Friday, 4 December 2015

On a Break (from retirement that is)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Existing posts in the career-reflections series (i.e. the series I ought to have been finishing):
1) The Girt Pike – beginnings and transitions.
2) Do Labels Last a Lifetime? – people and other influences.
3) Nomadic Research: random walk or purposeful journey? – a timeline in research
4) Tools of the Trade – instruments and gadgets.
5) Suitcase Science: travelling in hope

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Suitcase Science: travelling in hope

(Reflections on a life in science: #5 tales from a travelling scientist)

I am told that the Head of Department who had, earlier that year, appointed me to my one-and-only academic post launched into a speech of welcome at the staff Christmas party. I think it was in this context that the labels ‘suitcase scientist’ and ‘seasoned traveller’ were used (but perhaps those came in a later newsletter piece and I am conflating memories …). Unfortunately, by the time he felt it appropriate to quieten the gathering in order to speak, my wife and I had already left. A somewhat inauspicious event one might imagine; it certainly caused me more than a little discomfort when I found out about it, despite the fact that I had acted in complete ignorance of the planned formal welcome. Thankfully, he made no mention of it to me and evidently managed to move on; eventually, so did I. However, the label ‘suitcase scientist’ stuck with me for years and it is against that backdrop that I thought it might be interesting to review the less lustrous side of my research travels. Things that can, and do, go wrong and consequently mar the supposed glamour. However, before embarking on this trail of woes it is important to point out that in about four decades of research, the bulk of which has been dependent upon experiments at shared sophisticated national/international facilities distant from my university base, the outcomes of which are oft-times shared through conferences in one location or another, everything has progressed uneventfully, even pleasantly. Indeed, so uneventful in many cases that one might almost refer to it as blissfully boring.
The original Physics Laboratory building, site of that first staff Christmas party in 1985. (Line drawing by my wife; the 'social area' venue - now one of several snack bars - was behind the ground floor plate glass windows shown on the left.)

El Rancho will start the ball rolling in style. Against the backdrop of a difficult period for science funding in the mid-1980s, I was seconded from my job at the UK’s pulsed neutron facility (here) to the neutron research facility (here) housed in the ‘open’ part of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico (LANL). With my wife and our two-year old daughter we made the long haul for a four-plus month sojourn in this southwestern corner of the USA.* It really was a long haul: London to New York to Albuquerque, where we collapsed into hotel beds for a jet-lagged night before taking an 18-seater twin-prop for the final flight to Los Alamos. Oh how lovely it was to meet our hosts, with whom we stayed for a few days before decamping again, this time in our ‘compact’ leased car, to the single story house we had agreed to rent for the duration. The rental had been arranged prior to our journey via an office at LANL, although they were careful to point out that they were acting only as go-betweens. El Rancho was a small town at the end of a dirt road about 1000 m down from the 2000+ m elevation of the Los Alamos mesa; New Mexico can be hot in Summer, but altitude provides some relief from this and adds the benefit of low humidity – El Rancho had, shall we say, fewer such benefits. The property was of regionally typical adobe construction, and were there no other considerations one might have thought it quaintly reminiscent of the Old West (- we’re not far from the Rio Grande and from the Pecos wilderness, and Sante Fe was ‘only’ an hour away across the desert). However, the warning signs began to emerge very rapidly. Even before entering the house we were told that a neighbour had very recently been shot and killed on his drive and that alcohol-related crime was not uncommon. Inside the house we discovered informative documents laid out for us concerning the existence of rabies and the prevalence of fleas carrying ‘bubonic plague’ via the local mammals. We were also warned of venomous snakes and insects (noting the log pile just outside the door) before exploring further and finding that the beds comprised mattresses on the floor – one of which had a hanging basket of indoor plants (hosting goodness knows what) suspended over it. Imagine it: hot, vaguely hostile and insecure, and us with a two year old child. The final straw came early the next morning, after a less than completely restful night. The water for the house came directly from a bore hole via an electric pump; the water first turned yellow and then sputtered into nothingness. We learned later that this is not uncommon in the summertime, but no-one had mentioned this to us beforehand. We gave notice and left, a month’s rent out of pocket.

There was a silver lining, which began in the kindness of strangers in this strange land. Not only did my long-suffering host’s family generously offer to put us up again for a period, but after a visit from my wife a local realtor (= estate agent in the UK) took it upon herself to sort something out for us. She very quickly put us into a vacant unfurnished house for the interim, for which my new colleagues offered sufficient furniture to enable us to ‘camp’ there for a few weeks, before she come up with a delightful small apartment in the central part of town. What stars these folk were.

Unfortunately, there are a couple of other unpleasant stories associated with travelling to and from LANL as part of this project. If you’re nervous about flying then I suggest skipping this paragraph; seriously, move on. One occurrence concerns a problem with a DC10 that took me from London to the Dallas-Fort Worth gateway. On this occasion I was travelling with my UK line manager. Less than an hour out of Dallas there was a loud bang and almost immediately the plane began to descend. The descent was very rapid but, not that I’m an expert, it didn’t seem to be uncontrolled; in a strange way, the more concerning thing was observing the flight attendants rapidly strapping themselves into their seats. The other noticeable thing was the silence in the cabin: no outward panic, no screaming and shouting, just silence. People were lost in their own thoughts and prayers. After what seemed like several minutes, but was probably far less, someone from the flight deck informed us, in a voice that I recall as being almost laconic in its measured control, that a compressor which operated part of the landing gear hydraulics had ‘blown’ and that the landing might prove to be a little bumpy. We circled for a while and then began our final runway approach – which turned out to be towards a runway having all sorts of emergency vehicles ready and waiting to chase us as we touched down. The landing turned out to be as smooth as most are and after disembarking, clearing immigration, collecting our luggage and going through customs, my boss and I walked across the airport to our connecting flight; back in the saddle one might say. I have delighted in ‘boring’ flights ever since. The second bit of excitement takes us to a winter blizzard swirling around the canyon-bordered finger of land that was the Los Alamos local airport. This was a white-out of significant proportions. I had chosen this, unwittingly, as my arrival time from Albuquerque (two hours away by car, and bathed in winter sunshine as I recall) on the small twin-prop STOL (Short Take-Off and Landing) plane that made the trip several times a day. These were normally relaxed flights, in the days when the pilot could pin back the cabin door and chat with passengers. On this occasion, we were instructed to strap ourselves firmly into our seats as he would need to undertake a powered dive down towards the runway in order to counteract the effects of the turbulent wind coming up the canyon walls. This was unquestionably more exhilarating than I’d have chosen it to be but, again, all went well.

