Friday, 4 December 2015

On a Break (from retirement that is)

A greater spotted woodpecker is hanging on tight to the bird feeder outside my window. There’s a late autumn gale blowing intermittent rain and the first sleet of the season across my garden – and elsewhere one presumes – and his beak-full of peanut won’t be won without a fight. Tenacity, and hunger, will win the day. The electricity supply failed half an hour ago and I’m left feeling glad of the remaining daylight and of our new log burning stove, and of pens and paper in order to record these musings. The power cut will, I sincerely hope, be long over by the time I finish drafting this post – but it feels good to be making a start …
The woodpecker, or one just like it,
in action in kinder weather earlier this year.

One of the first thoughts that comes to mind as I sit, pen in hand, is of the language used by the ‘facilitators’ running the pre-retirement course my wife and I attended some months ago. They wanted everyone to couch their language in terms not of ‘retirement’ but of ‘going freelance’. At the time it sounded more than a little contrived, although I disliked it somewhat less than the word ‘facilitator’ itself. In the two months that have elapsed since the transition – call it retirement or going freelance, take your pick – I begin to see their point. For example, one of the enjoyable, if time-consuming, hobbies I wanted to be able to indulge more was writing: posting here in bobᴙeflected of course, but also in other ways. As it turns out I have been so busy with other good or necessary pursuits that I’ve simply not had the connected time necessary to sit and think and write … until the power cut, which neatly and effectively severed a part of my day from its former constraints. What I perhaps ought to do in such circumstances, with time on my hands, is draft the next in the planned sequence of reflections on my life as a scientist and my career as an academic. This series which, to recycle a description coined by Douglas Adams, rapidly became ‘a trilogy in many parts’, is in truth well on its way to completion in that five of these themed pieces have already been uploaded (see the list below or the links within the 5th post, here) and the other four are sketched out. However, I’m going to take a break and review my first two months of retirement instead.

Apart from being able to spend a bit more time with family and friends, which has been wonderful by the way, and doing a little bit of very necessary autumnal catching up in the garden, I have found myself with several new things on my plate. There have been several words-of-wisdom offered me in this regard, ranging from “Don’t say ‘yes’ to anything in the first six months” to “You’ll wonder how you had the time to go to work”; reality has comprised a mixture of both stances. Some requests or suggestions were easily side-stepped, like the not-so-appealing suggestion that I post a scientist’s appraisal of this year’s John Lewis Christmas advertisement (here, but there are some parodies out there as well, e.g. this). In a similar vein is the invitation to the South East Physics Network awards ceremony (here) on the basis of having been nominated for their Public Engagement Achievement Award – it’s hard to drum up the motivation for a self-funded trip to a London event when one knows one’s not the winner. On the other hand, time has been spent in ways that were predicted and have been enjoyable, like beginning to consider the telescope I have been promising myself for so many years. I could add to this the talk on glass I gave to almost 100 people in Milton Keynes and a return visit, behind-the-scenes, to the new Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth (- more on this later, with pictures).

However, there are tasks that have emerged that simply cry out to be done because they are intrinsically important, or in some other sense ‘necessary’. In my case, these have tended to arise from requests from, or on behalf of, friends and close former colleagues, or they arise from on-going commitments which just happen to need attention now rather than later. For instance, there’s a PhD student in Cambridge working on some hard-won and particularly inscrutable data I gathered several years ago in the USA (here) alongside her supervisor (- the latter, Jacqui Cole, was at the time a member of my research team). The student is feeling her way through some unfamiliar territory and needs timely advice, and I’m keen to see the data through to publication, so this takes priority over mere blog posts. Similarly, there are two colleagues who have played formative roles in my career progression through the years – I have mentioned them in earlier posts, e.g. here – who are individually to be honoured by the publication of a special edition of appropriate science journals (known as a festschrift in the trade): how could I not contribute something. Add to that editing some text written by another former member of my team, now a professor of Chemistry back in his home country of China, as he prepares to launch a conference in Beijing, as well as a few other small ‘tidying-up’ tasks from my former department and the apparent lack of time for my ‘retirement treats’ is rendered more understandable. 

