Monday, 4 November 2013

Final Friday, First Friday

Some words are richer than others. 'Transition' is definitely well endowed. To a physicist it's used to describe a change from an initial to a final state via some well-defined physical process: perhaps an electron moving back towards its lowest energy state in the atom  - the Ground State. In the process it loses the excess energy that kicked it upwards in the first place by emitting light, a photon. Such a transition occurs in a tiny fraction of a second, almost instantaneously. The word has a wider range of connotations in our personal lives however. In an earlier post I mentioned my plans to reshape and re-focus my week, taking advantage of an excellent aspect of the occupational pension scheme I'm in to retire 'flexibly': to reduce to three the number of days I spend devoting myself to the University of Kent and its School of Physical Sciences and to draw two day's worth of my pension in order to create space for, amongst many other things, writing blog posts. And so it was that Friday 25th October became my 'final Friday' in my salaried job of so very many years; 1st November was, therefore, the first Friday opened up for new things.

Changes of this kind are of course nothing like the near-instant move of the electron from one defined state to another, accompanied by an equally precisely defined packet of energy. No, this transition has, in a sense, been coming about for months and is still a very long way from being completed - not least because it involves a change in mindset. Whilst my 'initial state' as a full time academic was more or less well understood - mostly teaching and research, alongside the administrative and managerial tasks that keep the place going - the analogue of our electron's 'final state' remains largely unknown. It's not even the case that I am now diving into wholly new things, such as helping to promote Public Engagement in science, that were formally precluded: it's more that the scope for shifting the balance of what I do has, I hope, been enhanced. Quite how much of this change in focus will be due to good planning on my part and how much the result of serendipity, which has, at the surface at least, played a major role hitherto, remains to be seen. 

There is plenty of 'evidence' for the direction in which I'm currently travelling however, and for the next few months I'm content to adopt the approach of saying 'yes' to whatever comes along, as long as it sounds interesting; eventually I'll assess what has worked and what I ought to steer clear of in future. A scan through my diary for the few weeks leading up to Final Friday and then for the analogous period after First Friday provided a hint of my current trajectory. In fact, it did more than that: I managed to astonish myself at what is already 'on the cards' ... 

I'm working through a book on Chaos Theory at the moment for instance. It's an interesting topic in its own right, if complex, but I now have an ulterior motive: I volunteered to act as 'science consultant' for the librettist of a new opera inspired by Chaos, and now need to brush up on my facts and understanding before trying to communicate its essence to others. An inspiring ex-colleague of mine from many years back, Frank Burnett, is to blame for this in that mine was the physicist's name he recalled when seeking out someone to bounce ideas off before and during his work on the libretto. Not only have I already had great fun talking through the basics of the project with him - he lives in a converted windmill by the way, not the usual venue by any means - but we're now jointly committed to speak about the project at a local Café Scientifique as well as to a group of Science Communications masters students. I suspect (and secretly hope) that both audiences will, in their own ways, pose challenging questions in equal measure to their enthusiasm and support of the idea.

I've already written in general terms about my work with the excellent Turner Contemporary gallery and the animation that emerged from our first endeavours, which were focused on looking at materials from the viewpoints of both the scupltor and the scientist. I'm pleased to say that we're continuing to interact via projects which, although necessarily art-based and therefore some distance away from my 'comfort zone', might nevertheless benefit from a scientist's perspective (and goodness knows, I benefit from their perspectives). I'm now involved with another project, Life in Technicolour which, as the title suggests, has a focus on colour; it's being run in association with Artist Rooms on Tour and People United. The project has already given me a great afternoon of learning and talking about the stained glass of Canterbury cathedral: learning both from the head of the glass workshop there, Léonie Seliger, and from the young people at the heart of the project; talking about the why and the how of coloured glass. As a follow-up I'm being interviewed at more length in a few days from now. I also have a date booked to explore the potential for more projects with the People United team - watch this space, or my Twitter feed (@Bob_MatPhys), for the outcomes. Coincidentally, this is the second time I've been celebrating the Cathedral's stained glass in recent days. A book launch last week represented the culmination of a project prompted by an after-dinner conversation with friend and local part-time author, Martyn Barr, on how to convey some science and wider insights into stained glass to a younger audience. The resulting book, Paintings in Light, which represents Martyn's fourth 'young person's guide to ...', is the result; Léonie and I acted as consultants throughout.

Science is a self-evident theme in all this, but there is another. Of equal, if not higher importance is reinforcing relationships and building up new ones in the borderlands between science and the rest of life. I love talking about the science of materials to people who have similar interests, but I have begun to treasure even more highly those conversations with people who wouldn't refer to themselves as scientists at all - not even remotely so. Perhaps that's why I seem to have drifted towards areas of public engagement wherein I am the curious outsider; it's demanding, but the potential rewards are arguably more significant for me, certainly no less, than they are for those with whom I'm conversing. We'll see.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

The therapy and nostalgia of 'slimming down'

In a recent, and characteristically well-written post, Athene Donald (@athenedonald) mused on her current need to sort out her office in Cambridge in order to move to another office. She highlighted the tendency so many of have of hanging on to stuff, despite years during which it's merely gathered dust, 'just in case'. I've had some experience of having to move office, laboratory, building, town and even country so I found it easy to empathise with her. It's not that dissimilar to the process of moving house. Indeed, over this past Summer, which already seems way back in the mists of time, I decided to try to reduce my 'footprint' in my present office. I filled about three rolls of green sacks with paper to recycle, and umpteen black sacks for the trash. Part of this process involved scanning important documents to PDF - a task I was immensely grateful to be able to pay a recent ex-student (currently setting up her own company) to do this for me. The process was quite therapeutic.

