Tuesday, 9 December 2014

The One on the Right


Way back in July I posted a short piece (here) outlining a few of the ways in which, as a scientist, I had been drawn into some distinctively uncomfortable, and yet simultaneously hugely exciting, public engagement projects. A common strand to all of these has been the conscious decision to accept invitations to work to the agendas of others rather than to attempt to ‘impose’ my science on them. Please don’t misunderstand me: I still enjoy doing plenty of the latter in the form of talks on my pet area of research interest, glass. A month ago, for instance, I travelled to Chelmsford to talk to about 100 physics and engineering people who ranged from school students to those who had retired. At the end of November I delivered a variant of that talk – twice in the same day – aimed at school groups of one sort or another and others visiting my university for the annual ‘Christmas Lecture’ series (here; not to be confused with the world-renowned original here). However, these I count as an integral part of my ‘day job’ whereas this post is about the wider landscape of public engagement in which I am still a relatively naïve explorer.

I’ll share a couple of recent examples; both, in their very different ways, relate to Chaos Theory. I don’t want to attempt to cover the detail of what Chaos means in the world of science; indeed, I doubt I could do the topic justice as it’s not an area of my expertise. On the other hand, it is perhaps useful to offer an overview in order to set these particular public engagement events into their setting. One first needs to differentiate the scientific use of the word ‘chaos’ from its everyday connotations of confusion and disorder: whilst a chaotic system is not ‘predictable’ in the conventional sense we associate with the physical laws of nature it is, nevertheless, neither random nor disordered. A chaotic system is in fact governed by those very laws of nature: it is in that sense deterministic. However, if the behaviour of this system is subject to more than a small number of variables (three, in fact) and if at least one of those is non-linear (varying exponentially, for example) we end up being unable precisely to predict the system’s future state: the smallest of changes in the variables’ starting values will have a large effect on the eventual behaviour of the system. Examples of chaotic systems include the Stock Exchange, turbulence and mixing in fluids, the functioning of the heart and of course, the weather. There are some excellent and accessible resources available should you want to dig a little deeper; these include radio interviews led by the quintessentially philosophical Melvyn Bragg (here), online/video introductions (e.g. here, here and here) and books (the classic arguably being Chaos: Making a New Science by James Gleick).

The first example is perhaps somewhat tangential. It arose from a commitment I made to the excellent learning team at the Turner Contemporary gallery, about whom I’ve written before, on more than one occasion, to be a part of their contribution to the Fun Palace concept: ‘Everyone an Artist, Everyone a Scientist’. October 5th was the big day, nationally. I was the sole embodiment of their phrase “Meet scientists from the University of Kent …”, as shown in the blurb for the event (below, left).


In truth, I contributed very little to this particular event – not for lack of a desire to chat to visitors about what was going on but because for most people the artist himself, Emrys Plant, was a lot more fun to watch and to question. I can empathise with that; indeed, he and I had some fascinating conversations, when no-one else was around, during which I learnt a huge amount and was challenged by him to develop my own ‘take’ on his developing work. I also got to hold bits and pieces in place whilst he drilled holes and drove in screws which, if nothing else, took me back to childhood weekends working with my bricklaying father. For the record, it was relatively easy to see what was taking shape as a wave coming up the gallery’s steps from the famous Margate harbour and breaking on the boundary wall. (By the way, if you’ve not seen Mr Turner yet, which has the artist’s times in Margate as a core element to the film’s framework, then I thoroughly recommend it.) As engaging for me as any other aspect of the day was the development of our thoughts on the process of putting it together: was this an analogue of ‘chaos’? Certainly, there is a strong element of unpredictability in the sense that a small change in the placing of any one piece of wood would necessarily have progressively amplified effects on the position of later additions. It is also the case that this is not at all random: Emrys had no pre-determined plan as such, but there was a conceptual idea in his mind which developed from his appreciation of the place and was continually modified by what he saw emerging. It was a tempting idea, and one which easily captivated my thinking.

There was another component to the Fun Palace event at the gallery that day, and this was a lot more engaging for visiting children I suspect (and for some of their parents): the opportunity to build something out of a giant set of plastic ‘scaffolding’. If the work Emrys was crafting so lovingly outside could be described as arising out of a chaotic process then how should one look upon the construction, and re-construction, of a ‘dwelling’ by children who didn’t know each other and were, on the whole, working independently of each other? Perhaps it’s best simply to describe this as fun. What did strike me as I watched it all unfold was the effect of the accompanying adults. On the whole, wisely in my opinion, they stood back and confined themselves to thoughts of safety and diplomacy. When one or more of them gave in to the desire to get involved it was remarkable how quickly ‘conformity’ set in: the word ‘dwelling’ was in the title of the exercise, so ‘dwelling’ it shall be …
It’s really rather wonderful to see people, of any age, having fun in an art gallery; also, bottom left, is a picture of one of my grandsons enjoying the Krijn de Koning installation ‘Dwelling’ which sat outside the gallery for several months and provided the inspiration for the Fun Palace event.
In all honesty, this story is but the warm-up act for the main event: my spiralling slide into participating in something that had the word ‘cabaret’ in its title! I’ll try to distil out the essence of the early steps and focus on the end result. About a year ago an ex-colleague who I hadn’t seen for a great many years, a now-‘retired’ but hugely busy bioscientist, Frank Burnet (see here), sent me an e-mail out of the blue: could he buy me a coffee in exchange for advice on a funding application for a science-inspired public engagement project (described at that stage as an ‘opera’)? Why yes, of course. After that – and a successful bid for modest levels of funding – came a request to listen to his outline ideas for a music/theatre-rich idea to convey something of Chaos Theory to a lay audience in a fun way. I’m no expert, as I’ve tried to make clear already, but I know enough physics to make some sense of the relevant articles I now cram-read and that was, thankfully, enough to be able to steer the plot ideas away from the biggest of potential pitfalls. For the first time in my career, I ‘played’ a character during a couple of read-throughs of an early draft script – one of these occasions was in front of a group of Science Communications MSc students, who were brimming with confidence-boosting ideas. Then came silence, for several months, whilst the project fermented alongside the other things Frank was engaged with, and in the hands of the collaborators he was already drawing in. I had all-but forgotten my ad hoc involvement when I spotted this entry in the Canterbury Festival’s science strand (which Frank helps to organise) …
I thought it might be Frank’s work, so I bought a ticket (along with tickets for several other events). A few days later I got an e-mail from him: would I be able to come to his house wearing my physicist’s hat in order to reprise my earlier role as a sounding board for script ideas? The composer (Joanna Ive), lead musician (Sam Bailey), one of the lead actors (Tamsin Fessey), the Festival’s Programme Manager (Alison Chambers ), project manager (Emma Weitkamp) would all be there; lunch provided. Well, if there’s lunch …

The lunch was excellent, but for me the joy of the afternoon lay not in the food but rather in watching, listening to and hopefully learning from this small group of committed experts. Observing, and very occasionally contributing to, the interaction between them was little short of inspirational. In this one package was encapsulated the kernel of why I feel so privileged to be invited to take part in these more encompassing public engagement projects: working alongside people who are knowledgeable, experienced, creative and enthusiastic in their respective fields is so uplifting. It was also a lot of fun to try my hand at playing a Tibetan singing bowl (see here for a little more information) – yes, the music was indeed growing out of an appreciation of chaos. I left with the invitation-come-request that I try to get to a rehearsal and certainly to the dress rehearsal on the day of the performance. Well, the rehearsal gave me the chance to meet the excellent principal actor/protagonist (Matt Fifield) but I contributed nothing of any note beyond a few nods and smiles. The dress rehearsal on the day of the performance was another matter entirely. Expecting only to sit and observe and to respond as best I could to any last-minute ‘physicsy’ questions I was rather taken by surprise when asked if I’d be on stage at the opening in order to introduce one of the key characters (Frank, playing Professor Lorenz, our mid-twentieth century ‘hero’ of Chaos Theory). “You really only need to be yourself Bob: you must have chaired no end of conference sessions.”