Having said all that, there has been a little creative writing going on. I composed a short article at the request of a good friend of ours in California – the request coming via my wife, who had first met our friend when she and her husband came to the UK on a Fulbright Exchange in the 1960s. I have no idea where the draft will end up since it links Fulbright to Kings Canyon National Park to a town called Sanger, and all via the story of a home-grown sequoia tree … It’s in the hands of our friend now.

I promised something on our visit to the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth (here). I have written about my research team’s modest contribution to the on-going efforts to conserve Henry VIII’s favourite warship within earlier posts (here and here) but that was all some ago and I relished the chance to catch up with the current state-of-play. Our host for the day was conservation manager Eleanor Schofield, who first got into this particular line of work whilst working with my colleague Alan Chadwick in our research group. As a bonus to wandering around behind the scenes with Ellie, the day also afforded me the chance of chatting with two people who were there at the very start of our scientific input to this amazing project, Mark Jones and Simon Ware. There is a wealth of background material available on the Mary Rose Trust’s website, naturally, but also via the BBC (e.g. here, in which some of the research we undertook is gently introduced, here and here).
The very first research paper in what became a significant series to be published out of our links with the Mary Rose Trust appeared in 2008: outline details may be found here; as per my usual practice, the people who did the bulk of the work – often students – are listed first and the ‘overseer’ comes last.
Geoff Hunt’s painting of the Mary Rose sinking.
(Credit: Geoff Hunt PPRSMA; accessed 1/12/15)

I don’t want to expand the post by repeating all this existing material; the key point is that, about a decade ago and after Alan and I had been asked to help the Mary Rose Trust understand the basic science associated with conserving their archaeological marine timbers, I set about kick-starting a research programme. Before getting the larger sums of cash required to fund a PhD student and then to recruit a talented materials scientist like Ellie we had to demonstrate the feasibility of our physical sciences approach. We needed to use major, leading-edge X-ray facilities (e.g. here and here) in order precisely to understand the so-called ‘sulfur problem’ whereby sulfur from sea-bed silt, which has suffused the timbers over centuries, changes its chemical state once the timber is in the air to become damaging compounds like sulfuric acid. In addition, there is the potential for iron, from the original ship’s fixings, to catalyse that chemical process. Alan and I already had a good track record in competing for access to the facilities, but needed ‘pairs of hands’. Thankfully, the Worshipful Company of Shipwrights agreed to my request to fund some work by talented undergraduate Physics students Kate Wetherall and Rob Moss and the rest, as they say is history. (The proof of this particular pudding may be seen in their lead-author positions on that very first publication I cited above.) As the research moved on from the initial phase of understanding the basic mechanisms in the specific case of Mary Rose timbers to devising mechanisms to slow or halt the damaging chemical processes, so the research moved further into mainstream chemistry and my involvement necessary reduced. My interest, however, has never declined, and it’s against this background that my wife and I stepped into the new, purpose-built, Heritage Lottery-funded museum back in September. The remainder of the post represents my inadequate homage to the on-going conservation work behind the public museum spaces, steered by Ellie, and the over-arching collections management by Mark and by Simon and fellow team members. The photographs were taken either by me or by my wife, and all with permission of course.

The day started well: coffee with Mark and Ellie in a room boasting a door decorated using an old conference poster derived from our joint research.

With the rigging of HMS Victory just about visible before us, it’s time for Ellie to sort out security passes for us: the Mary Rose is hosted within the historic naval dockyard, and some of the places we’re to visit are not in the publicly accessible zones.

Whether one ought to refer to this as ‘good fortune’ or not, the Navy’s need to dredge an approach channel meant that it was urgently necessarily to raise this Tudor anchor from the Mary Rose site. It’s now undergoing the initial processes associated with conservation. For a metallic object like this it’s a matter of soaking away the salt and removing any accretions from the surface. For organic material, which in the case of this unique Tudor warship is primarily wood, but also leather, rope etc., the physical conservation process is far more complex (see below) and bacterial effects also become important.

