Thursday, 30 July 2015

Do Labels Last a Lifetime?

(Reflections on a life in science: #2 people and other influences)

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 to 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.

There is a much-disputed saying attributed to the early Jesuit order which runs something along the lines of the following: “Give me a child until they are seven and I will give you the adult". All I want to draw out of this is the point that the earlier an influence impinges on a person’s life the smaller it has to be in order to have a profound impact in the longer term. This is not to say that we ever necessarily become ossified in our worldview, far from it. In this post, one of a series of reflections as I approach the transition into retirement from my four-decade career in research, I want to explore the influences I have discerned. The opening post may be found here; in it I made the point that the entire series is intrinsically limited by the purposeful omission of the (often hugely important) influences outside of my naively drawn ‘science compartment’. Perhaps these will emerge later – post-retirement, maybe; in the meantime, I’m hoping I can tell a vaguely coherent story in their absence. Returning to my opening questions, I will confess that the selection of options I presented was not a random one. I’m not sure I could ever truly know why the pursuit of science, and eventually the experimental physical sciences in particular, began to emerge as a front-runner. I do recall having been captivated from age five or so by events within the so-called ‘space race’, which was prominent in the decades immediately after the Second World War*. Thus, with Sputnik and Telstar and all that followed, there was a steady stream of more and more exciting news about achievements in space. Indeed, science and technology were very much to the fore, even to the extent of a UK Prime Minister (Harold Wilson) coining the phrase “the 'white heat' of scientific revolution” as a campaign slogan. It was, arguably, President Kennedy’s speech to Congress in 1961 (here) that really set the pace in terms of the overtly non-military exploration of space: stirring stuff, the like of which one rarely sees. Thus, the positive draw of science, running alongside an awareness of its potential dangers in the context of political power was established and reinforced by such events. As far as most of my acquaintances were concerned, the high point of the USA’s Apollo programme came when the Apollo 11 crew made it to the Moon and then returned. I remember the battle, such as it was, to be allowed to dominate the family’s TV on July 20th 1969 and to stay in front of it all night to watch the grainy, monochrome images of the landing and first steps … before going off to work after breakfast in the building firm that had given me a holiday job. This was definitely a favourite moment in my walk towards a career in science. However, I’d have to say that the Apollo 13 mission ‘grabbed’ me almost as much, and I still follow the ongoing 1970s Voyager deep-space programme via Twitter.
A few of the magazines I bought, read and treasured (Paris Match to help with my school French perhaps?) during the initial 1960s phase of NASA's Apollo programme which had been outlined by President Kennedy as a national goal. Inset on the right is my elementary trigonometric calculations relating to the splash-down point for one of them; I spotted this bit of mathematics on the back of an envelope from the US Information Service, from whom I obtained umpteen reports#, this one is date-stamped 1969.

Were there positive influences other than those coming out of the space race? Yes, many – it was simply that the push into space most readily piqued my interest. Coincidentally, I have recently been reminded of one of the other notable events in my early travels towards science. I found my 1964/5 collection of Discovery magazine issues in the attic a while back and have been tweeting ‘in this month, 50 years ago’ snippets via Twitter ever since. Recently, I came across a short piece on the Nimrod High Energy Accelerator at what was then the Rutherford Laboratory in Oxfordshire (and now) and recalled that I’d been shown around this in 1968/9 when I was 15 or 16 by an uncle. He designed electronic counters for the various detectors around the proton accelerator apparently; these failed to interest me whereas the high energy physics was, as far as I could understand it, fascinating. Some of life’s ‘spirals’ are noteworthy: in 1982 I joined the staff of the ISIS Neutron and Muon Source, Nimrod’s successor in that it too is a proton accelerator and occupies the same buildings – although there the similarity ends. A few days before I began drafting this post I had a ’phone conversation and e-mail exchange with one of the people putting together displays for this year’s Open Days on the site, out of which came the ‘then and now’ collage shown below. I seem not to be able to get aware from the place …
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).
Part of the school ’photo, taken in 1971 as I was about to leave; it was easy to spot Mr Mortimer and Peter Fayers, both of whom I have picked out using their initials, but I found my younger self (at the back) only by spotting some of my friends of the time!

