Wednesday, 22 July 2015

The Girt Pike

(Reflections on a life in science:  #1 beginnings and transitions)

“ ‘It’s so beautiful,’ said Mrs Rendall, looking wonderingly at the great olive stripes and the bright speckles on its flank. ‘… I had no idea it was so beautiful! I almost feel sorry.’ ‘I feel sorry, missus,’ said Robert, his voice a little choked …
In his house … there would always be an overexposed photograph on the wall of the self-conscious and proud little fellow trying to hold up a pike that was too long and heavy for him. There would always be a photograph of the catch, laid out on the lawn beside a yardstick.
He was haunted by how beautiful the pike had been when it was freshly out of the water, and how its beauty had already diminished when it had been out for only an hour. He knew instinctively that beauty should last forever, and that this world would never be perfected until beauty was perpetual.”

Louis de Bernières penned these words in his gently evocative book Notwithstanding . He uses the situation of a boy who realises a particular ambition – a goal of mythic proportions within the limited horizons of his world – to probe the tussle between achievement and loss which is so often attendant on major events or transitions in life. All such change is intrinsically irreversible in that we are ourselves changed by it, albeit perhaps in ways that may seem imperceptibly small at the time. This is the story that comes to mind as I begin to write the handful of posts I find queuing up in my head and waiting impatiently to tumble out: reflections on a career in academic science as I approach the transition to retirement. Why write it all down one might ask: well, to paraphrase at least one author it is, I hope, sufficient to say that I write in order to discover what I think …

There is, however, a more easily defined catalyst for beginning to write this now rather than post-retirement. Put simply, a colleague of mine shared with me his nervousness at the likelihood of being asked to make a valedictory speech at whatever retirement ‘do’ my department might organise. Whilst he’s aware of my various contributions since his arrival near the turn of the century, he necessarily has a far sketchier knowledge of what went before and he wondered whether I might not try to fill in the gaps. Why not, given that I was minded to write something anyway irrespective of the obvious potential for self-indulgence and self-congratulation (or, perhaps, self-criticism). In passing, I ought to note that our ‘facilitators’ – oh, how I dislike that term – at a whole-day event, designed to prepare me, my wife and about 20 other souls for this change in our lives, were initially firm in their stated preference for the label “freelance” over “retired”. They went on to use “retired” and its derivatives almost exclusively however, and so shall I …

I have been fortunate in having four decades in research, and many more years as a ‘scientist’ – indeed, from at least the age of nine or ten I think. There’s no need to repeat what I have posted already by way of snapshots from the postgraduate/professional years (e.g. here and here) but it might prove interesting to explore a few of the wider or more generic aspects of this one scientist’s working life over time, even if only by way of sketches made with a broad brush. I am by both choice and inclination something of a nomad: my research activities have changed a lot over the years, albeit within the overall landscape of liquids and amorphous materials (see here and here for a bit more by way of scientific background). For this reason, if for no other, I have never expected to land the ‘girt pike’ in the sense of results that win awards or medals, a situation under-girded by a form of the ‘Imposter Syndrome’ suffered by many, perhaps most, academics. It’s not that the outputs and outcomes of my efforts and those of the evolving team with whom I’ve partnered lack interest, importance, impact or influence; rather, it’s that what has motivated and driven me has instead been the inestimable pleasure of working with talented and creative people to solve the intriguing puzzles of nature. To use my metaphor one last time, this is ‘the girt pike’ for me: being able to work for so long within a professional landscape offering such gems. I recently heard someone speak well on the fact that it’s not what we’ve done that gives us value, but who we are. Such a statement begs some large and philosophical questions of course, which I’ll not even attempt to explore here, but a wander around aspects of my science-filled life might nevertheless prove revealing – to me at least.
A ‘shelfie’: some of the now-dated Ladybird books from my earlier years which still survive in my study today – illustrative of the spread in my primary school reading.
There’s nothing like beginning at the beginning, as Dylan Thomas might say. My first declared primary school enthusiasm was not for science but for history. This transmuted over the years into an abiding interest in archaeology, fueled by the eventual addition of scientific insights and still providing highlights to my working life (here). I had great fun as a teenager spending my weekends as a volunteer for the local archaeological team (here perhaps, although my memory is a bit fuzzy on which body the group was affiliated to). However, even in Year Two at primary school there must have been some embryonic disposition towards the sciences: how else is one to explain the fact that, amongst the less pleasant memories I have of that year (huddling around the cast iron stove that provided our only classroom heating, waiting for the milk to thaw and shrink back into the third-pint bottles, and being forced to sit on my hands when I spoke in order to be ‘cured’ of gesticulating) I still recall having to copy off the board “The Russians have put a satellite into space, aren’t they clever” (here).
Within a few years I was doodling designs for spaceships and ray guns, and reading the comic-strip exploits of ‘Dan Dare: pilot of the future’ in my brother’s Eagle comic. My own regular weekly reading was found in the pages of Look & Learn, which had a distinctly more sober-sided content. (I’d been reading Look & Learn since its very first edition in 1962; sadly, my collection of the first hundred or so was lost in one of my parents’ later house-moves.) It’s perhaps useful to add some context here by noting that we had no TV to divert us until I was nine years old or thereabouts – and even then, given what was on offer and the inevitable headaches gained by staring at the 405-line (‘lo-res’!) monochrome sets of the day, one didn’t watch much; the radio wasn’t much better in terms of catering to younger people. 