Through one of the largest volume vacuum drying chambers around go all the organic artefacts small enough to fit inside: huge numbers of timber and carved/worked wooden items like longbows and eating utensils, leather and other clothing, ropes (like the fragment of an anchor rope shown here) etc. Indeed, there were unopened boxes of new longbows raised from the wreck site and currently safely stored – one only needs a few for the museum displays. The conservation process is similar in broad terms for all such items: long periods in water to remove the salt, followed by drying in such a way that the object doesn’t ‘shrink and disintegrate. For smaller items the vacuum drier can be used, and a waxy substance called polyethylene glycol (PEG) can be added to ‘replace’ the water and provide longer term stability. In addition there are stone cannon balls by the score – far too many to go on display …

In the case of the remaining ship’s timbers – essentially, the half of the ship that was protected by being buried under sufficient silt that the effects of tides, and of all those oxygen-loving living things that ‘feed’ off dead wood – conservation has been a Herculean effort from the very beginning. Once the ship had been raised in 1982 it was placed and supported in a dry dock in Portsmouth harbour (the concrete blocks under her are shown lower left – interestingly, even this dry dock is a listed heritage site) and ‘24x7’ spraying commenced first with water and then with increasing levels of ever-more waxy PEG (see above). As an aside, it is apparently the case that the Mary Rose Trust was the UK’s largest consumer of PEG for the duration of this phase. This went on for years, and was still in progress during and after my research involvement. Building the new museum around the Mary Rose’s dry dock home coincided with turning off the spray pumps – an honour which fell to Ellie (here). However, there must remain a screen between visitors and the ship for a while longer as we enter a protracted final period of drying. This in itself is a complex process, requiring additional supporting scaffolds, laser monitoring to detect signs of movement and a huge air conditioning system – the controls for which may be seen lower right, housed in the lower reaches of the dry dock.
There are lots of stunning artefacts on display in the museum, which can be previewed on their website or in person, but many more in storage, undergoing conservation or at the heart of on-going studies. Innumerable glass objects have come up from the site of the wreck, but most of them are of later origin, often Victorian, and which simply happened to settle on the site. The bottle fragment shown above, alongside part of the meticulous record cards associated with it which Simon Ware curates so well, was found below decks as it were and so is definitely Tudor. Given my passion for glass (e.g. here), this fragment immediately caught my eye as Simon open the drawers in one of his extensive storage areas. I imagine that this would have been an expensive vessel in its day; it’s finely blown, although subsequent exfoliation has marred its beauty a little. The scientist in me was curious about the composition though. It is in essence a fairly ‘standard’ soda-lime glass, most silica but with added sodium (Na, and in this case potassium, K) to reduce the melting temperature and calcium, Ca, to make it workable over a broader range of temperatures. The precise mixture of these components, and the presence of other elements such as magnesium, Mg, can give us a forensic-style ‘fingerprint’ relating to the origins of the glass. The addition of iron, Fe, would have coloured the glass – the precise colour depending on the chemical state of the iron. The presence of aluminium, Al, is a little unexpected however. There’s a great deal of potential for further research here I think … oh, but I’m retired now.

At this point I’m minded to return to the woodpecker: sometimes there is a need to hang on and to focus on the good things in front of us. The first couple of months of retirement have been full, even busy, and there continue to be louder and more protracted ‘echoes’ from my pre-freelance career than I had expected. However, all-in-all, I’m grateful for the reassurance that there will be no shortage of interesting things to engage with – even if that means, in effect, taking a break from ‘retirement’ now and again.

Existing posts in the career-reflections series (i.e. the series I ought to have been finishing):
1) The Girt Pike – beginnings and transitions.
2) Do Labels Last a Lifetime? – people and other influences.
4) Tools of the Trade – instruments and gadgets.