How could one refuse: after all, I had indeed spoken similar words in umpteen work situations over the years and all I really needed to do was stand up from my chair – the one on the right – speak a couple of sentences and then find the steps off the stage afterwards (with the house lights down, so trying to avoid falling over myself). In practice, I needed a bit of schooling from Tamsin; apparently I was changing position too often in my chair: I needed to pose, and then to move in synchrony with Frank as he mimed the end-stages of a lecture whilst the overture played. It’s all to do with maintaining presence on the stage I gathered. How did I get through decades of a career in science before discovering this whole new world now emerging around me; I love it. So far, so good – and in fact it did come out OK ‘on the night’ (I think). One of the benefits of getting my moment on stage out of the way in the space of one short overture and a one minute monologue is that I could then watch the rest of the rehearsal in peace. It was fascinating to watch the performers adapt their movements, cues and timings to the performance space – which included the audience, sat around tables in the Spiegaltent venue (a huge tent, supported by pillars faced with mirrors).
Tamsin and colleagues dancing as beekeepers – yes, seriously, it’s all on the theme of illustrating aspects of Chaos; Frank is on stage, in character.
There was one more twist before the actual performance that evening: I was asked – and I use that word in an amusingly loose fashion here since, by then, I had all-but painted myself into the “yes” corner – to front a Q&A session with the audience after the performance. This was the point at which it all unravelled, where my lack of genuine expertise in the subject was paraded in a particularly public fashion. I did my best, naturally, and I was certainly able to show genuinely high levels of smiling enthusiasm; I was, however, not only a long way out of my comfort zone but also well out of my depth. This final part of the evening was redeemed, it seemed to me, only by the presence in the audience of a retired colleague of mine who actually does understand the subtleties of Chaos Theory and who generously agreed to field some of the questions. And so it ended; I strolled out and made my way home – grateful for the experience overall, but painfully aware of my all-too-evident limitations.

There is a footnote to this, or perhaps it should be a caveat. Apparently, someone from the renowned Cheltenham Festival organisation (science strand here) was in the audience and liked what he saw: Chaos Cabaret moves to the Festival’s science week next year …


Saturday, 18 October 2014

Something Good This Way Passed: the Rise and Demise of a Research Partnership

On 20th March this year I wrote an extended e-mail to a select group of four fellow scientists. In it I outlined why I endorsed the view that we call a halt to our research partnership of almost two decades’ standing. It was an amicable – no, mutually affirming – parting of the ways. Indeed, we have since committed ourselves to an annual dinner in order to honour what we enjoyed together; the first of these takes place this week, and prompted this post. This is, like all my posts, a thoroughly personal reflection on what was, to my mind, an extraordinary partnership, although in this instance I have shared a draft of the text with my former partners so that any inadvertent errors might be addressed.

One might structure these reflections in any one of several alternate ways: perhaps using the oft-present effect of serendipity combined with the best in ‘personal chemistry’ to generate a dendritic image of our joint efforts. However, here, as is common elsewhere, the beginning is arguably a more reasonable place to start …

In the mid-’90s a colleague in my department, Mark Smith (who is now Vice Chancellor of Lancaster University), began a coffee-time conversation about some novel materials he’d been working on and asked whether my team’s expertise would be able to shed further light on them. Mark was, and is, an expert of world-standing in the use of solid state NMR (a distant cousin of the sort of NMR used in medical imaging) to unravel the atomic environment of key atoms in materials; my expertise is in the use of modern x-ray and neutron scattering methods (again, very distant relatives to the ubiquitous medical x-ray) to uncover the atomic-scale structure of amorphous solids and liquids. The materials at the heart of our exploratory conversation were sol-gel glasses, which are a form of porous, glassy solid made by chemical routes rather than by melting components together in a furnace; in this case titania-silica glasses.

For a little general science background to all this please take a look at an earlier post and at the short article I recently wrote for Laboratory News magazine. A talk on glass I gave a few years ago in Canterbury’s Heritage Museum is also available (here, on YouTube) if you want to learn more.

It became apparent very quickly that the complementarity of our approaches provided significant new potential: perhaps the whole would prove to be greater than the sum of its parts. It was. Our first jointly-authored paper, entitled “The role of titanium in TiO2:SiO2 sol-gels - an X-ray diffraction study” was published in 1996 in the Journal of Materials Chemistry (the abstract is here, and if you can use it, the DOI is 10.1039/JM9960600337). Our first joint research award, for a little over £230k, came a year later from the UK’s Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council, EPSRC. Since then, there has been over £2½M in direct research funding into our work (with more than £1M into my own team for our contribution to this – and a lot more in the guise of access we have won to national/international neutron and x-ray research facilities: mostly here & here + here in the UK, and here & here in France). Much of this was earmarked for personnel of course: postdoctoral researcher salaries and PhD student support, but we also needed additional equipment, chemicals and so on – science research is not cheap. This financial input has enabled research leading to about 120 journal papers between two or more of the partners (~90 involving my own team), innumerable talks at conferences etc. and a lot of schools outreach and public engagement activity. Between them, these represent the more easily measurable outputs from any given research programme. Moreover, without the financial support we would not have been able to train and send out into the world the small army of successful PhD students and postdoctoral researchers that were drawn to the project; from my team at Kent alone no fewer than 15 chemists and physicists have been trained and equipped in this way since 1996 – all now making a positive contribution to society in their own right. Indeed, I must at this point make absolutely certain that I offer each and every one of my research team members over the years the sincere compliment of declaring that the chance to work with such enormously talented people represents one of my deepest professional joys. If you’re interested, there’s a great deal more in terms of detailed information here, including the minutes of our quarterly meetings – a focus of which were the short updates delivered by each and every one of our respective team members, turning our meetings into the very best sort of mini-conference.