Curtains! Lights up! Ah, the interlude … Despite the poorly chosen comments of the teacher alluded to earlier, I was ‘supposed’ to go to Cambridge, or was it Oxford? In fact, the Head had even informed me of which college I was to apply for (his old one, naturally); I scuppered his plans by doing less well than anticipated at Applied Maths. There was a nuisance value associated with this apparent failure of course, as well as a bit of wounded pride, but it was a relief if I’m honest as I doubt I’d have fitted in terribly well as things stood in the early ’70s. However, because of the way the applications process had been set up to cater for the entrance exams and so on, I hadn’t completed the normal university application forms in time and so an entirely ‘vacant’ year beckoned. The term ‘Gap Year’ wasn’t in use back then, and given that I was to become one of the first (the first?) from my post-war local-authority housing estate to go to university, and certainly the first in my extended family, these niceties were more than a little novel. Apart from registering to re-sit the less-good A-level, which was more of a matter of pride than necessity, I therefore set about finding a job. My dad found me some temporary sub-contracting work on a building site, which was back-breaking – I mixed concrete for weeks for a team laying curb stones around a new development – but paid well, and in cash; I had no fingerprints for a while thereafter: all worn away. But, by happy chance, my local agricultural college (sadly now closed) advertised for a junior laboratory technician; four A-levels rendered me over-qualified, and I was quite open with them about only staying until I got a university place somewhere, but the Head of Department, Prof. Selman, offered me the job anyway. The work was tedious – lots of washing up and similar – but that was OK as the people were fun, and I later put myself in for A-level Logic in order to have an intellectual challenge on the side-lines. Of more impact in the longer-term was finding that I was trusted more and more by some of the academics to work well beyond the confines of my job description. Thus, I learnt how to estimate aphid populations on hop leaves using a logarithmic scale, to breed fruit flies in order to harvest the salivary glands of the maggot phase (- get it just right and it’s possible to watch cell division in action: at which stage I had to mount suitably stained samples on slides for student work), to find and collect specific hedgerow and downland plants, to take and develop photographs using IR-sensitive film, … This ‘failure’ actually turned into the most positive of experiences: a valuable life-lesson.
Although it was closed several years ago, Wye Agricultural College was, at the time, a constituent college of the University of London. I was the junior of three technicians who had some space in the low-rise section shown here as it now is; to the left are teaching labs. and, upstairs, research labs and offices – all of which became the core of ‘my patch’ for the duration.