In the process of sorting out what to recycle/dispose of/scan/keep I came across no end of memory prompts. This is, as soon became apparent, a really hazardous place to be: it would be so easy to allow the fond memories of fun experiments, of talented people, of key events in my career, of friends and of acquaintances to slow, or even stop altogether, the clear-out process. The objective fact that these submerged treasures has lain undisturbed for years, even decades, usually ruled to day - but it was a close run thing on more than one occasion. Then there were the compromises: throwing something out after tweeting it or first showing it to those who'd share the same memories. Here, for example, is an image from about 15 years ago which captures colleagues (mostly male you'll notice: thankfully that is beginning to improve) at a small meeting on liquids and amorphous solids like glass. Some have risen to elevated levels in one part of the world or another, some have retired and some are no longer with us at all: but scanning their faces caused all sorts of mostly pleasant memories to return in a nostalgic flood. Evidently, others appreciated seeing this bit of my dusty archives as well if retweeting can be used as a proxy measure.

Or what about this one ... an attempt by some of my colleagues (all now long-since retired) to replicate, in period costume, a famous experiment conducted by Blaise Pascal in 1646 which enabled him, in essence, to measure the weight of the atmosphere. The essence of the experimental equipment was a barometer, similar to the devices still being used until quite recently to measure atmospheric pressure. In the original experiment, Pascal filled it not with mercury but with red wine; in the reconstruction one was limited to water and red food colouring: times change. The location was a little different as well. The centre of Rouen became the front of the Library building at the University of Kent. Happy days ...
This was good Public Engagement in science, before the term had any great currency, and I doff my 17th century cap to them, metaphorically speaking of course. Which thought prompts me to share a few comments on Public Engagement as I now experience it ... but that must await another spare 15 minutes. In the meantime, I will pat myself on the back for having gained a bit of space in my office which I can proceed to fill up with all sorts of new stuff.


Tuesday, 8 October 2013

The times, they are a-changin'

This is always a crazy time of the year for academics like me, with bus loads of new students arriving and multiples of that number returning to university a few days later. It is, for me, at one and the same time both the best and the worst of times (apologies to Charles Dickens). It's good by virtue of the sheer energy, enthusiasm and implied curiosity embodied in all these (mostly) young people which, if we let it, almost seems to soak into those of us who are a little more wrinkly. And allow it to buoy us up we must, because the down-side comes from the sheer volume and extent of what needs to be done in order to ensure the the show stays on the road.

Indeed, as I start to type this, late in the evening, I'm sitting in a hostel room after a day of train journeys and junk food having finished reading through and making notes on the 100 or so pages of paperwork associated with a two-day meeting which starts tomorrow and which I must chair. Why spend a day in this way and in this 'monastic cell'? The simple fact is that, had I stayed 'available' back in my office I could never have carved out the time to do the work. Perversely, the busier the times the more important it is to wrench time aside for the bigger and more pressing challenges. In part, it's this intrinsically frenetic underlying pace that's led to a decision to effect change in my own life: I've decided to reduce my time at the University to three days per week. I'm fortunate to be in a pension scheme which operates a Flexible Retirement policy, and given that my 60th birthday is now history it's practicable to draw 60% of my salary alongside 40% of my pension. Why did I take this decision? Well, this was one of those multi-faceted ideas that took a long time to settle and is certainly not without ongoing uncertainties - far from it - but one of the potential advantages is that I'll get more time to do some of those things I've come to enjoy greatly but currently have to short-change something else in order to squeeze them in. Included in that list is writing, which I love: this blog comes out of that, as do a couple of short stories currently with an editor friend of mine. Maybe there's another blog post to come in order that I might get my thoughts ordered on all this; we'll see.

However, I'm getting ahead of myself as this change is still three weeks away. It was originally planned for August 1st, but has been delayed to November 1st so that, putting it crudely, the University can make a bit more cash out of my research team's work through the past few years. October 31st is the census date for the UK's Research Evaluation Framework, the infamous REF (and successor to the equally wonderful Research Assessment Exercise) and it's financially beneficial to the University if I'm still full-time on that date: they want to maximise my 'volume factor'. Thus, I find myself straining forward in order to start writing on science for Kent's regional press, speaking on science to adult lay audiences and engaging in a wide - and rather scary - range of projects in which I play the role of 'resident scientist' ... but still having no time to follow through. All of which brings me back to earth in the realisation that I need to focus for the next two days on chairing this international review panel at the Diamond Light Source ...

P.s. the title, for those who didn't get it, pays homage to Bob Dylan.


Monday, 30 September 2013

Getting started - an overview of science communication

I'm new to this game: it'll be easy to tell that ... but I did recently post a guest blog at the wonderful Speaking of Science site, set up and run by Julie Gould. So please feel free to follow the link and take a look. That's pretty much all I'll say at this point as I'm really just testing the waters as they say, and I'm foolishly trying this out at the start of a new teaching year when the days are already over-stuffed with frenetic activity: more later I hope.