I’m getting ahead of myself however: such summative information was never to be at the heart of this reflective post. Allow me to step back a little in order to introduce the other key players in our partnership, and to consider the type of research we sought to undertake – indeed, to pioneer. Keep in mind that all this arose from an initial chat over a hot drink (- most probably Earl Grey tea in my case). At this juncture I can’t help but highlight the value of the humble tea/coffee/lunch break in terms of fostering the new from the free-form coupling of creative minds. Prof. David Colquhoun FRS, a pharmacologist, encapsulated this truth rather well when he said (in one of his own blog posts, here) “failing to waste time drinking coffee with people who are cleverer than yourself can seriously damage your career (and your happiness)”. I think I’d relax this a little by taking out the bit about relative cleverness since, in the present context, it’s an ill-defined concept but otherwise it’s spot on; more than that, it became a characteristic of the partnership that eventually emerged.

What Mark and I started to weave, if you’ll forgive the metaphor, was a cloth which derived its strength from the warp and weft of two of the arguably most potent advanced probe methods available for the quantitative study of the atomic-scale structure of complex amorphous materials. Solid state (magic angle spinning) NMR on the one hand and neutron/x-ray scattering on the other each represent powerful approaches to the study of materials; put them together in a cogent fashion, often with the help of some computer modelling, and one is able to take a big step forward in terms of fundamental understanding. We found ourselves beginning to think along the lines of what we termed a ‘materials-centred’ research methodology in relation to our teams’ work. Broadly speaking, I’d describe this as an approach shaped and defined by what needed to be understood of these novel and usually ‘inscrutable’ glassy materials rather than determined or limited by the particular methods and techniques in which we individually possessed some expertise. We added rapidly to this through the realization that our own background as physicists imposed a limitation: we needed the insights that chemistry brings if we were to be able not only to unravel the structure of these materials but also to generate exciting new materials as well. That first jointly held research award, mentioned above, enabled us to recruit a superb chemist into our embryonic partnership (Dave Pickup – still a collaborator after more than 15 years I’m glad to say). I believe that moment marked our move from a multi-disciplinary collaboration into the deeper world of interdisciplinary research – wherein we strove not simply to derive new insights from the overlap of more than one technique or method but, rather, to synthesize a fresh and holistic way forward from the true merger of distinct creative approaches. To take my analogy further – probably to its limit, or further – we had begun to transform a decent cloth into something more evocative of a tapestry. (See here for an interesting recent article on the wider aspects of interdisciplinary research.)

Serendipity steps in at this stage, as so often is the case in life (- the ‘trick’ lies in being able to spot it and to exploit it). I went to a small conference in Nottingham which was primarily focused on the sol-gel glasses we’d been working on and was asked to be a judge in the poster session (- literally that: mostly early-stage researchers, PhD students etc., seeking to attract attention to their work via a large poster pinned to a display board; there’s often a prize for the best). There were a couple of dozen posters there as I recall, but one attracted my particular attention. As is my habit, whether as a judge or not, I asked a few questions of the PhD student standing next to it, Priya Saravanapavan. Her answer to one of these initiated a transformation in my research and provided a new focus to what was about to become a much-expanded research partnership. She was working on sol-gel glassy materials that were bioactive, which was new territory for me and so my questions were even more naïve than usual. In essence, if one gets it just right, these amazing chemically synthesized porous glasses dissolve harmlessly in body fluids (blood plasma, saliva and their like) in such a way that the body is ‘fooled’ into growing new living bone which directly replaces the glass – shape for shape. Thus, via a combination of straightforward chemical processes and the associated up-regulation of the right genes, one can, in principle, use these materials as a scaffold for the regeneration of bone. It’s not hard to see why this would catch the eye. The key element in these silicate glasses is calcium. Priya explained that, if it is released at the right rate, the formation of the mineral component to trabecular bone from elements like phosphorus etc. in body fluids is inevitable and that the cells which ‘organize’ this into bone, osteoblasts, can get to work. The obvious question for someone with my interests was therefore “Do you know why the calcium comes out as easily as that; where is it in the glass structure?” Well, to cut a long story short, this was not a part of her project and she therefore couldn't tell me … so, I got in touch with her supervisor (a ‘hero’ in the field, Larry Hench). Mark, by then at Warwick University, and I went to see him at Imperial College. After a seriously long conversation, in which he said he couldn't answer my question either, and rounded off with my first and only taste of Jonnie Walker Blue Label, our partnership had expanded to encompass bioactive glasses. (In passing, I looked this whisky up as I was drafting the post: a bottle costs upwards of about £150!)
Larry later retired and returned to his home in Florida, but the biomedical materials group continued to go from strength to strength in Imperial College’s Materials Department under the leadership of the oh-so-talented Julian Jones (see here). Julian’s role in the expanded research partnership proved itself to be of central importance in the following years.

Serendipity entered once more; on this occasion a couple of members of my team returned from a conference and told me that I ought to contact Jonathan Knowles at University College London (see here). Apparently, he was developing bioglasses based not on silicates but on phosphates, and doing so in the context of the Eastman Dental Institute – so a whole new realm of study might be on the horizon. Just as with Larry and then Julian at Imperial, so it was with Jonathan at UCL: my expectations were eclipsed by the reality, with the eventual result that almost the entire focus of my own team’s work, and major strand to Mark’s, would soon revolve around these two major classes of bioactive and bioresorbable glasses. Between them they had the potential to act as bone regeneration scaffolds, to help in dentistry (e.g. with porous tooth enamel: ‘sensitive teeth’), to provide antibacterial coatings, drug delivery systems, … It’s wonderful to be able to say that variants on these materials are indeed being deployed clinically, and that the potential for further development continues to expand.

Now, in all this my own contribution and I think that of Mark (see here) and his successor at Warwick, John Hanna (see here), has primarily derived from an abiding fascination with atomic arrangements in amorphous materials. Indeed, I am confident that analogous statements could be made about Julian and Jonathan (and the others who have, from time to time, joined us for a season within the adventure). However, what set this research partnership apart as far as I am concerned is the rapidity with which we all ‘gelled’ (sorry, obvious pun – I could have talked in terms of personal ‘chemistry’ I suppose …) and the degree to which we, all of us, were able to rely upon and to trust each other. In the process, we have each actively striven to learn the ‘language’ of the others and in so doing to expand the genuinely interdisciplinary approach to our work beyond the confines of merely adding some chemistry to physics. The openness required to achieve this has itself been inspiring to see in action, and the outputs and broader outcomes arising from it provide ample evidence that something good did indeed germinate, grow and flower. Indeed, a peer reviewer of one of our joint applications for research funding coined the epithet “dream team” as a summary of their assessment of us. And that’s the point really: by placing ourselves at the disposal of the others, by forging a genuine partnership rather than settling for a more traditional formal collaboration alone, there arose a whole that really did exceed the sum of its parts – by quite a margin.