Despite having read many of George Orwell’s books, I’ve never read his first full-length one: ‘Down and out in Paris and London’. It’s reputed to be semi-autobiographical, and although I suspect I could compete with him on some biographical fronts (- although perhaps not quite in the style of Monty Python shown here) my own tale of Parisian woe is
far more modest. Back in the days of yore, before mobile ’phones and when my wallet had yet to house a credit card, I found myself stranded in Paris. This misfortune arose from the inefficiency of the travel office that my university obliged us to use back then (the late 1980s): they had used the summer timetable to book my train tickets to/from the Institut Laue-Langevin in Grenoble, France so that I could conduct a few experiments there – but this was wintertime. The times happened to be the same on the outward journey, and even on the Sunday return journey the initial Grenoble-Paris leg maintained my state of blissful ignorance. It was only once I’d crossed Paris to the Gard du Nord that the reality of my situation became evident: the last train of the day had already departed for the Calais ferry terminal. To say that I’m limited to survival-level schoolboy French is to be kind, but at least I could make a reasonable job of pronouncing the words in a phrase book, and armed with this I found an enquiry window still open in the station. In broken French and equally broken English the two of us came up with the agreed facts of my predicament and the only practicable options – I won’t call them solutions – to address the situation. There were no trains to Calais for more than 12 hours and the news regarding Boulogne was no better. I had very little currency with me: barely enough for some food, let alone a cheap hotel for the night. I could however cross Paris to Gare Saint-Lazare and use my existing ticket to get to Dieppe on a very early morning train and thence across to Newhaven. I’m not sure why I chose the latter option, although I suspect it simply felt better to be doing something rather than nothing. Off I went. I found somewhere to sit in the station concourse which looked quiet but wasn’t isolated, and I settled in to watch the night away. It happened to have been the day of a France v. Wales rugby match which at least meant I had a few wandering groups of fans, arms around each other to steady their wandering progress, to break the stressful monotony. I also got to see pools of yellow light emerge from dark corners now again as a match was moved to and fro under some aluminium foil for a while. Ah, the glamour of international science research. It was still fairly dark when I got on the train; never have I been happier to sit in an old and grubby carriage. I don’t recall speaking to anyone until I was on the ferry and in one of the lounges. The crossing took about four hours and everyone seemed to want to while away the time chatting to neighbours (- apart from a few rugby fans who were, evidently, hunting down a ticket tout accused of all sorts of wickedness). A rough-and-ready game of ‘What’s my Line’ seemed to emerge. One of our party was apparently returning to the UK after having run away some years before to join the Foreign Legion; I knew enough not to ask for additional details. Story-telling added something quite positive to the journey, whatever the veracity of their content. Amusingly, my coyness about volunteering that I was a physicist – learnt through years of watching eyes glaze over – led to the conclusion that I worked for the secret service; my amused denials of this seemed only to convince my companions all the more. I slept for a long time when I finally reached home.

Then come the riots and the earthquakes: oh yes, all the best stuff comes to us suitcase scientists. Although a year or two apart, both took place in San Francisco whilst I was there presenting research outcomes to a very large annual conference (- well over 1000 delegates, spread across more than two dozen themes running in parallel). I can brush off the earthquake as it happened at night and I was completely ignorant of it until hearing the news over breakfast. Thankfully, the damage was relatively minor and there were no serious injuries. It’s hard to miss or to forget a riot though. The troubles (see here for background/cause) were centred in Los Angeles, but rapidly spread along the coast. Along with two members of my research team, I was staying in a hotel a few blocks from the conference venue; as was our habit, we met in the lobby that evening in order to find somewhere to eat. However, there were armed security guards on the door and we were politely advised to eat in the hotel that evening. One doesn’t argue against advice of that nature. After the meal we sat in darkness in whoever’s room was on the highest level and watched it all progress through its scary sadness. Helicopters beamed spot-lights from above; small fires illuminated the unfolding tableaux below. By the morning, all was silent. We walked guardedly to our conference venue, passing shop front after shop front with their new borders of shattered plate glass fragments; it was a sobering sight.

The saddest story of all is a particularly personal one. I was spending a couple of weeks doing some experiments at a research centre at Studsvik in Sweden (now closed, here). It wasn’t an easy place to get to: a flight to Stockholm followed by a train journey of more than an hour to Nyköping, here) and a final 45-minute bus ride to the Studsvik site. In many ways this was a lovely place to work, sited as it was on the shores of an inlet off the Baltic Sea and within the woodland home of moose and other animals – but it was definitely isolated. For the duration, I shared one of the self-catering houses reserved for visiting scientists and engineers. In the early hours of one particular morning one of my housemates woke me to say I was wanted on the ’phone. It was my wife, informing me that my father had been taken seriously ill and that I ought to get back to the UK as soon as I could. Nothing could be done until the local staff started work; they were wonderfully helpful in terms of sorting out flight changes and getting me to Nyköping station, but I nevertheless arrived far too late. There is far more I could add at this point, but I’ll refrain.

I could talk about the sounds that kept me awake as they came through thin walls in cheap hotels used during the early years of my many experiments at the ILL in Grenoble, France (see here, and also, in later years, here), or of being stuck on trains and in airports in all sorts of places. I could mention the tight timing between an experiment and getting to my own wedding, and the longer-term issues associated with managing a sustainable work:life balance when so much of the work had to be conducted away from my home base. I won’t do that: I’ve probably written too much as it is, and you’ve probably got enough of your own ‘horror stories’ already. I will finish simply by reiterating that these tales represent the exception: most of my travels as a ‘suitcase scientist’ have been, as I said earlier, blissfully uneventful and for that I am grateful. Moreover, as I’ve said many times before, I have in the process been afforded the opportunity to make a small contribution to our knowledge of the material world around us, and I’ve had as an integral part of my job the privilege of meeting and working alongside some lovely, talented and creative people.

Earlier posts in this series:
1) The Girt Pike – beginnings and transitions.
2) Do Labels Last a Lifetime? – people and other influences.
3) Nomadic Research: random walk or purposeful journey? – a timeline in research
4) Tools of the Trade – instruments and gadgets.