On to the University of Leicester, where I lose count of the people I met who had an influence on future career directions. None of the lecturers in what was then the relatively small Physics Department – 22 of us graduated in 1975 as I recall – failed to have an impact, which was predominantly positive, although sometimes quirky. In passing, even the people I’ve come across who are never likely to make it to my list of favourites – far from it in some cases – have been able at least to induce a positive contribution: sometimes, learning what not to do is as important as the converse. I’ll choose not to dwell too much on my undergraduate period in this post since I’ll be alluding to it again in the series. I must however record a few people of note. John Beeby was an amazing teacher, and held a place of honour in my affections for being one of the first ‘big cheeses’ to invite me, along with some of my contemporaries, to his home and treat us as colleagues – albeit a long way back along the career road; Peter Maguire, a geologist, taught an optional course in geophysics and nearly – very nearly, despite the requirement to camp on the slopes of volcanoes for weeks on end – persuaded me to undertake a PhD in the area with him. Of more long-term impact were those with whom I developed a relationship that went beyond my student days. Colin Norris, for example, who unwittingly brought about my first bit of student ‘unpleasantness’ – he forgot to turn up to a lecture and I drew the ‘short straw’ and was sent to fetch him – grew enormously in my scientific landscape whilst I was doing a PhD; he went on to do a great job as physical sciences director at the Diamond Light Source during a period when I was using it as a visiting researcher. Then we come to John Enderby, under who’s supervision I did my final year research project and with whom I ‘signed up’ to do a PhD thereafter. The PhD began in the September following my graduation; unfortunately, John was away until the following January (- this was before e-mail or fax remember, and even long-distance ’phone calls were an expensive rarity) and no-one in the research group was completely clear about was I was supposed to be doing. Something of a baptism through fire one might say, but ‘what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger’ … or so the saying goes. The ‘hero’ of the moment was Alan Howe, who guided me through those first few months when, in common with many PhD students, ‘throwing in the towel’ seemed like the obvious thing to do on many occasions. John remained an important figure in my career for a long time thereafter, and I am grateful to have been able to work with him, but it is to Alan I owe the bigger debt in terms of helping me to shape my research ethic: his legacy lives on. Although now reduced to the exchange of Christmas letters, Alan is nevertheless the one ex-Leicester person with whom I remain in contact. There is a long list of people associated with what became a decade at the University of Leicester that I could, and perhaps should mention – but we’d be here for ages and so I shall stop at this point …
A farewell gift from my fellow early-career colleagues at Leicester by way of a tongue-in-cheek recognition of my attempts to improve our lot: “To Bob, To enable you to continue stirring”. They evidently couldn’t find a suitable wooden spoon, so this had to suffice; it did the job well enough.

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.
By good fortune, Spencer and his family were seconded to the USA and needed house-sitters at a time when we were finding it hard to rent a house near RAL whilst we waited for a buyer for our house in Leicester: we occupied part of this lovely place. (It took almost a year to sell our Leicester house as the Midlands market had 'slumped'; the Thames Valley region, by contrast, was buoyant and as a result we never managed to buy a house during our time in Oxfordshire.)

The next stop was the University of Kent’s Physics Laboratory, which was later merged with Chemistry, under my headship, in order to create the School of Physical Sciences. It is from this base that I retire at the end of September. Once again, it would be all-but impossible to mention everyone who deserves to be. I’ll limit myself to three, and keep even that to a brief statement, since more information will emerge quite naturally in related posts on university life and on the nomadic development of my research activities. John Strange was Head of Department when I arrived and to him I therefore owe, in part, my job; beyond that I learned a huge amount about the ins and outs of running a university department – indeed, much of what was subsequently achieved was of necessity built upon foundations he laid. I was paired with Alan Chadwick, a chemist, from very early on and given the task of running the Chemical Physics BSc course with him. Sadly, this excellent degree programme is now closed down; it was a wonderful synthesis of elements of the Physics and of the Chemistry degree programmes which produced some of the most rounded science graduates I have ever known. Alan re-kindled my nascent interest in chemistry and thereby opened anew the potential for research across the interface between the physical sciences, and beyond, that was to become the keynote of my research career. It was also with Alan that I got back into archaeology in more recent years through a joint contribution to the conservation of Henry VIII’s Mary Rose (here). Ann Edwards is now living in the USA with her family, but in 1986 she was graduating with a BSc in Chemical Physics and then began working with me as my first ever PhD student. It would be hard to encapsulate adequately my gratitude to her for being exactly the right person to take on this novice academic on his first step into the world of university research as a fledgling academic (here, 4th paragraph).
My wife’s line drawing of the Physics Laboratory of the late ’80s, from a viewpoint now build upon, and showing the dome of the original student observatory; this drawing was used on the cover of countless departmental publications in following years. On the right is my very first graduating class of Chemical Physics students (my all-time favourite degree programme) showing not only me but the three people I’ve chosen to highlight: Ann Edwards (front row, left), John Strange (front, 5th from the right) and Alan Chadwick (back row, 3rd from the left; travel left three more places and you’ll reach the younger me).

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.

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