The reason we have called time on the partnership is simply that, for a couple of years now, we have been unable to raise the funds required to carry on as a partnership. Although working in this symbiotic fashion brings enormous scientific benefits, there is a financial cost to it simply because we need the personnel to be funded across all the sites if we are to have the coherent flow of data required to fuel our research methodology. The intrinsic strength of the partnership lay in its interdisciplinarity: we covered the full range from fundamental studies at the atomic scale to the initial exploration of potential clinical application, but that necessarily made our projects complex. It is never ‘easy’ to get a research proposal funded – rightly so – but getting the broad spectrum of support needed to fund science across this range is exceptionally hard (even in more buoyant economic climates). Given the high levels of competition even for single-discipline proposals, all it takes is for one reviewer to say something, anything, less than wholly effusive and the entire application fails. This effect has been compounded in recent years by significant changes to the funding regimes; the outcome of this for us was ‘fatal’ with regards to sustaining the partnership. As a consequence, the individuals within it have necessarily and wisely evolved new research priorities and career directions – which will, I hope, prove to be as uplifting and satisfying as the years of the partnership itself. The fact that we have decided to celebrate the extraordinary season of our work together with an annual dinner, above and beyond the continuing ad hoc e-mails, tweets and so on, is testament to one other characteristic of the partnership that must be recorded: friendship. It is, I suspect, an uncommon thing for four independent and ambitious researchers to coalesce in the way we did: rarer still is that we became, and will remain, friends.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

What Grinds my Gears

A long time ago my son introduced me to the TV cartoon series 'Family Guy'. He's introduced me to some great programmes in the past, and no doubt will do so again, but this particular recommendation has never taken root. Having said that, there's one line from it which has at least provided the title of this post.* Don't concern yourself: I'm not about to launch into a tirade of moaning and groaning about 'the state of the world', just a couple of things that act as the sort of mildly amusing irritant within my professional life as a (now semi-retired) academic. Indeed, if once I allowed a full and unexpurgated account of all the things that irritate me in one way or another, mild and not-so-mild, to begin to flow then I dare say I'd be here a very long time and nobody would persist to the end. In fact, any such tirade is more likely to turn the blog post, in the minds of its readers, into an annoyance in its own right. So, best not to start eh? Whilst the label 'angry young men' held some caché once upon a time, I suspect few people warm to a ‘grumpy old man’ …

The examples of 'gear-grinding' that spring to mind which have served to inspire this short post relate to an infrequent, but usually interesting - even pleasant, part of my job: acting as the external examiner for a PhD research thesis. Allow me to explain what I'm talking about before we get to the heart of the post. The systems set up to promote and maintain standards with regard to allowing someone to put 'Dr' in front of their name on the basis of a significant body of original research vary around the world. (We're not concerned with medical doctors here, who gain their professional titles from an extended undergraduate degree course and practice.) They have in common the need to establish whether someone's work, as enshrined within their written thesis and/or other published material, clears an accepted threshold of quality. One other fairly common element is the person and role of the 'external examiner'; this is someone relatively senior/experienced from another university/institute who possesses relevant expertise and is therefore able to offer a reasonably authoritative evaluation of the PhD student's submission. (A somewhat comparable system exists in the UK with regard to undergraduate degrees: I've done this job in the past as well.) A typical scenario, once the external examiner has been invited, accepted, appointed and taken the time to read the submission carefully, is that a date is agreed on which the PhD candidate will be 'grilled' for two or three hours by the external and another examiner from the student's own university. 

Outside the UK one finds a few differences of detail. When I undertook this task in Sweden for instance, much of the 'quality control' work had already been accomplished prior to my arrival (- in part, as is more usual there, because much of the candidate's work had already been 'tested' within the peer review process required for publishing stand-alone pieces of research in appropriate international journals). The real novelty for me, as the external examiner, was that it was I who had to explain the research topic, and I had to do that to an audience of over 30 people - including friends and family of the candidate herself! Never mind, there was a great celebratory party afterwards ... and I was paid a small fee for my input. In fact, loosely speaking, it's these nominal fees that underpin the post. The problem, such as it is, comes from the fact that all sorts of bureaucracy pops up once money is involved - even modest tokens of thanks like the fees paid to an external examiner which, if calculated as a payment for the actual work/time involved, would be a rather long way below 'minimum wage' rates. In the Swedish case I needed to have a social security number. I'm not Swedish, so I don't have one. The solution? I had one invented for me by my hosts, based on my date of birth as I recall. That, one might say, was actually a moderately sane response to a bureaucratic formality. Other cases are arguably less so.

Take, for instance, my examination of a PhD thesis from a well-respected Australian university.
Sadly, they only wanted me to provide a detailed written appraisal of the work and send it to them. So, no trip to Australia for me to do this face-to-face I'm afraid - but there was again the offer of a small 'thank-you' in recognition of the out-of-hours time I needed to invest in the task. The sticking point here wasn't the transfer of money as such - it all happened very efficiently - but the fact that this evidently made me, de facto, a member of their staff payroll. Everyone on the payroll was automatically enrolled in the pension scheme, called ‘UniSuper’ in this case. For several years afterwards I got annual statements - on several sheets of paper, sent from Australia - telling me how my pension contributions were shaping up: from memory, I think I might have been entitled to enough, at best, to buy a small cup of coffee once every few years. Eventually, in a document explaining to me the self-evident fact that my Australian 'pension' was decreasing by the year and essentially worthless, I was told that my account was being closed. (Note the address by the way: I'm absolutely certain I had not informed them that Canterbury was in the West Country, nice though I'm sure that would be.)

Is the UK immune? Sadly, no. Despite the fact that, in all cases, I've been asked to act as external examiner by fellow scientists who know me well - in some cases, we've known each other for decades - the now universal bureaucratic interpretation of the law requires that I prove who I am before the examination takes place. The upshot of this is that one now has to show up with a passport which the invariably embarrassed hosts must photocopy for their university's administrative files. Although I've now been through this many times in universities the length and breadth of the country I've still not come to terms with it: however irrational this may be, I nevertheless feel as though I am being declared 'guilty' until and unless I can demonstrate my 'innocence'. Oh well, c'est la vie I suppose. Just to finish off my tongue-in-cheek gear-grinding I'll share with you a letter from a university for which I acted as external examiner recently; this also amused me (but not much). It compounded the sadness of whole box-ticking theme by illustrating the blasé attitude towards the individual in the days of drop-down options menus. Thus, it seems that I not only had to prove that I wasn't an impostor and answer out all sorts of payroll-related questions, but even then run the risk of being regarded as merely one of perhaps several versions of me ...















Ho hum.

* I haven't watched the episode, as you might guess from my second sentence, but the phrase was quoted to me in conversation recently and I've found the clip on YouTube if you want to watch it; beware.


Monday, 18 August 2014

Ah, the holidays are upon us: no time to write ...

I seem to be accumulating a growing pile of ‘post-its’ and notepad scribbles with ideas for pieces I want to write here. One of the hindrances to getting it done arises from the fact that I dislike writing in short snatches of time - but the busy joys of a holiday, followed by the inevitable 'catching-up' process and then our University’s resit exam season seem to have left me with only the odd half an hour here or there when I'm not too tired to focus. Oh well, c'est la vie I suppose.