* In fact, although the three of us were there for less than five months, the project I was running extended over 15 months and as a consequence I made the return trip no fewer than five times for repeat stays of two or three weeks at a time. I wrote a little about this work here in the fourth paragraph; I’ll pick up on this again in a later post I hope.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Tools of the Trade

(Reflections on a life in science: #4 instruments and gadgets)

Vacillation and procrastination are amongst the enemies of this series of posts, as well as the unexpectedly long time it takes to choreograph and follow the steps necessary to achieve a relatively ordered transition into retirement. My office is now reasonably clear, although there are several boxes of ‘stuff’ that still need to be transported home and squeezed into our painfully re-organised study; thankfully, this volume has been much reduced by a sustained programme of scanning – computer files are so much easier to handle and store. I also need to summon up the reserves needed in order to release the majority of my beloved collection of books into the hands of students, colleagues and charities: about five metres of them still await their fate. What I am bringing home falls into two broad camps: the useful (what I’ll continue to use in public talks on glass etc.) and the sentimental. There are however several items I’d love to have been able to keep but must simply photograph or scan and leave behind. Amongst these I include a few samples and measurement cells from truly key experiments – I don’t want the headaches associated with their safe disposal and so will gratefully rely on the services of our technical support team – and the more bizarre items like the 1926 Kelvin Double Bridge shown below.

Rescued before it ended up in a skip, this thing of beauty has served as a talking point, a coffee table and a footstool in my office for a great many years. It has ‘broken the ice’ with innumerable visitors, alongside the impressive high voltage rectifying valve from a WW2 radar unit and my home-made ‘sol-gel’ clock. (To give you an idea of dimensions: the Kelvin Double Bridge has an approximate box size of 64x46x25 cm – or 25x18x10 inches in its original context – and weighs a lot. It is going to a good home, but I’ll miss it. The vacuum valve is about 40 cm tall)

However, I mostly wanted to record a few of the ‘artefacts’ associated with my career that I have dragged out of various cupboards or off high shelves. Apart from the inevitable nostalgia, it’s been a sobering process in certain respects. The area of numerical calculation for example, which is intrinsic to the physical sciences, represents a particularly notable progression: my career grew out from the days before personal computers and electronic calculators. Similarly, I began my life as a scientist relying on hand-written documents and carefully drawn diagrams and graphs; even with a typewriter available the equations would remain hand written, and modern-style printers scanners and photocopiers were unheard of. Open access to telephones (landlines all) was reserved for the more senior people, and international calls were very rare indeed. The arrival of fax machines represented a huge step forward in timely communication, with e-mail and the internet following on behind; indeed, I still love the idea of e-mail’s immediacy – even though I have long-since tired of all the dross that gets transmitted. I might add a little context here by mentioning that I was the first regular user of e-mail in the Science Faculty of my university, that I defined the first framework for our presence on the web (and later chaired a working party to do much the same for the university as a whole), and that I had one of the first ‘personal’ desktop word processors in the Faculty; much of this practice I brought with me when I moved from the Rutherford-Appleton Laboratory to take up my new academic position. It’s easy to see why, on reflection, I have been a little taken aback as I review the scale of developments during one modest scientific career. In essence, this post comprises a collection of images with a bit of surrounding prose; it is in that sense even more self-indulgent than earlier posts in this series.
These are some of the artefacts from the more ancient levels of my career. Compasses, protractors and set-squares were ‘universal’, and are still used now; ‘Rotring’ pens and stencils, flexi-curves and Letraset transfer sheets  were arguably a little more specialist in their nature. My detailed calculations were initially performed using four-figure Log Tables, later up-graded to five-figure when more precision was required; the double-sided slide rule enabled fast ‘reasonable’ estimations to be performed. (By the way, slide rule operations were themselves based on the use of logarithms: for example, adding/subtracting lengths to perform multiplication/division.) The first truly ‘consumer-level’ hand-held calculator I saw, in the hands of a fellow undergraduate with rather more cash at his disposal than I had, was the Sinclair Scientific. I didn’t get a calculator myself until I was part way through my PhD; the one shown above is the second one I purchased – it handled all but the most protracted calculations required for my thesis (The Electronic Transport Properties of some Liquid Metals and Alloys, finished in 1978 and awarded the following year).

I’ve written before (here) of my visit to the working re-build of the very first electronic computer: Colossus, at the National Museum of Computing, next door to Bletchley Park. I’m buoyed by the fact that my own first experience of ‘high-level’ computing was on a machine – the PDP11 should you wish to know – which by modern standards wasn’t fast, but at least that didn’t run on valves. The programming language required, which we learnt in one of the post-exams courses we were obliged to take as first- and second-year students, was the rather inelegant Basic. Even so, as a course exercise, I managed to write a working programme to balance instrument packages aboard an imagined multi-level spinning orbital satellite. Later calculations, necessary for some of the final parts of my PhD research, were based on the much more powerful (although now passé) Fortran-IV language; these had to be run in something called ‘batch mode’, meaning, in essence, ‘overnight’. Current desktop computers and laptops are far, far faster and easier to use.
These are all relics of a bygone age of numerical computing. Although lighter and in many ways more convenient, the paper tape was nevertheless fragile: one tear could wreck several metres of program and/or data. Punched cards were certainly more robust, but a failure to stick to colour-codes for the various parts of a batched computer run (delineating program, data, end-of-section etc.) or to number each card within a given section would be disastrous if the deck of cards, which might be over a thousand deep, were to be dropped! For my early neutron scattering experiments I bought a large rucksack simply to carry the data on the train back to my university. Magnetic tape represented a huge step forward (this one, about 1 km long and in a roll of diameter approximately 27 cm, holds datasets from the 1980s at 3250 ‘bits per inch’ and is essentially unusable now – it’ll be destroyed). The output from each batch run could be on tape/card, but it wasn’t at all uncommon to get results printed onto fan-fold paper; print-outs of programs etc. would be done in the same way.

