You forget how tough these conference trips can be. Late nights and early mornings are okay when you’re young. But as the years mount up, each exacts a heavier toll.

As you know, well those of you that read my random scrawls know, sleep is everything for me. If I get a good night’s sleep, and I’m talking somewhere around four hours, then everything is pretty much okay with the world. I can function. I know what time of day it is. I can even make sensible decisions. All the appearances of a reasonably high functioning individual. I say appearances because obviously it’s partly illusory.

Five hours is even more valuable and six – well I hardly know what to say it’s so rare. I can’t remember when I last slept long enough to be woken by my alarm clock. Not entirely sure it was even in this millennium.

The point I’m making, albeit somewhat circuitously, is that my sleep is fragile. Like a cobweb or a chrysalis. Almost infinitely delicate and easily disrupted.

So when you throw in a five-hour phase shift by moving from the UK to Michigan, it hits me hard. Much harder than most people I fear. For most of us, and by “most” I mean those upon whom the gods of sleep see fit to bestow seven or eight hours, jetlag is perhaps a gentle punch to the midriff. For me, it is the equivalent of a rapid left-right combo to the head topped off with a haymaker to the groin. It fells me.

I’m awake when others are not. I have padded the hotel’s corridors at three in the morning in my slippers like some homeless spectre, met janitors clocking on for the morning shift, watched steam rising from the storm drains, spoken to the street sweepers, clattering their brushes on the dustbins. I have burnt the midnight oil, the 1 AM oil and so on. Oils for every hour. The ghosts of Saturday night, as Tom Waits would say.

It almost sounds romantic, the city in another light. Like Monet’s pictures of Rouen cathedral.

But it isn’t. It’s desperate stuff. When I’m awake others are not. But when others wake and function, I am distant, withdrawn, unfocused. Grumpy even.

People think these trips are easy, a jolly even. They’re not. It’s hard work with sleep, harder still without.

I’ve probably laboured the point. I’m not the only one who is tired. But we have got through to the end of the day. On the whole the presenters stuck to their allotted times, didn’t veer too far from their briefs and entertained questions in the spirit they were couched. And there were some excellent talks. I often get the feeling that I understand genetics less well than my fellow man. These conferences turn those nebulous inclinations into rigid certainty.

But you are a scientist, I hear you say. Well yes, certainly I used to be. But genetics really is big science. And it’s been a long time since I paddled in those pools. It’s fun listening to the debate for two reasons – it’s often at a very high level. And it’s conducted largely by patients.

Time and technology moves on. I’m turning rapidly into the kind of person who can’t operate a video recorder remote control. Stuff my kids take for granted leaves me floundering. And when it comes to time and technology, genetics and the technology genes has outstripped practically anybody’s capacity to understand it.

And if I can’t understand it on four hours sleep, I’m never going to make it on two.

Better leave it to the youngsters, I say.

I’ll just catch up on my sleep.

Grand Rapids Diary 3