What I can do during this hiatus is cite an article I wrote for the monthly magazine Laboratory News and which appears in their current (August) issue. It's science-based, but mostly about the history and use of a particular experimental technique first demonstrated by someone who was influential in my early career, Professor Sir John Enderby FRS, and a couple of his colleagues. (We're talking mid/late '70s should you wish to know - I did a final year undergraduate project with him in '74-5 and then joined his research group as a PhD student.) Anyway, if you're at all interested in this important part of my research team's toolkit you can read the article here; I tried to write it without a lot of specialised language. There's an earlier guest post I did for the same magazine here (with a slightly expanded blog-post version here) which is on glass: the class of material at the very heart of my team's research for the last decade or so and the target of several experiments using the technique described in this most recent article.

In passing, and vaguely linked to this reflection because it's on the topic of glass, I stumbled across a video clip last week which was made a decade before I was even born. Although not on ‘my’ regions of the fundamental science of glass as such – rather, it's geared to what we might think of as excellent R&D – it nevertheless provides a fascinating introduction to manufacturing methods as they existed just after WW2 and is held on the British Council's web site (here). This was at a time before Sir Alastair Pilkington had perfected his float glass process for making the plate glass we now take

for granted - a process invented in the UK and then replicated across the globe. The British Council's 1943 movie shows very clearly why large windows were so expensive back then, and hints at why they were more expensive still in even earlier days.

Now, to test the boundaries of my developing theme even further, allow me to recommend that you watch the film Slow Glass by artist John Smith if you get the chance (details here). Sadly, for copyright reasons, all I can point you to in order to whet your appetite is a six-minute clip (here) – the full version is of course part of the artist’s portfolio. I take issue with his central definition of what a glass is, but leaving that aside this is a wonderful short film: do watch it if you are given the opportunity*. Glass art has of course been around for a very long time indeed and those fortunate to live in a beautiful place like Canterbury have copious evidence for this in the form of large areas of lovely stained glass windows. At this juncture I hope you'll allow me to promote a well-illustrated book on this very topic by my friend and near-neighbour Martyn Barr: Paintings in Light. However, we must not to overlook the more modern work, including that in Canterbury Cathedral (e.g. these by artist Emma Lindsay and by Alison Eaton). Can I push the limits of my meandering theme further? Why yes, of course. We could get into music with a glassy theme: Heart of Glass by Blondie, or perhaps Breaking Glass by Nick Lowe; and if we stretch it to breaking point, if you’ll forgive the pun, we might even get to the music of Philip Glass (perhaps his Glassworks album? SciFi fans would almost certainly recognise his Metamorphosis variations).

Enough; I must by now have demonstrated my point that writing a post with only a short period of time available is not such a good idea – despite the fact that I enjoy the writing process and have had some fun along the way. Hopefully there'll be a more considered reflection in due course ...

* I am grateful to Ayisha De Lanerolle for letting me watch her copy a couple of years ago.


P.s. I first drafted this post online yesterday at the Blogger site – but due to some unknown/freak event it suddenly disappeared, irretrievably, leaving me only the title and a print-out of an unfinished earlier version. What appears above is an edited version of a scan of the print-out using OCR (optical character recognition software): if I have missed some of the many typographical errors induced by this process, I apologise.



Saturday, 12 July 2014

Robert's Adventures in Artland?

[With apologies, and due homage, to Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland"]

I have touched on my links with the arts and humanities before, all of which has been in the context of my amateur’s passion for public engagement in science. Indeed, if you’re interested, please see here, and also here. I have tended to look upon these as examples of extremely welcome accidents which have yielded fruits beyond anything I could have anticipated. However, a tweet from Alex Fleming – a fellow science enthusiast from my part of the world – caused me to reflect on my assumptions in this regard. In truth, his choice of words helped to crystallise what I realised had been fermenting in the back of my mind for a quite a while and I am grateful to him for catalysing the process of getting these thoughts to the surface. (I hope you noted the gratuitous use of scientific terms in that sentence: let me know if you’d like a primer on any of them.) This is what he said …

Alex Fleming @eastkentscience   Jun 24
@PrattJulespratt Antony Gormley and adventures by @Bob_MatPhys & few others the only egs of crossover of art & science in Kent. Any others?

Now, this was itself part of a series of tweets – yes, I am indeed something of an addict – emerging from an excellent PostgraduateResearch Festival at my University. These one-day events are held annually, although this was the first one I’d been able to participate in. I had proposed a session in which a small panel drawn from across our Faculties would introduce their ‘take’ on Public Engagement and then respond to questions from the audience. It was a fairly simple idea in itself, but the fact that I was brave, or foolhardy, enough to submit it to the organisers bares testament to the events of the past couple of years and to the wonderfully talented and creative people I've met as a result. Joining me in this panel were colleagues Nancy Gaffield (English, a poet of deserved renown), Sian Stevenson (Drama, specialising in performance) and Becky Higgitt (History, having joined us recently from the Greenwich Maritime Museum); Lynne Bennett, who oversees the University’s Public Engagement with Research programme, kindly agreed to introduce us and to chair the Q&A session. The point I really want to get across here is how it was that I came to know these lovely people. 

I met Sian under the umbrella of the Prosper stream within Canterbury Festival (see here, and here): I was a naïve scientist working with the Turner Contemporary gallery, she an accomplished member of a team experimenting with community engagement via dance. Although I had first met Nancy in the context of student support, my eyes were opened to her creative talents when I read her first published collection, Tokaido Road (now the inspiration for an opera, premiered at this year’s Cheltenham Festival – but coming to Canterbury in 2015 I am delighted to say). Despite the fact that she worked at the same University, Becky first came to my attention via Twitter and her blog posts for The Guardian (- our University is a big place, and there are rather few ways in which staff can bump into each other in the relaxed way that facilitates serendipitous interactions); having made that initial contact however, there was no turning back. Lynne was the generous talent behind the Launch Event for our new University Strategy for Public Engagement with Research – generous in part because she invited me to play a front-of-house role despite my relative inexperience. So, there we were: the panel and our chair, billed as presenting a plenary session at an event none of us had any real experience of.

Even, or perhaps especially with hindsight it is apposite that the heading I chose for my handful of image-heavy slides at this Research Festival was ‘Random Walk’. (The image to the left formed the basis of my opening slide.) This has a particular meaning for a physicist, but was also, I thought, a meaningful generic way to describe my route to the present in this context. If there was one idea I wanted to leave behind with our audience it was that they embrace the  risk in saying “yes” to at least some of the ‘wild card’ offers and opportunities that will assuredly come their way. In a way it reflects a phrase coined by Theodore Roosevelt that has been on my office wall for many, many years, albeit in paraphrased form: “Far better is it to dare mighty things, even though chequered by failure, than to dwell in that perpetual twilight that knows not victory or defeat”. Is this another way of embracing the concept of a 'Random Walk'?