Let’s move on from numerical calculation. One of the many documents I have flicked through as I decided whether to recycle their paper, scan them or keep the original was my final year undergraduate research project report. The report was the first thing I had authored which made it to type: a friendly typist agreed to do the text part, and I inserted the equations, graphs/figures/diagrams by hand using the tools illustrated above. In order to have a copy of this for myself the typist had to use carbon paper between the top sheet of paper and a second one beneath* – and I had to re-draw everything else! The production of my PhD thesis was a little more advanced. After I had written it all out by hand another typist, in this case a friend who was under-employed and bored in her role in another department, typed up the text and my recently-wedded wife and I spent four long days inserting the mathematical content in the spaces left for the purpose. For this, we had the loan of our friend’s ‘golf ball’ typewriter which I augmented with a ‘ball’ of maths/science-related symbols I purchased. However, all the diagrams and graphs still had to be drawn by hand. I’m not an expert draughtsman, far from it, so I ‘cheated’ a little: everything was done on A3 paper, using my Rotring pens, letraset sheets, flexicurve etc., and then photographically reduced to A4 – that way, all my small mistakes were rendered ‘invisible’. (In passing, one might also reflect on the fact that there were photographic darkrooms aplenty back then and one could make a living doing this sort of thing. The story of photography, however, is well outside the scope of this post.) It took me almost six months to generate the top copy of my PhD thesis. Thankfully, photocopier machines had begun to appear by then and the university had a couple of them in its main library; I gratefully paid to have the requisite copies generated – indeed, I’d have gone without food in order to cover the cost if that’s what it would have taken. Research students have in more recent times asked about the curious formatting rules & regulations they had to follow in order to submit their own theses: many of these were anachronisms associated with the laborious nature of generating a thesis ‘in the old days’. For instance, although self-limiting in some senses, strict page/word limits were imposed in order to render the task tractable#; double-spacing to the lines of text allowed one to incorporate by hand any small corrections or revisions required by the examiners (imagine having the retype an entire section in order to correct a few words!); wide margins enabled the binder to guillotine the pages more than once if new pages needed to be inserted. Word processing, scanning, drawing packages, printers and so on have rendered all this work so much easier. Bliss.

Three pages from my PhD thesis are shown above in order to illustrate the laborious nature of its production – even setting aside the preceding 30 months or so of experimentation, reading, calculation and so on. The diagram on the left is of a bespoke sample measurement cell I made (in fact, I made several of them … more below); drawn on A3 paper with pens and stencils and then reduced to A4 to yield this final result. In like manner, the graph next to it was put together; note that each and every data point and error bar was hand-applied. On the right is a page of equations typed, symbol by symbol, under my guidance by my wife into the space left for it by my volunteer typist.

Now to the equipment – all those things required in order to get the results I needed. Developments have been no less remarkable in this sphere. If you’ve read the opening post in this pre-retirement series (here) you’ll have realised that I gravitate to the experimental side of the sciences; the more hands-on the better. It’s a mild curiosity then that at the heart of my undergraduate final year project was a rather impressive, and presumably expensive, ‘off-the-shelf’ spectrometer (see below). However, my PhD years put all that to rights. Not only did I piece together a project from ‘clues’ left by an absent supervisor, who referred me to the log book of an academic visitor who had by then returned to the his home in the USA, but, almost literally, I had to piece together much of the equipment necessary to make it happen. The sad truth is that there was next-to-no funding for this work, so if I didn’t do it myself it wouldn’t get done. To cut a very long story short, which is lodged forever in my memory, and formative within my evolving research ethos, I built my own furnaces in order to make my chosen molten metal alloys. I designed and built others then to hold these samples at precise temperatures in vacuum. I also had to design and fabricate the calibration/measurement cells to fit inside the furnaces such that I could accurately probe a given sample for its electronic properties (resistivity and thermopower). There was plenty of scope for hands-on experimental science. I have no recollection of any formal risk assessments being carried out at the time; in practice we were all aware of the potential hazards and took reasonable steps to mitigate the possible consequences. Having said that, I recall finding out what happens when one (accidentally) shorts the 12V car battery being used to drive a motor on a screw-jack: did you know that one could spot-weld things together quite effectively that way? I think I'd better stop at this foolish accident and say no more ...

I could go on for quite a while about instruments, equipment design and development and so on. Indeed, there is probably enough material for several posts on the ups and the downs of equipment and instrumentation developments alone. However, I must discipline myself to focus on the goal originally set: a themed skip through the decades, picking out a number of examples along the way. I hope to write a post at some stage on the more major projects I’ve been involved with, but that’s not my intent now. Herewith a few more pictures, and the necessary explanatory words …

Shown above is the EPR spectrometer (electron paramagnetic resonance at the heart of my undergraduate final year project. I’ve mentioned this in an earlier post (here) in the present series; it was the first ‘off-the-shelf’, ‘big-league’ item of equipment I ever used but despite its impact on me at the time you’ll spot that the controls are mostly analogue rather than digital and the output of results comprised a plot from a chart recorder. Note also the hand-written labels to the report’s photograph, which itself was of necessity limited to monochrome.

This painting by my wife illustrates the contrast rather well as I entered the world of an almost completely unfunded PhD project: the inset caption is from my thesis and blandly mentions the need to calibrate each of the measurement cells I made. The calibration setup I put together relied on a modified marmite jar (which had more robust metal lids at the time), rubber sheeting, cling film, masking tape and a contact adhesive. I need say no more.

These are the principal furnaces used: the vertical one on the left, which stood about 2m tall and accessed temperatures in the region 1600°C, and the smaller more ‘flexible’ unit on the right. The latter was made by me from scratch – from winding and cementing the heating wire onto the furnace tube through to the vacuum system. Notice the very early ‘computer’ on the desktop for data collection and basic analysis (details here); this contrasts nicely with the fact that I raised and lowered the furnace using a old car jack. Look carefully and you may also notice, on the shelf to the upper left of this image, the dark glass of the marmite calibration unit mentioned earlier and the plastic bottle of liquid mercury used as a ‘model’ for my high temperature molten alloys.
These are some of the measurement cells I fabricated in order to study the electronic properties of molten metals. For those alloys melting below about 1250°C I used pure silica glass. This meant learning enough glass blowing to fuse a length of wide-bore tubing to a capillary tube (the walls of which I drilled through in places, using an ultrasonic drill and a hand-made drill bit, and ‘plugged’ using hand-finished graphite pegs to allow electrical connection through to the liquid metal). The assembly shown here had a total length of about 40 cm. For the higher temperature work, which went up to almost 1700°C, I had to use multi-bore alumina tubing (the ceramic version of sapphire) and use a diamond wheel to grind the end to provide the right sort of shape to get the resistivity measurements when dipped into the liquid metal. The bottom right-hand image shows the ground tip of the alumina tube next to the end of one of my fingers in order to provide a bit of scale. There’s a lot more to it, as you might expect, but you’d need to read extracts from my PhD thesis for that …

Earlier posts in this series:
1) The Girt Pike – beginnings and transitions.
2) Do Labels Last a Lifetime? – people and other influences.
3) Nomadic Research: random walk or purposeful journey? – a timeline in research

* hence the term ‘carbon copy’: the ‘CC’ used in so many e-mails. If a third, often secret (i.e. ‘blind’) copy were to be made – transmuted to the ‘BCC’ line in e-mail headers – then another sheet of carbon paper and third sheet of plain paper were required; the quality of this additional copy was generally very poor. 

