Tuesday, 22 October 2013

The therapy and nostalgia of 'slimming down'

In a recent, and characteristically well-written post, Athene Donald (@athenedonald) mused on her current need to sort out her office in Cambridge in order to move to another office. She highlighted the tendency so many of have of hanging on to stuff, despite years during which it's merely gathered dust, 'just in case'. I've had some experience of having to move office, laboratory, building, town and even country so I found it easy to empathise with her. It's not that dissimilar to the process of moving house. Indeed, over this past Summer, which already seems way back in the mists of time, I decided to try to reduce my 'footprint' in my present office. I filled about three rolls of green sacks with paper to recycle, and umpteen black sacks for the trash. Part of this process involved scanning important documents to PDF - a task I was immensely grateful to be able to pay a recent ex-student (currently setting up her own company) to do this for me. The process was quite therapeutic.

In the process of sorting out what to recycle/dispose of/scan/keep I came across no end of memory prompts. This is, as soon became apparent, a really hazardous place to be: it would be so easy to allow the fond memories of fun experiments, of talented people, of key events in my career, of friends and of acquaintances to slow, or even stop altogether, the clear-out process. The objective fact that these submerged treasures has lain undisturbed for years, even decades, usually ruled to day - but it was a close run thing on more than one occasion. Then there were the compromises: throwing something out after tweeting it or first showing it to those who'd share the same memories. Here, for example, is an image from about 15 years ago which captures colleagues (mostly male you'll notice: thankfully that is beginning to improve) at a small meeting on liquids and amorphous solids like glass. Some have risen to elevated levels in one part of the world or another, some have retired and some are no longer with us at all: but scanning their faces caused all sorts of mostly pleasant memories to return in a nostalgic flood. Evidently, others appreciated seeing this bit of my dusty archives as well if retweeting can be used as a proxy measure.

Or what about this one ... an attempt by some of my colleagues (all now long-since retired) to replicate, in period costume, a famous experiment conducted by Blaise Pascal in 1646 which enabled him, in essence, to measure the weight of the atmosphere. The essence of the experimental equipment was a barometer, similar to the devices still being used until quite recently to measure atmospheric pressure. In the original experiment, Pascal filled it not with mercury but with red wine; in the reconstruction one was limited to water and red food colouring: times change. The location was a little different as well. The centre of Rouen became the front of the Library building at the University of Kent. Happy days ...
This was good Public Engagement in science, before the term had any great currency, and I doff my 17th century cap to them, metaphorically speaking of course. Which thought prompts me to share a few comments on Public Engagement as I now experience it ... but that must await another spare 15 minutes. In the meantime, I will pat myself on the back for having gained a bit of space in my office which I can proceed to fill up with all sorts of new stuff.


Tuesday, 8 October 2013

The times, they are a-changin'

This is always a crazy time of the year for academics like me, with bus loads of new students arriving and multiples of that number returning to university a few days later. It is, for me, at one and the same time both the best and the worst of times (apologies to Charles Dickens). It's good by virtue of the sheer energy, enthusiasm and implied curiosity embodied in all these (mostly) young people which, if we let it, almost seems to soak into those of us who are a little more wrinkly. And allow it to buoy us up we must, because the down-side comes from the sheer volume and extent of what needs to be done in order to ensure the the show stays on the road.

Indeed, as I start to type this, late in the evening, I'm sitting in a hostel room after a day of train journeys and junk food having finished reading through and making notes on the 100 or so pages of paperwork associated with a two-day meeting which starts tomorrow and which I must chair. Why spend a day in this way and in this 'monastic cell'? The simple fact is that, had I stayed 'available' back in my office I could never have carved out the time to do the work. Perversely, the busier the times the more important it is to wrench time aside for the bigger and more pressing challenges. In part, it's this intrinsically frenetic underlying pace that's led to a decision to effect change in my own life: I've decided to reduce my time at the University to three days per week. I'm fortunate to be in a pension scheme which operates a Flexible Retirement policy, and given that my 60th birthday is now history it's practicable to draw 60% of my salary alongside 40% of my pension. Why did I take this decision? Well, this was one of those multi-faceted ideas that took a long time to settle and is certainly not without ongoing uncertainties - far from it - but one of the potential advantages is that I'll get more time to do some of those things I've come to enjoy greatly but currently have to short-change something else in order to squeeze them in. Included in that list is writing, which I love: this blog comes out of that, as do a couple of short stories currently with an editor friend of mine. Maybe there's another blog post to come in order that I might get my thoughts ordered on all this; we'll see.

However, I'm getting ahead of myself as this change is still three weeks away. It was originally planned for August 1st, but has been delayed to November 1st so that, putting it crudely, the University can make a bit more cash out of my research team's work through the past few years. October 31st is the census date for the UK's Research Evaluation Framework, the infamous REF (and successor to the equally wonderful Research Assessment Exercise) and it's financially beneficial to the University if I'm still full-time on that date: they want to maximise my 'volume factor'. Thus, I find myself straining forward in order to start writing on science for Kent's regional press, speaking on science to adult lay audiences and engaging in a wide - and rather scary - range of projects in which I play the role of 'resident scientist' ... but still having no time to follow through. All of which brings me back to earth in the realisation that I need to focus for the next two days on chairing this international review panel at the Diamond Light Source ...

P.s. the title, for those who didn't get it, pays homage to Bob Dylan.