Any genuinely high-level success in science research positively requires the mind-set that underpins this phrase, alongside painstaking attention to detail and an eye for the unexpected buried within it, and a whole raft of other attributes. However, it’s only in the past few years that I've seen its relevance worked out in other ways – and that only as a result of external, unlooked for, changes to my professional environment. As funding for research got scarcer I sought new challenges, almost unconsciously; the realities of university life are such that this was only made practicable after taking partial retirement. Having been an active proponent of outreach into regional schools for many years, constrained in the past by the lack of available time, I now found I had the opportunity for more science communication work at about the same time as invitations emerged to take this into the world of adult lay audiences. In truth, I suspect the opportunities had been there all along, but the frenetic rush of everything else (including chasing the funds needed to keep a research team ‘on the road’, managing our projects and overseeing the dissemination of our outcomes) would have blinded me to their presence and potential. And so it was that an informal talk on glass – my pet subject – at a local Café Scientifique led to another couple of talks at the Canterbury museums (the Heritage Museum and
then the Beaney House of Art and Knowledge), which led to … you get the picture. There is still rather little ‘art’ in the mix at this stage, other than images in my slides of some rather fine examples of glass art, including the stained glass of Canterbury Cathedral of course.  (In passing, my links with the glass workshop at the Cathedral also led, via conversations with a long-standing friend, author and written communications guru Martyn Barr, to a highly readable book on the Cathedral’s stained glass: yet another positive step on my ‘random walk’.)  All of this was fun in and of itself, but that very fact will, I think, have ‘softened me up’ such that I embraced the chance to help in the experiment envisioned with the Turner Contemporary – again, all of this is introduced in earlier posts. What the passage of time, and a set of subsequent experimental collaborations (see here for an example), has allowed is further reflection on what it’s all meant and on the outcomes (as distinct from the outputs).

Apart from the realisation that my entire Public Engagement world-view has been completely renewed in the space of only a couple of years, it has also dawned on me – slow learner that I am – that the driving force that has motivated all this (unpaid) work bears comparison with that which drove my research and still empowers my teaching. It really is all about the people: building and nurturing relationship with talented, creative, enthusiastic, committed people – almost irrespective of the context. Delving even further back, I’m also reminded of the pride and amazement I used to feel when watching what my dad could achieve with only rectangular bricks/blocks and some mortar to play with: he was a hugely talented bricklayer who loved getting it ‘just so’. I have a similar reaction to my wife’s work with young people with Asperger’s Syndrome. There’s a common theme emerging, evidently.  Perhaps my ‘random walk’ isn't quite so random after all, just 'unplanned' and delightfully full of serendipity. 

But what of art? After all, the tweet that started this particular hare running mentioned me alongside a talented local artist and an internationally renowned sculptor. I realise I've still not addressed the title or genesis of this post explicitly (although there is an implicit, perhaps tangential, reference via the wonderful Turner Contemporary gallery). I must make it crystal clear – another term calling out for scientific explanation, but not now – that I am not an artist. No, that's an understatement of huge proportions: when it comes to drawing, painting, modelling, ... I am close to hopeless. The drawing of me shown on the right, made in the sand at Joss Bay, North Kent, by my five-year old grandson Jacob, exemplifies a stage in ability that I have never really grown out of. Having said that, I love beautiful, challenging works by those who are indeed artists, and I am blessed with a wife who does have artistic ability and understanding (in spades!) and who has helped to open my eyes. Similarly, I am, if anything, even less musical than I am 'artistic' although I love listening to music – across a wide spectrum, and particularly when performed live. Thankfully, this lack of ability hasn't stopped me enjoying the challenge of trying to explain Chaos Theory to local communications guru and opera librettist Frank Burnet as he and his team create a new work: Butterfly. Now, up to a point, I can and do write, and I enjoy the ups and downs of the process that goes with it; were that not the case, neither this blog nor a great deal else besides would exist. However, my efforts are a long, long way from the award-winning fiction of my ex-colleague Emmi Itäranta or Nancy's captivating poetry (see links above). But that's the point surely ... that's exactly what makes my contact – no, my willing and naïve engagement with those whose talent does emerge within these areas such an adventure. Alex's tweet uncovered a truth I think. One can't help but be reminded of what J.R.R. Tolkein said through Bilbo: "It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door ... You step into the Road, and if you don't keep your feet, there is no telling where you might be swept off to."

Long may it remain so.

Monday, 16 June 2014

One day last week ...

I'm procrastinating. It's not something I'm prone to, but sometimes it happens. For months I have been meaning - indeed, wanting - to write a long and serious-minded reflection on the passing of a cornerstone research partnership that has been at the heart of my professional life for more than a decade ... but the words just won't come. So, here is my latest bit of illustrated frippery instead: one working day amongst so many, and the thoughts it evoked.

From time to time I get invited to do a job for another university or some other organisation. Sometimes these last for several years, like the approximately six years I spent, until last Autumn, as a member/chair of a couple of high-level Science & Technology Facility Council committees, and sometimes they last only a day or two (although usually requiring a bit - or a lot - of preparatory work). Acting as an external examiner for PhD students fall into the latter camp. Last week, however, I had a one-off role to fulfill which was new to me: acting as external assessor for a proposed new undergraduate course at the university at which I was myself a student many, many years ago. The details are irrelevant (and are, as one might expect, confidential) but the occasion illustrates nicely part of what it means to do the job I do. This was not a typical working day, far from it - and I'll probably not write about those in any depth until I have fully retired, but neither was it unusual. As with all such tasks it was voluntary and I had chosen to 'opt in' for the same reasons I decide on all such invitations: it sounded interesting, it might inform what I and my colleagues seek to do at my home university, it came from people I know/know of and who I like and/or respect, and I thought I had the knowledge and experience to make a reasonable stab at it. (That latter point is often the toughest hurdle by the way: chronic 'imposter syndrome' affects me and so many others ...)

The day began with my usual arrival at my office, shortly after 8 am; this gave time for a last scan for urgent e-mails before packing my small rucksack: my all-too-obviously old laptop (don't forget the charger, and the one for my 'phone!), necessary instructions and notes and something to read. I took the bio-fuelled Unibus into town and walked to the station (- Canterbury's attempt at coping with too many vehicles on 'Medieval' roads means that the bus no longer goes past the train station ...). The journey to Leicester was as straightforward as they all should be, and for this particular journey there was the added bonus of arriving at and leaving from the same mainline station: St Pancras. Since I had half an hour to kill before the service to Leicester, I started to wander around the upper levels. Although I'd seen and admired it on many occasions from the ground floor, this was I think the first time I'd looked closely at Martin Jennings' 2007 statue of the railway-loving poet John Betjeman. It really is a gem, overflowing with personality. There's another statue up there, which is so large that I was amazed I'd not seen it before: this is the 9 m tall The Meeting Place by Paul Day. It's a lovely statue, but what really caught my eye was the set of friezes encircling the base. They're fascinating in their own right, but it was a particular 'detail' I noticed; at three points the bronze has been especially noticeably polished by the touch of umpteen fingers: a dog's head, the pockets on the back of a woman's shorts and a child's outstretched hand. I carried these with me in my mind's eye for the rest of the day; they seemed to offer a commentary on life, or society, or some combination thereof.