# It is also important to ensure that students are able to communicate their science in an effective manner, and that never requires ‘padding’ the text. Furthermore, one’s examiners are likely to baulk at having to read and assess an overly thesis: I know, I’ve examined a great many since those early days.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Nomadic Research: random walk or purposeful journey?

(Reflections on a life in science: #3 a timeline in research)

A respected colleague once referred to my research as ‘nomadic’ by way of explaining, to his satisfaction at least, why I wasn’t ‘known’ for something in particular. Many scientists specialize relatively early on in their professional careers and then dig ever-deeper into their chosen patch in the expectation of unearthing key, fundamental insights. We need people like that; they offer the potential for solid long-term foundations to our understanding of the world – but I could never aspire to be one of them. I’ve written about this before (e.g. here and here) and continue to offer no excuse for my pseudo-random walk through science. More than that, I will assert that I wouldn’t have it any other way: to have been able to ‘follow my nose’ across all sorts of traditional boundaries and through several interfaces has been a wonderfully exciting privilege and pleasure. It’s nigh-on impossible to say when or how this mind-set had its genesis or took root. Perhaps the fact that I had chosen to study combined sciences at the university I attended but ended up taking a Physics degree because of an (unchallenged – one simply didn’t!) administrative mistake prior to my arrival (see here) is at least a ‘symptomatic’ place to start.
Substitute Mrs Newport for “Mrs Brown” and the picture is complete.     (Explainer: for the non-specialist cartoon-lover: Robert Brown gave his name to Brownian Motion  – the observed random movement of small particles as they are buffeted by even smaller, ‘invisible’, particles; The classic example is that of floating pollen grains observed under a microscope as they suffer impacts with water molecules.)

Undertaking a degree in Physics didn’t ‘cure’ me of my ‘nomadic tendencies’ at all, any more than my year two primary school teacher stopped me gesticulating when I talk by making me sit on my hands. In my final year project I found myself using a technique which would have been well-understood by many chemists in order to study a metal salt in aqueous solution (electron spin resonance, ESR, sometimes EPR: paramagnetic). This is not the stuff of a classic physics project. Out of that I was attracted to and then recruited into a PhD by someone (see here) who would later publish a paper with the title “Liquid State Physics, or is it Chemistry?”. So, the die was cast well before I launched my own line in research. Indeed, even if one abandons the notion that this represents a genuinely considered multi-disciplinary approach to science at what was then a rather embryonic stage, there were nevertheless clear signs of nomadic tendencies in other respects. The focus of my early-stage career shifted many times, even before becoming a university lecturer and expected to define, resource and pursue an independent line of research alongside other core duties. From that early dalliance with ESR and the aqueous solutions of manganese sulfate and chloride I moved into the electrical properties of liquid metals as my PhD work. Thereafter, as a ‘postdoc’ earning my first salary, into the atomic-scale structural properties of molten salts; on to the synthesis and optical properties of amorphous thin-film semiconductors, and then neutron spectroscopy instrumentation and the electronic structure of semi-metals. I was still only 30 years old at this point. One might add to this the geographical moves that were associated with this progression: several years in Leicester (with experiments elsewhere, including France), then Oxfordshire and the USA before finally landing in Kent.
Part and parcel of a PhD, especially in the days before computer-controlled equipment (as was the case for my early research) is working ‘all hours’. Indeed, I was the founding member of the 36-hour club during my PhD: running single experiments requiring ones presence for at least a day and a half! To avoid being grilled during a (rare) visit from Security in the late watches of the night one needed formal permission: this one signed by my then Head of Department and PhD supervisor John Enderby (later Professor Sir John Enderby FRS). See also here.

After gaining a BSc, a PhD and some postdoctoral research experience whilst based at Leicester I moved to the pulsed neutron scattering facility (then called the SNS – spallation neutron source – now the ISIS neutron and muon facility) at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. In the early ’80s UK universities were under immense pressure and there seemed to be no longer-term future there for a young postdoc such as myself, so this was a move that needed to happen. Although nowhere is ‘perfect’, it was in most respects a great place to work for the years I was there. I was particularly privileged to have lead responsibility for one of its ‘Day 1’ beamlines, the electron-volt spectrometer – eVS. For a little over three years I steeped myself in instrumentation design, in completely new areas of physics, in writing major computer packages, in project management, … the ‘learning curve’ was very steep indeed. It is a rare thing for a scientist to be ‘in at the ground floor’ of a major international research facility, to have walked around the beast during its construction and have been able to reach out and touch the massive and complex bits of kit which were destined to be inaccessible once the eventual operational phase commenced. To have been there, in a dedicated team sharing a common overall goal, to witness the moment when the whole thing is switched on and comes to life, was a once-in-a-career experience.
The ‘Day 1’ layout for the ISIS pulsed neutron source (left - eVS is the 'long' beamline at roughly the '7 minutes past' position); top right is a picture of me with the ‘business end’ of the eVS beamline – the spectrometer itself, which I took to the USA for early tests before its installation at ISIS – and below right are top and side elevations of the beamline from my collection of original design drawings/blueprints.

