopia and caesarian births banned' (two of these quotations are true, though).

We met the next day and found the puzzling idea. At the same time Sam Brown was doing a comparative analysis on autumn colours for his Master's thesis. The theoretical model that I made in this period was published only four years later. (Sam was apparently even slower than me, as his comparative analysis appeared even later, in 2001.) Bill had suggested that I publish it on my own, and that's why there is only my name on the JTB paper (actually it was completely done by me, including the horrible model). Clearly, however, we (me and Sam) developed the idea, but the idea was initially due to Bill. And it is a shame that he could not see itsdevelopments, for the theory is now being tested and the first results are encouraging. But this is not the place to talk about the data.

To end the story as it had begun, on my last meeting in Bill's office he said that he had received from my College a payment for the tutorials he had given to me, but that this had not been in our private 'deal'. He was not irritated, indeed he seemed a bit ashamed. I remembered that I had actually told my College tutor that I was meeting Bill, but I had not meant to say that he was giving me tutorials. However,the College was apparently paying him for the time spent with me. So it was my turn to get ashamed, as I tried to explain that I didn't mean to have him paid. He laughed and said that he would return the payment to the College.

Someone could provide better memories of Prof. Hamilton as a scientist, but for me all my memories of Bill are contained in that image of mid May when I saw him cycling away from St. Hugh's in a road full of flowers, while important people were celebrating, with an elegant party, an invited talk on population genetics. A memory that says of questions more important than methods, of ideas more important than publications, of human relationships more important than academic duties, and of a great man more than a great scientist.