In my humble opinion, the best route towards Leicester university means ignoring the instructions provided and heading across the road in front of the station and walking the three minutes or so required to reach New Walk (then turn left). This is, I think, one of the jewels of Leicester; from 'Vicky Park' at one end, it passes the university before reaching into the old heart of the city at the other: a Grade II listed pedestrian way tracing its origins back to the 18th century. It's proportions, green spaces and atmosphere of past-world leisure provide a great way to gather ones thoughts on the approach.
I first walked its length in 1972, as a student embarking on a degree in Physics (by mistake: I had applied to do Combined Sciences but someone there had ticked the wrong box; however, by happenstance, this matched my revised ambitions so I kept it to myself). The signs by the door are new, but the essence of the main student entrance remains the same today as it was back in the day. It's been totally remodeled internally during the intervening years, as has much of the rest of the compact central university campus. However, my job for the day would unfold in the Fielding Johnson building, itself Grade II listed and home to the university's managers and administrators (- although originally a lunatic asylum in the 19th century). Two hours later I was heading back down New Walk and on to a train southward.

I've been very fortunate of late to be invited to launch parties for two very different books, both written by women who have been or are my colleagues. One was associated with a novel, 'Memory of Water' by Emmi Itäranta, set at some time in the future after climate change and the associated societal upheavals have wrought their effect on the world. Emmi worked in my department for a while during the time she was writing this first book (originally in Finnish by the way) and I'm proud now to have a signed copy. I'm also distinctly envious of her ability to imbue her characters with such reality. However, it was the other one I packed to read on my homeward journey: 'Continental Drift' by Nancy Gaffield. Like her previous collection of poems, 'Tokaido Road', now also used to inspire the libretto for an opera, the effective solitude of a train journey seems somehow appropriate for the necessarily measured and contemplative reading required. (Tokaido Road was read, and re-read, on my way home from Glasgow University as I recall.) I love this second collection of poems as much as the first, although they are very different, but in this one I was confronted in one section of the book with the role of scientists within the Manhattan project and with the consequences of their work. An important part of Nancy's lineage has its roots in Japan, and I spent some time, almost 30 years ago, working at Los Alamos (albeit in the civil research side of things - armed guards and high fences blissfully isolated me and my colleagues from the military sections of the place). Poignant doesn't seem to cover it at all - in fact, my paucity of words and their use is one of the things thrown sharply into relief by the excellence of her writing.

After delays caused by trespassers on the lines near St Pancras and the associated knock-on effects, I eventually got home about 12 hours after I had left. Another day.

Monday, 19 May 2014

A colossal hello: reflections through time

Bletchley's evocative 'digitised' statue of the tragically iconic
Alan Turing, shown holding an Enigma encoder on his lap.
Last week was full: two days as a member of the Science Advisory Committee for the Diamond Light Source - 'swimming' in excellent science at a world-class research facility which is at the threshold of an exciting new phase in its work - and then a bit of R'nR via Bletchley Park and the National Museum of Computing. In truth, it was Bletchley Park I had planned to visit, but the Computing Museum is on the same sight - and crucially, it houses working reconstructions of two of the first digital computers ever designed and constructed, both of which were central to the code-breaking work of the Bletchley Park/Station-X operation. It's out of the juxtaposition of these two parts of my week that the reflections in this post emerge.

The Bletchley Park Trust has done a good job in renovating important parts of the original World War 2 site and in explaining the background to the work undertaken there. It is still a 'work in progress' - and I suspect it'll remain so for many years to come since there's a lot that's in need of re-building and then 'populating' with exhibits. What is there, however, is more than enough to illustrate the staggeringly high levels of intellectual ingenuity, doggedness and resourcefulness associated with this critical period in Britain's recent history. The Bombe and then Colossus computers, for instance, represented the first of their kind: the very beginning of digital electronic computing. To have taken this step at any time would have been a remarkable feat - to have done so as rapidly and successfully as they did under the pressures and privations of war-time is mind-blowing. The prototype Colossus, built from components used in the telephone industry of the day, contained 1500 valves - the forerunner to the transistor, thousands of which are built into even the simplest of  modern-day computer chips - and the final version, now reconstructed, required 2500 valves and consumed large quantities of electricity.
My simple video of this beast in operation illustrates the rhythm of its operations, but the noise of having several of these running simultaneously must have been unpleasant (although the heat output was presumably welcome in Winter-time). The 'program' is written/input using the small bank of switches on the grey panel (centre front, about 20s in - the thumbnail image above) and the 'data' is in the form of a loop of punched paper tape* (shown at the far end, whizzing around over motor-driven wheels, at about 25-35s). The banks of valves - one of which is still running from the 1940s - and the clank of relays are self-evident.

Enough of this nerdy eulogy. What struck me as I reflected on this week-of-two-halves was the degree to which the life of someone working at the forefront of STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) today resonates with that of 70 or so years ago, and yet is so very different. For example, my own research career has been characterized by a desire to work across the traditional boundaries between subject disciplines; although a physicist by training, my research team has comprised almost equal numbers of chemists and physicists. This conveyed enormous strength in that we could make the very best novel materials for experiments and then handle sophisticated mathematical models with which to analyse the data. Later on I also began working with industrial and bio-medical materials scientists. In more recent years, the call of 'science communication' and 'public engagement' has become a key passion in my working life and this has given me some golden opportunities to work with talented and creative people in the arts and humanities; I've written about some of this in earlier posts (here, and here). Two words encapsulate the generic approach: multi-disciplinary, i.e. synthesizing the distinct contributions from more than one area to provide a 'solution', and inter-disciplinary - wherein one uses from the outset the insights from more than one discipline (i.e. this is a 'new' avenue altogether: rather like the generation of chemical physics as a new subject by inter-twining physics and chemistry). Unquestionably, one gives up some depth of physics per se in order to bring in the other scientific disciplines, but the reward is being able to illuminate scientific puzzles that would not have yielded to any one discipline/method on its own. It struck me that the work at Bletchley, as portrayed at the Park site and in the various TV documentaries I have seen over the years, was multi-disciplinary more than it was inter-disciplinary, although a good deal of the latter was evident also. However, the resonance fades fairly rapidly at that point. For easily understood security reasons, the various experts at Bletchley - mathematicians, technicians, linguists, chess masters and so on - mostly worked in compartmentalized 'huts', often literally - such that no-one ever had sight of the wider picture as it were. This contrasts with the approach possible nowadays in which open research partnership is seen as the more valuable avenue.

There are other differences it seems to me: the rise of the spirit of individuality for instance, which can, if left unchecked, wreck the sort of research partnership I've just described, is arguably far stronger now than seems to have been the case in the 1930-40s. Would it be practicable to constrain the leading minds of today to work in the sort of way deemed necessary back then? Perhaps the times would dictate: I hope never to have to find out.

