Wednesday, 1 June 2016


Many years ago, closer to the beginning of things, when I was a mere PhD research student with only the vaguest idea of where I was heading, we had a visiting Japanese scientist spend a year working within the research group I was part of. His name was Koichi, and he was on sabbatical from his home university; his wife and two young children had come with him and it was lovely to be able to begin to get to know them. (I still remember the children’s excitement at the sight of large expanses of green, and of snow.) Koichi was a nice guy; I liked him and enjoyed chatting over coffee whenever the chance arose; we kept in touch for several years after his return home. As happens in such circumstances, I learned a lot about his view of the world – and in the process began better to understand my own perspectives. One conversation has lodged in my memory ever since. It concerned the genesis of new ideas and of innovative approaches: he had been pondering the apparent success of the British to break new ground in the science and technology arenas. His conclusion was rather simple and straightforward: that we treated our coffee/tea breaks as inviolable periods in the day for ‘kicking back’ and chatting. The unfocused conversation might seem to be far away from the cutting edge of science for much of the time, but out of the relationships that began to form and to develop there would, from time to time, emerge something new: a synthesis of disparate ideas; the serendipity of discovery.

There is a Japanese word which encapsulates the act of gazing into space without thinking about anything in particular: boketto. If there is a special word for this even in busy Japan then perhaps that’s a hint that this is something worthy of consideration. The reality is that meaningful research is a pursuit which absolutely must have open spaces for the mind to wander through. It has become evident to me that pretty much anything that has a creative element to it requires periods of boketto. Indeed, it’s been the increased time I have devoted to outreach/public engagement with science that has helped give shape and substance to that thought.

Even before ‘retiring’ in 2015 I had increasingly benefited from working as a scientist within the agendas of others, including local museums (here and here), an art gallery (video output here and here), arts/science festivals (here and here), a script-writer and an author of books for young adults. It could be demanding, but was always rewarding. In ways analogous to my conversations with Koichi of four decades ago, I learnt about myself and about ‘my science’ as much as I did about the creative work of others. One of the dreams associated with having a little more flexible time in retirement was that I’d be able to write more: I enjoy the process of writing since it helps me to know what I’m thinking. In my professional life, writing a thesis, paper or report marked in some ways the culmination of a period of research. Outside of work, writing entirely for myself was often quite therapeutic. More recently, initially as a strand to public engagement, there have been a few blog posts of course, but I’ve also just completed a short ‘taster’ course in creative writing through the University of the Third Age (U3A). This has tested new facets of my writing in that out-and-out fictional work has never really figured much in the past. Our course leader presented us with a particular brief in order to define a story arc: fix a name and therefore gender, add a tattoo, then a second character who may have different motives towards the same goals or be opposed, have something go wrong but have it resolved in some way, … and all in about 1000 words. Well, here it is: this one scientist’s first attempt at a wholly fictional short story, and it definitely required periods of boketto:

This short story has been removed.
The statement in my profile that declares that I write mostly for my own satisfaction is true. Beyond that, there is a bonus if the things I want to reflect on are of some interest to others: hence the blog. I included this recent attempt at the creative writing of fiction simply because I wanted to demonstrate that scientists, as 'real people', have a life beyond their pursuit of science. Indeed, I had in mind a short series of personal, reflective posts along those lines - focused on reading, music and art. I have since decided to curtail this particular experiment.

p.s. However, you might like now to go to a later post for a less 'cowardly' update.