During my early and teenage years of secondary school I started taking things apart, developed some naïve skill in mixing chemicals and in crystal-growing using the wonderful chemistry sets then freely available (similar to this) and started to take astronomy a lot more seriously. I even kept the occasional logbook describing all this (see the images below). Evidently, I survived the hazards I entertained, and I’m grateful to my parents for trusting me in this – in fact, they let me have part of the shed so I could ‘experiment’. Using a hacksaw to dissect an acid gel-filled battery was the least of the risks: I recall injecting potassium permanganate and other solutions into potatoes to ‘see what would happen’ (- yes, I’d obtained a syringe from somewhere), setting up a small methylated spirit-powered still to try to produce my own distilled water, using the power supply from my brother’s train set to electroplate stuff … and worse. A few years later, once I’d passed my driving test, I graduated to evening classes in observational astronomy and I could more easily visit the nearest sizeable library. I got the first of two parking tickets – thus far – at one such library visit: an example of the ‘perils’ of losing track of time when beguiled by some shiny new facts.

Even then, science was not my only intellectual love: archaeology was still in the running and I’d discovered a fondness for English Literature – the latter no doubt arising from a childhood spent under the chronic influence of asthma. (Before effective palliative care was available, adrenaline injected slowly into a vein by our local doctor was the norm for a serious attack, followed by a few static days in recovery; reading was one of the only diversions.) The constraints of selecting four ‘A-level’ subjects at 16 forced a choice. I decided to go down the physical sciences pathway and studied Physics, Chemistry, Pure Maths and Applied Maths; other interests remained, but had to take a back seat thereafter. The desire not to specialise remained however. Indeed, working in an agricultural college as a laboratory technician for year before going to university re-opened my eyes to the life sciences, and I even studied in my own time towards ‘A’-level Logic during the year – just for the fun of it. Even though I eventually, and due to a clerical error, undertook a degree in Physics rather than the combined sciences degree I had applied for (see here, fourth paragraph) I have been fortunate to have been able to broaden the scope of my work over the years since then, as noted above.
Logbook (aka a simple ring-bound notebook from the newsagent) entries on early experiments with electroplating and the insides of batteries, together with a couple of surviving ‘tools of the trade’ – a pocket microscope and an astronaut’s pen: necessities in their time.
As I approach retirement from my academic career I am grateful that this can in no way signify retirement from being a scientist, since that’s intrinsic to the person I am. There is undoubtedly a transition into another phase of whatever that term actually means. The themes I am minded to explore within this series of posts might be described as follows: 
  • Inspirational influences and key people: who and what got me into the areas of science I have explored; 
  • developing instrumentation and facilities: starting out before the internet existed, before the electronic calculator even, through to the development and use of large-scale, leading-edge international research facilities;
  • ‘random walks’ in research: life at the interfaces between traditional subjects and the serendipity one finds there; 
  • ‘the day job’: teaching and all that accompanies it, along with the good, the bad and the ugly of committees and of leadership and so on. 
In all of this I have decided to define a reasonably tight focus on my scientific career, although it is surely self-evident that no aspect of one’s life can ever truly be ‘isolated’ from any other. Thus, in that sense, the posts will be somewhat ‘artificial’ since important influences arising from relationships, health, politics and so on will not be explored other than to provide a bit of context here and there. Time will tell what actually emerges, but this is emphatically not conceived as an autobiography. The other themed posts will emerge as and when I get the time to write them, but hopefully within the next couple of months.

Postscript (3/9/16): this is the actual series of posts in which I reflect on a few themes associated with my life and career as a research scientist and university academic:
1) The Girt Pike – beginnings and transitions; i.e. the above.
2) Do Labels Last a Lifetime? – people and other influences.
3) Nomadic Research: random walk or purposeful journey? – a timeline in research.
4) Tools of the Trade – instruments and gadgets.
5) Suitcase Science: travelling in hope – tales from a travelling scientist.
6) Why so many? – gender balance in the research team
7) Committees: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly – making things work: discussion, consensus and decision?
8) Large-scale Facilities for Small-scale Science – the big ‘toys’ I’ve helped to build and to nurture
9a) Experiments in Teaching and Learning – teaching at a university (part 1)
9b) Flipping Lectures – teaching at a university (part 2)

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