However, stepping back just a little, one of the accidental outcomes of a slow-down in government funding for the project in the early/mid-’80s was the opportunity of being seconded, along with crates containing my prototype eVS, to the neutron research facility housed in a non-secret part of the truly huge Los Alamos National Laboratory – in the middle of a very big patch of New Mexico wilderness in the USA – for a total of 15 months. Professionally, this was a great experience; in terms of family life, it was distinctly less positive.
Mementos from my sojourn in New Mexico: an appropriately designed ATM card (but don’t be fooled by the word “national” since bank accounts were distinctly local in reality), my hard-earned forklift truck driving license and an evocatively decorative front cover to our area telephone directory. My security pass limited me to the civil research areas only; I was told that the word “BRITISH” was in upper case 'in honour of' the Manhattan Project physicist and spy Klaus Fuchs - apocryphal I’m sure, although my host did drive me to the bridge over the Rio Grande at which Fuchs had his dead-letter drop …

Three decades of life as a lecturer at the University of Kent might at first glance convey an image of a settled existence.#  In some senses that has been the case: not only is it a very attractive corner of the country to live and to work in but, in addition, I never wanted to have to uproot my family from friends, schools and so on. However, the research side of things has remained somewhat nomadic – both in terms of geography and topic. To kick things off, and in order to be able properly to support my first PhD student (Ann, see here) I had to try to gain external funding. This is a common struggle for the vast majority of us engaged in research in the experimental sciences, and in competition with many of them I wrote a bid for funding from what was then the Science Research Council (later the Science & Engineering RC, now the Engineering & Physical Sciences RC with some overlap with the Science & Technology Facilities Council). I proposed to them a three-year project which, in essence, melded my former experience with neutron scattering methods into a study of metals in amorphous semiconductors. It worked: they awarded me almost £50k, which was a very sizeable sum in 1987. It is at this juncture, however, that the first of many ‘random’ sideways steps had to be taken. Due to the conjunction of a realisation that it was going to be harder than anticipated to generate the samples we needed and of the emergence of a serious fault at one of the neutron facilities my student and I needed to rely upon, we could no longer bank on getting our answers in the way I had planned. Put simply, Ann’s PhD and the progression of my own career were placed in jeopardy. Necessity, it is said, is the mother of invention and in this instance the immediate problem was converted into a long-term opportunity via conversations with two people who, with hindsight, opened my eyes to a whole new landscape of possibilities. In short, this is where the use of synchrotron x-ray sources entered the scene. On the basis of advice and guidance from Richard Catlow we started using high energy x-ray diffraction, and with the encouragement of Neville Greaves we began the exploration of x-ray absorption spectroscopy. This work was undertaken at the world’s first synchrotron dedicated to x-ray generation at the UK’s Daresbury Laboratory; although the facility has been closed for a decade (‘replaced’ by the Diamond Light Source mentioned above) the memories associated with working there will never fade.*
A cut-away depiction in Lego of scientists using a synchrotron x-ray beam for research: quite life-like really … (see here also)

It’s notoriously difficult to get follow-on funding from the RCs, but by the time this first dollop of funding had dried up I had stumbled across ‘diamond-like’ carbon as an intriguing ultra-hard coating material and managed to obtain funding to study the spectrum of materials found under that one loose banner. This new line of research was associated with an accelerated pace in the development of my ideas, and both the size of my team and the extent of my laboratory facilities grew significantly (including a bespoke plasma deposition system to make our diamond-like carbons). Several more collaborators were added to my circle – including the first teams from outside the UK and from industry. Published outputs in journals and at conferences rose at the same time. Time for a life outside of work fell correspondingly.

Again, the need to chase the funds required to run my research team and laboratory led me to seek out new areas of potential for research and the next step was to prove particularly significant: for the first time I started working on the atomic-scale structure of glass, wherein I have remained ever since. The first glass-oriented proposal to be funded, once again with additional funding from industry, was in the area of non-linear optical glasses and specifically those associated with fibre-optic systems. There followed an extended period studying comparably exotic glasses, with both optical and magnetic properties offering enormous potential. Indeed, so complex were these new glasses that my team had to move into the use of even more new methods, including computer modelling. It was at this stage that my approach to research took upon itself the label, much-deployed since it was first coined, of a materials-centred methodology. What turned out to be a key next step for me was to start working with Mark Smith on sol-gel glassy materials (see here). These forms of ‘chemically-grown’ glasses are as endlessly fascinating as they are difficult to understand, and a flexible approach to their study – the materials-centred methodology – was a pre-requisite. What this meant in practice was a complete disregard for the traditional physics-chemistry boundary and the adoption of whatever empirical methods might add a useful new piece to the jigsaw. This was FUN; so much so that our partnership not only carried on but continued to blossom more and more even after Mark left for a post at another university.
Serendipity plays a significant role in the life of a ‘nomadic’ researcher: Priya, a PhD student, presented some of her early-stage work in a poster at a small conference in 2000. I was one of the judges for the ‘best poster’ prize and in that role explored the contents of her poster with her, asking the naïve question “Where does the calcium sit in the glass matrix?” She referred me to her supervisor, Larry Hench, and the rest is, as they say, history.

When asked to say which piece of research has been the best/most rewarding/most useful/… it’s not uncommon for a researcher to talk about the work they are currently engaged in, almost irrespective of what that is. With that ‘health warning’ in mind I will nevertheless declare that the most recent decade of my research career represents, in many ways, the pinnacle of my endeavours: our work on bioactive glasses. As the label implies, these glasses elicit an active response within a biological system. Specifically, as they dissolve harmlessly in body fluids (blood plasma, even saliva) the glasses we have focused upon produce a mineral called hydroxyapatite: this is the mineral component of bone. At the same time, the dissolution products up-regulate certain genes and promote the activity of bone-building cells called osteoblasts; the result is new bone: the slowly dissolving glass acting as a scaffold for the regeneration of lost bone. So many boxes were ticked during this research partnership that it could hardly fail to rank at the top level in terms of my own professional satisfaction. Here was a complex puzzle needing all the experimental and computational techniques at our disposal (and some that had to be taken to new levels) and with the benefit of being able to work within a partnership of excellent people having a truly interdisciplinary perspective across physics, chemistry, materials science and biomedical engineering. Alongside this, and in part as a result of the research methodology we had embraced and ‘show-cased’, I also had the pleasure of contributing to projects as distinct as dentistry (mapping the movement of titanium from metal implants/prosthetics into a patient’s surrounding tissue), drug delivery (encapsulating anti-cancer drugs into a glass which lodges in a tumour and there dissolves) and heritage science (see here). This really was a good couple of decades – and a wonderfully fulfilling culmination to my academic research career.

In conclusion, I think it’s safe to say that I have indeed been somewhat nomadic in my research and that this has suited me very well indeed. However, I remain firmly of the opinion that this is most definitely not synonymous with any reasonable concept of a ‘random walk’ in that there have been rational choices made along the way: there was direction, even if it might have been tricky to articulate why particular choices were being made at the time. I'll need to defer to others in respect of being ‘known’ for something in particular, but I'd hope they'd mention the pioneering interdisciplinary work we've done in establishing the materials-centred approach mentioned above in the study of complex amorphous materials like glasses: when we started, it was a rare thing to find a truly cogent and coherent use of multiple techniques in the study of a single given material.

