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.