There is one other set of reflections that emerged from my mind's rubbing together of Bletchley and Diamond, and what they respectively signify in terms of approaches to research and the life scientific. In a famous lecture delivered by C.P. Snow - himself both a chemist and a writer -  a little over a decade after the creation of Colossus and which is still raised in debate today (see tweets/blog posts by Becky Higgitt for example for some sane analysis) we are presented with the Two Cultures model. Scientists, it is said, cannot converse meaningfully about their scientific endeavours with those from the arts and humanities; one can today hear terms like 'computer /scientific /mathematical literacy' - and by implication, illiteracy' - banded about relatively frequently. There is certainly an issue here, although it's often discussed in too simplistic a fashion, but there is also a fast-growing number of scientists (and those from across the STEM and related disciplines) who are committed to building bridges between these 'two cultures'. Were those working at Bletchley Park in the 1930s (when it began life as Station-X) and 1940s afflicted less in this way than it's claimed we are today? Certainly, the mix of experts working to a common overall cause was such that it's tempting to think there was the possibility of some remarkable meeting of minds - and the astonishing output from the place might lend support to that conclusion - but the intense security consciousness of their working environment might also degrade that opportunity. Evidently, one of the mistakes I made on this particular trip was to fail to buy an authoritative account: there were plenty of tempting books on sale there, but I already have such a deep pile of books awaiting my attention ...


As a visitor to the rebuild of Colossus I was handed a short
section of tape: I show a scan of it here, with my 'translation'.
* Punched paper tape? Although I'm not quite old enough to have been alive when these very first electronic digital computers emerged I have witnessed a lot of the key stages in their development thus far. I first started using punched cards, and then the paper tape analogue, when I was a student; all the way through to my first salaried research contract the other side of my PhD I was still using them - only later did magnetic tape arrive in force, to be followed by a multitude of magnetic-based storage thereafter all the way to hard drives, flash memory and so on. The 'code' was developed a century ago when the first teleprinters emerged (think text messaging crossed with Morse code) and in an efficient series of holes punched in a paper ribbon about 17 mm (3/4") wide it was possible to convey all the alphanumeric characters. The tape developed over time (e.g. to end up 25 mm, 1", wide) but the fundamentals remained the same.



Monday, 5 May 2014

Media me (or, "It's life Jim, but not as we know it.")

I had some good news a few days back, which has the potential to turn into something really exciting - and immensely scary at the same time: I have been, I am told, short-listed for a British Science Association Media Fellowship. As I understand the process, my application has successfully past some sort of BSA filter and my details have now been forwarded to several national media organisations for their consideration. Will I make the team or, as in most of my school sports lessons, return to the sidelines? Time will tell. However, what did begin to bubble back to the surface on hearing this news was an idea for a post I had ages ago but haven't had the time to pull together until today. I have been 'in the media' before, just not in any way that would stand review by those with more serious intent in the area. In fact, I've been captured in some form of media or another, if that's a sensible term for it, as result of what I can only describe as a random walk
(a characteristic of much of my professional life - although I prefer the term used by one colleague who described me as a nomad) or perhaps a more accurate term would be a series of 'accidents'. I realise that this makes it all sound like an ill-advised midnight stroll through Tolkein's Dead Marshes, which is over-doing things a bit, but ...

My first serious encounter was during my PhD years, which really was a long time ago - decades in fact, when I agreed to be interviewed by someone from a local radio station about my job. (There's the first curio: my PhD as a job!) I was naive, the questions were far from being open and the editing was worse. This was an intensely unhappy experience that I have sought to expunge from my memory ever since, to no avail. However, we should learn from our mistakes as we move on; in my case this amounted to hiding in cupboards, metaphorically speaking, whenever anything remotely similar ever arose again in any sort of conversation. Thankfully, even for a slow learner like me, it's possible to get beyond such events. Having said that, I've never tried my hand at a radio interview since then - still less an interview for TV, although I did enjoy the media training course offered as part of staff development training. This will come as no surprise to those of you used to reading my long sentences, but the one bit of negative feedback I was given after my trial-run live interview in front of a camera related to my use of ... yes, long sentences. Apparently, one of these lasted 35 seconds. I was told that, in the hands of some editors, I could be made to say something quite different to what I actually said. Hmm, I think I've already met one of them. Time to speak in soundbites?

Moving swiftly on, we get to a request from my highly talented primary school teacher son. He was, at the time, running an after-school club focused on creating animated films (oh, how things have changed) and told me the kids wanted and 'old-sounding voice' to narrate the script they'd written. Such flattery, how could I refuse! Armed with their script and the MP3 recorder I use to record lectures for my students, and with the animation running on a laptop in front of me, I duly declaimed. It was a lot of fun; do I sound 'old' to you? My career as a voice-over artist didn't end there. In earlier posts I wrote about my delight at working with folk at the Turner Contemporary gallery; out of this relationship has come, amongst other less easily identified things, a couple of short films in which my voice-of-a-scientist crops up. The first of these, an animation, represents a project, sponsored under the Prosper banner of Canterbury Festival, which brought together scientists and artists to talk about their respective, complementary, reactions to an exhibition of sculptures by American minimalist sculptor Carl Andre. More recently, I wore my scientist's hat in conversation with a group of young people from the area who were being supported in the making of a film under the heading Life in Technicolour. Both of
these were more fun to do than I could sensibly describe - mostly coming from the opportunity to work with talented, creative and enthusiastic people.

We are told in Shakespeare's Twelve Night that some achieve greatness whilst others have it thrust upon them: my next immortalisation in media was of the latter kind. A student I taught, Andrew Payne, who was later to graduate with a great degree and then move to Oxford for a PhD, decided to cut snippets from my lecture audio recordings - a module on Matter as I recall - an dub them onto a piece of music. I only found out about it
after it had travelled, viral fashion, around the student body; I took it as a compliment, and still do. In order that you can enjoy this as well I've added one of my photographs so I can upload it to YouTube as a video: it benefits from volume and decent bass*. At this point I ought to confess that I have thrust media exposure of sorts onto others as well. As a result of one of those lunchtime conversations that sometimes emerge in the middle of an important but tiring meeting, I accepted the challenge of tracking down a recording of a song. It was written and used as the finale to a stage review presented each year by the staff at the Daresbury Laboratory's Synchrotron Radiation Source for their research community visitors at an annual conference. One thing led to another, and e-mail exchanges with one long-retired colleague who knew another who ..., until it was finally agreed that the song would be re-recorded by its author and oft-performer, Ken Lea. The Synchrotron Song, an echo of a seemingly long-lost past, is now preserved for the wonder/amusement of the current generation of synchrotron light source researchers.

These are all very minor examples of ways in which I have touched upon the fringes of media-life, which is a strange but curiously enjoyable form of existence. I could perhaps add to that innumerable numbers of audio recordings of my lectures and talks, an attempt at filming a talk in a local museum and so on, but that arguably adds nothing much to what I've already said. Instead, I'll end by pointing you towards the work of people I met during the Canterbury Festival/Prosper experiments mentioned earlier and who I have been able to stay in touch with ever since (with the help of Twitter). As a director and script writer I've come to admire the work of Sam Supple who, with skilled producer Debra McGee, founded and runs a locally-based film company, Viola Films. The thoughtful piece that first caught my eye was a short film, made using local talent, which is highly topical in this World War 1 centenary year: Time Bleeds. But I'd also point you towards another of their short films: this one an imagined look into the earlier life of Charles Dicken's character Abel Magwitch. Now, there's a life in media for you!


* The music is Tractor Beam by Eat Static, which is used with their kind permission; the image is of Bulkhead by Rick Kirby and this stands outside the Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury, UK.