Earlier posts in this series:
1) The Girt Pike - beginnings and transitions.
2) Do Labels Last a Lifetime? - people and other influences.

* Many of these memories are far from glamorous: the canteen food could be appalling, although the hostel breakfasts were excellent and there was a good pub within easy walking distance in emergencies (the 'Ring O’ Bells', now very much altered). One had to agree to work ‘24x7’ for the duration of whatever time one had been awarded for an experiment; whilst this was relatively straightforward when my research team had grown a little, there was only Ann and me in the earliest stages and more than once one or the other of us could be seen cat-napping in ‘experiment-adjacent’ chairs. However, the potential for good science was high, and like the complementary neutron sources that have figured so prominently in my research career it was a wonderful place to spark ideas off talented people and to make new professional friends and acquaintances.

# There's an amusing story to tell here, involving a curious opening sentence to a Vice Chancellor's speech and a kind of invisibility; it will have to await another post as this one is already on the long side.

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Do Labels Last a Lifetime?

(Reflections on a life in science: #2 people and other influences)

Why science? Why not history or archaeology, English literature or the arts, woodwork or the factory line? Ultimately, I don’t know. All that is clear is illuminated, post hoc, by what now is and by the way in which one looks back along the road travelled. In short, there is a tendency to rationalise the reasons and the choices of the past in light of where one now stands. With that in mind I have nevertheless set myself the task to trying to pick out a few of the events and the people that seem to me to form some of the myriad milestones along the way.

There is a much-disputed saying attributed to the early Jesuit order which runs something along the lines of the following: “Give me a child until they are seven and I will give you the adult". All I want to draw out of this is the point that the earlier an influence impinges on a person’s life the smaller it has to be in order to have a profound impact in the longer term. This is not to say that we ever necessarily become ossified in our worldview, far from it. In this post, one of a series of reflections as I approach the transition into retirement from my four-decade career in research, I want to explore the influences I have discerned. The opening post may be found here; in it I made the point that the entire series is intrinsically limited by the purposeful omission of the (often hugely important) influences outside of my naively drawn ‘science compartment’. Perhaps these will emerge later – post-retirement, maybe; in the meantime, I’m hoping I can tell a vaguely coherent story in their absence. Returning to my opening questions, I will confess that the selection of options I presented was not a random one. I’m not sure I could ever truly know why the pursuit of science, and eventually the experimental physical sciences in particular, began to emerge as a front-runner. I do recall having been captivated from age five or so by events within the so-called ‘space race’, which was prominent in the decades immediately after the Second World War*. Thus, with Sputnik and Telstar and all that followed, there was a steady stream of more and more exciting news about achievements in space. Indeed, science and technology were very much to the fore, even to the extent of a UK Prime Minister (Harold Wilson) coining the phrase “the 'white heat' of scientific revolution” as a campaign slogan. It was, arguably, President Kennedy’s speech to Congress in 1961 (here) that really set the pace in terms of the overtly non-military exploration of space: stirring stuff, the like of which one rarely sees. Thus, the positive draw of science, running alongside an awareness of its potential dangers in the context of political power was established and reinforced by such events. As far as most of my acquaintances were concerned, the high point of the USA’s Apollo programme came when the Apollo 11 crew made it to the Moon and then returned. I remember the battle, such as it was, to be allowed to dominate the family’s TV on July 20th 1969 and to stay in front of it all night to watch the grainy, monochrome images of the landing and first steps … before going off to work after breakfast in the building firm that had given me a holiday job. This was definitely a favourite moment in my walk towards a career in science. However, I’d have to say that the Apollo 13 mission ‘grabbed’ me almost as much, and I still follow the ongoing 1970s Voyager deep-space programme via Twitter.
A few of the magazines I bought, read and treasured (Paris Match to help with my school French perhaps?) during the initial 1960s phase of NASA's Apollo programme which had been outlined by President Kennedy as a national goal. Inset on the right is my elementary trigonometric calculations relating to the splash-down point for one of them; I spotted this bit of mathematics on the back of an envelope from the US Information Service, from whom I obtained umpteen reports#, this one is date-stamped 1969.

Were there positive influences other than those coming out of the space race? Yes, many – it was simply that the push into space most readily piqued my interest. Coincidentally, I have recently been reminded of one of the other notable events in my early travels towards science. I found my 1964/5 collection of Discovery magazine issues in the attic a while back and have been tweeting ‘in this month, 50 years ago’ snippets via Twitter ever since. Recently, I came across a short piece on the Nimrod High Energy Accelerator at what was then the Rutherford Laboratory in Oxfordshire (and now) and recalled that I’d been shown around this in 1968/9 when I was 15 or 16 by an uncle. He designed electronic counters for the various detectors around the proton accelerator apparently; these failed to interest me whereas the high energy physics was, as far as I could understand it, fascinating. Some of life’s ‘spirals’ are noteworthy: in 1982 I joined the staff of the ISIS Neutron and Muon Source, Nimrod’s successor in that it too is a proton accelerator and occupies the same buildings – although there the similarity ends. A few days before I began drafting this post I had a ’phone conversation and e-mail exchange with one of the people putting together displays for this year’s Open Days on the site, out of which came the ‘then and now’ collage shown below. I seem not to be able to get aware from the place …
On the left, the display item put together for this year’s Harwell Campus Open Day: a rare photograph of me at about the age when I visited Nimrod and in the academic robes associated with the DSc awarded to me somewhat more recently by the University of Leicester; on the right is Discovery magazine’s image of a small part of Nimrod, June 1965.

As to the other potential choices listed at the opening of this post: history, archaeology and English literature have remained high on my list of interests, albeit as very part-time (and mostly ‘armchair’) hobbies; woodwork, for which I only ever had the most modest of aptitude, has transmuted into the distractions of DIY; for short periods of time I’ve tried the rhythms of factory and similar work and discovered that I’m not fitted for it at all. Of all the headings in the list it is perhaps the arts that is most curious: although I love listening to a wide range of music and can spend hours in an art gallery I am, frankly, devoid of all drawing/painting ability beyond that developed during primary school and could make similar statements about my musical ability. Likewise, although I love the theatre, I have always had a near-pathological fear of involvement in drama. How surprising it is, then, to find that my passion for science communication/public engagement with science was given a game-changing sideways shove (e.g. here) by involvement with our local Turner Contemporary gallery through the Canterbury Festival of Arts, and I then found myself on stage (here) … life, eh?

