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.


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