Why science? Why not history or archaeology, English literature or the arts, woodwork or the factory line? Ultimately, I don’t know. All that is clear is illuminated, post hoc, by what now is and by the way in which one looks back along the road travelled. In short, there is a tendency to rationalise the reasons and the choices of the past in light of where one now stands. With that in mind I have nevertheless set myself the task of trying to pick out a few of the events and the people that seem to me to form some of the myriad milestones along the way. This constitutes the second post in a series of reflections on my career - the opening post is here.
|On the left, the display item put together for this year’s Harwell Campus Open Day: a rare photograph of me at about the age when I visited Nimrod and in the academic robes associated with the DSc awarded to me somewhat more recently by the University of Leicester; on the right is Discovery magazine’s image of a small part of Nimrod, June 1965.|
As to the other potential choices listed at the opening of this post: history, archaeology and English literature have remained high on my list of interests, albeit as very part-time (and mostly ‘armchair’) hobbies; woodwork, for which I only ever had the most modest of aptitude, has transmuted into the distractions of DIY; for short periods of time I’ve tried the rhythms of factory and similar work and discovered that I’m not fitted for it at all. Of all the headings in the list it is perhaps the arts that is most curious: although I love listening to a wide range of music and can spend hours in an art gallery I am, frankly, devoid of all drawing/painting ability beyond that developed during primary school and could make similar statements about my musical ability. Likewise, although I love the theatre, I have always had a near-pathological fear of involvement in drama. How surprising it is, then, to find that my passion for science communication/public engagement with science was given a game-changing sideways shove (e.g. here) by involvement with our local Turner Contemporary gallery through the Canterbury Festival of Arts, and I then found myself on stage (here) … life, eh?
For all their positive reinforcement, these events are limited in their scope. Of more impact, I suspect, are the effects of people. Focusing still on the genesis and development of my career, and omitting family and friends by conscious choice, there are a few people who are worthy of mention. I went to a relatively small village primary school, starting at a time when the ‘received wisdom’ was such that all education ought to be left to the teachers: I could just about count to three on arrival and had no reading or writing skills at all! I am thankful for the teachers there, even the two I struggled with, but I couldn’t point to anyone who had an identifiable influence on future academic and intellectual choices. The step to secondary school was a big one, in all sorts of ways, but here I can identify the good and the not-so-good in terms of teacher input. The head teacher, Mr Mortimer, was a liberal (small ‘l’) by inclination and sought to provide an environment in which we were always challenged and always respected; I retain the fondest of memories of him. It is testament to the school that I specialised in the mathematical sciences only when forced to at the point of selecting which four Advanced Level subjects to study in my final two years. Both of my ‘A’-level Physics teachers came to the fore at that stage, for very different reasons. When I confided to one of them that I was considering the study of physics at university, he flatly dismissed my ambition with the statement that I might offer merely “good second class material”. I lived under the curse of that label for many years before finally being released from it; teachers beware: words have power, you should know that better than most. Peter Fayers was altogether different: as a newly qualified teacher with a good physics degree he taught half the course – and did so with a level of energy and of imagination that matched his intellectual ability. His was the confidence and inspiration I needed. Evidence of his care for those of us fortunate to have him as a teacher back then arrived by e-mail almost 30 years later: he had tracked me down to my University department in order to ask me to return to the school and give a talk to a new generation of ‘A’-level students. His note included the question “are you still using black ink?”. I found this astonishing: my minor rebellion against the school’s norm of blue ink should have been noticed and remembered, and then recalled after all those years. (The answer is “yes” by the way.) I returned to give talks many times after that first kind invitation – even after Peter’s retirement – and most recently to help with a ‘Chaos Theory workshop’ earlier this year (derived from this).
After Leicester came the spallation neutron source, later named ISIS, at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, RAL. I was privileged to work here during the final few years of construction of this major international research facility. The longer-term benefit to my career of this intensive experience is inestimable, and the camaraderie associated with bringing such a major machine to its successful first operations in December 1984 is something I’ll never forget. Countless people helped to shape my professional world-view during my time at the RAL but I’ll mention only two here: Spencer Howells and Alan Leadbetter. I remain grateful to Spencer for his long-standing kindness which began with the loan of his charming cottage when my wife, one year old daughter and I first moved to the RAL. Unbeknownst to me, Alan had been chosen as the science director for the ISIS project just prior to my interview and so sat on the selection panel. We had a discussion about science, as one does, during which I criticised one of his research papers (- it was all very constructive: anger should play no part in scientific challenge, although pride may be wounded for a while). A measure of the person he was is that I was appointed not despite that discussion but, in part, because of it. I developed a huge respect for his leadership, and still regard him as a benchmark inspiration in that regard. We have been in contact many times since those days, during which time he’s had a formative influence on the nature and content of the talks on glass I deliver to non-expert audiences.
Again and again I have noted the partial nature of this post: a series of all-too-brief snapshots of some of the events and people to have played a role in shaping the development and evolution of my career. However, it’s already the longest single post I’ve written and I question the wisdom of digging much deeper or going much broader this side of the auto-biography I will probably never write.
|* … and to add context to this, one might recall that rationing only finally disappeared when I was two years old; I grew up on one of the many post-war council estates ('social housing') created during the reconstruction phase -which was, no doubt, a good period for my dad: a highly skilled bricklayer). The ‘cold war’ – one manifestation of which was the space race – had already begun when I was born and I retain, for example, vivid memories of the 1962 Cuba Blockade and humanity’s countdown to nuclear war. Later public service leaflets, delivered to every home in the UK, could be seen to be deeply flawed by even the most early-stage scientist.|
|# … including this synopsis of the official enquiry into President Kennedy’s shocking assassination, which was followed not long afterwards by the equally upsetting murder of Martin Luther-King.|