The word ‘serendipity’ appears in more than one in five of my posts. I checked. It swims just beneath the surface in many more – arguably in the majority. My Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “the faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident”. Happy accidents; happy surprises. Just so. Given that the principal theme to this blog relates to my personal reflections as a scientist on topics and events that have entered my life, it would be fair to conclude that serendipity has played a major role within my career, and beyond. However, despite that glowing background, it might seem a little odd to write about making happy and unexpected discoveries in this the year of COVID19. Far from it. There have been some very positive outfalls from the necessary restrictions to all our lives: from the sound of birdsong and rustling leaves free of traffic noise (and fumes!) to the presence of skies unspoiled by aircraft contrails, and all the way up to clapping newly recognised heroes from our doorsteps and the rediscovery of the importance of each other. Whilst I could wax lyrical about such things, it’s perhaps best to stay within the blog’s overarching theme lest I be carried away, or off …
In a tweet posted earlier today (3rd July; screenshot above) Daniel Harding highlighted serendipity’s role in the developments of my life. In fairness, I opened myself up for the comment because, a few days ago, I had revealed as much in a conversation he’d recorded as the opening salvo in his new podcast. (‘Zoom for Thought’, which you’ll be able to find and listen to here; it’s also on Spotify if you prefer. The episode in question is the very first one.) Apart from being a thoroughly nice person with whom to spend a little time in conversation, Dan is also someone I admire for his abilities in music. Indeed, there are CDs that owe their place on my shelves to his enlightening comments and suggestions, begun when I was still a physics lecturer at the University of Kent and he the university’s Deputy Director of Music. We bump into each other still on occasion – or did prior to March of this year – but have mostly kept in touch via posts and messages on Twitter. It would be hard to identify precisely the thread which led to our recorded conversation and the resulting podcast – but it certainly qualifies as serendipitous. Listen for yourselves here, or click on the embedded copy below; it’s sixteen minutes long and includes a wonderful few seconds in which I manage to tie my tongue in quite a knot.
As you listen you’ll hear mention of the U3A (University of the Third Age, specifically the Canterbury group) and it’s my involvement with the U3A that really kicked off the idea that Dan floated concerning his new podcast. It boiled down to his suggestion that we have a chat about the creative ways in which he and I were trying to continue to teach, play music, share passions and perform during the various stages of COVID19 ‘lockdown’. Why me?* Well, because he knew that I had sought a way to continue offering scientific insights in spite of the lockdown and that the effort had given rise to my ‘Physics in the House’ video series – the details of which are in an earlier blog post, here. My idea, such as it was, centred on using objects or devices one might be familiar with in the house to illustrate a particular topic in physics. I hoped that by doing this, and by keeping the mathematics to an absolute minimum, I might encourage a few people to realise how central is the subject to their daily lives. Beyond the fact that it was fun for me to do, I had no idea whether anyone else would actually derive any benefit from it at all – let alone my intended audience. I must therefore include as integral to the happy accidents associated with the ‘Physics in the House’ project the fact that it was picked up by the U3A nationally and has been used to spark science-based conversations hundreds of miles from my home base. Moreover, the feedback overall has been a very special part of the happiness with which I now associate the series, including from someone who watched the videos from his hospital bed. (Sadly, a promised call from a local radio station to talk about the series never materialised. It would have been nice to have been able to share the project with a broader audience, but it was not to be.)
In Dan’s case. One might point to his creation of an internet-mediated performance of the first movement of Vivaldi’s Gloria (details here, and on YouTube here). As it happens, a friend of mine was singing in this, so I first heard it at his prompting. Another joyful performance by Dan with another pianist arises from his love of jazz: the two-piano Doxy by Sonny Rollins, here. Thus, despite our ostensibly very different fields of endeavour, the physical sciences and music, Dan and I found that we shared a great deal of recent creative experience. Furthermore, it became clear that for both of us not to try to find a way through the limitations and barriers was simply inconceivable – a fact that emerges clearly, I think, from the podcast.
As the ‘Physics in the House’ project came to its natural end, it occurred to me that I could augment the series by sharing the video recordings of the foundation-level lectures I delivered when still a salaried lecturer. (I have written before about my experiments with lecture recordings, see here) Before I retired, and knowing that all my recordings would be deleted by my university as a matter of course, I made copies of one year’s worth as an archive. With their permission I have now re-purposed that material as a series of more challenging videos which I’ve labelled ‘Physics Beyond the House’. This was all taking place as the initial ‘lockdown’ rules were beginning to be relaxed, so it seemed somehow ‘to fit’. The details are available in the post immediately preceding this one, here.
And it hasn’t stopped. With a friend and former colleague – and local U3A Science Coordinator – Alan Chadwick, I’m helping to set up a science-based open Q&A session via video link. More of that later …
All-in-all, there’s lots to celebrate when it comes to making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident, even in trying times.
* I did ask this question, more than once.