For all their positive reinforcement, these events are limited in their scope. Of more impact, I suspect, are the effects of people. Focusing still on the genesis and development of my career, and omitting family and friends by conscious choice, there are a few people who are worthy of mention. I went to a relatively small village primary school, starting at a time when the ‘received wisdom’ was such that all education ought to be left to the teachers: I could just about count to three on arrival and had no reading or writing skills at all! I am thankful for the teachers there, even the two I struggled with, but I couldn’t point to anyone who had an identifiable influence on future academic and intellectual choices. The step to secondary school was a big one, in all sorts of ways, but here I can identify the good and the not-so-good in terms of teacher input. The head teacher, Mr Mortimer, was a liberal (small ‘l’) by inclination and sought to provide an environment in which we were always challenged and always respected; I retain the fondest of memories of him. It is testament to the school that I specialised in the mathematical sciences only when forced to at the point of selecting which four Advanced Level subjects to study in my final two years. Both of my ‘A’-level Physics teachers came to the fore at that stage, for very different reasons. When I confided to one of them that I was considering the study of physics at university, he flatly dismissed my ambition with the statement that I might offer merely “good second class material”. I lived under the curse of that label for many years before finally being released from it; teachers beware: words have power, you should know that better than most. Peter Fayers was altogether different: as a newly qualified teacher with a good physics degree he taught half the course – and did so with a level of energy and of imagination that matched his intellectual ability. His was the confidence and inspiration I needed. Evidence of his care for those of us fortunate to have him as a teacher back then arrived by e-mail almost 30 years later: he had tracked me down to my University department in order to ask me to return to the school and give a talk to a new generation of ‘A’-level students. His note included the question “are you still using black ink?”. I found this astonishing: my minor rebellion against the school’s norm of blue ink should have been noticed and remembered, and then recalled after all those years. (The answer is “yes” by the way.) I returned to give talks many times after that first kind invitation – even after Peter’s retirement – and most recently to help with a ‘Chaos Theory workshop’ earlier this year (derived from this).
Part of the school ’photo, taken in 1971 as I was about to leave; it was easy to spot Mr Mortimer and Peter Fayers, both of whom I have picked out using their initials, but I found my younger self (at the back) only by spotting some of my friends of the time!

Curtains! Lights up! Ah, the interlude … Despite the poorly chosen comments of the teacher alluded to earlier, I was ‘supposed’ to go to Cambridge, or was it Oxford? In fact, the Head had even informed me of which college I was to apply for (his old one, naturally); I scuppered his plans by doing less well than anticipated at Applied Maths. There was a nuisance value associated with this apparent failure of course, as well as a bit of wounded pride, but it was a relief if I’m honest as I doubt I’d have fitted in terribly well as things stood in the early ’70s. However, because of the way the applications process had been set up to cater for the entrance exams and so on, I hadn’t completed the normal university application forms in time and so an entirely ‘vacant’ year beckoned. The term ‘Gap Year’ wasn’t in use back then, and given that I was to become one of the first (the first?) from my post-war local-authority housing estate to go to university, and certainly the first in my extended family, these niceties were more than a little novel. Apart from registering to re-sit the less-good A-level, which was more of a matter of pride than necessity, I therefore set about finding a job. My dad found me some temporary sub-contracting work on a building site, which was back-breaking – I mixed concrete for weeks for a team laying curb stones around a new development – but paid well, and in cash; I had no fingerprints for a while thereafter: all worn away. But, by happy chance, my local agricultural college (sadly now closed) advertised for a junior laboratory technician; four A-levels rendered me over-qualified, and I was quite open with them about only staying until I got a university place somewhere, but the Head of Department, Prof. Selman, offered me the job anyway. The work was tedious – lots of washing up and similar – but that was OK as the people were fun, and I later put myself in for A-level Logic in order to have an intellectual challenge on the side-lines. Of more impact in the longer-term was finding that I was trusted more and more by some of the academics to work well beyond the confines of my job description. Thus, I learnt how to estimate aphid populations on hop leaves using a logarithmic scale, to breed fruit flies in order to harvest the salivary glands of the maggot phase (- get it just right and it’s possible to watch cell division in action: at which stage I had to mount suitably stained samples on slides for student work), to find and collect specific hedgerow and downland plants, to take and develop photographs using IR-sensitive film, … This ‘failure’ actually turned into the most positive of experiences: a valuable life-lesson.
Although it was closed several years ago, Wye Agricultural College was, at the time, a constituent college of the University of London. I was the junior of three technicians who had some space in the low-rise section shown here as it now is; to the left are teaching labs. and, upstairs, research labs and offices – all of which became the core of ‘my patch’ for the duration.

On to the University of Leicester, where I lose count of the people I met who had an influence on future career directions. None of the lecturers in what was then the relatively small Physics Department – 22 of us graduated in 1975 as I recall – failed to have an impact, which was predominantly positive, although sometimes quirky. In passing, even the people I’ve come across who are never likely to make it to my list of favourites – far from it in some cases – have been able at least to induce a positive contribution: sometimes, learning what not to do is as important as the converse. I’ll choose not to dwell too much on my undergraduate period in this post since I’ll be alluding to it again in the series. I must however record a few people of note. John Beeby was an amazing teacher, and held a place of honour in my affections for being one of the first ‘big cheeses’ to invite me, along with some of my contemporaries, to his home and treat us as colleagues – albeit a long way back along the career road; Peter Maguire, a geologist, taught an optional course in geophysics and nearly – very nearly, despite the requirement to camp on the slopes of volcanoes for weeks on end – persuaded me to undertake a PhD in the area with him. Of more long-term impact were those with whom I developed a relationship that went beyond my student days. Colin Norris, for example, who unwittingly brought about my first bit of student ‘unpleasantness’ – he forgot to turn up to a lecture and I drew the ‘short straw’ and was sent to fetch him – grew enormously in my scientific landscape whilst I was doing a PhD; he went on to do a great job as physical sciences director at the Diamond Light Source during a period when I was using it as a visiting researcher. Then we come to John Enderby, under who’s supervision I did my final year research project and with whom I ‘signed up’ to do a PhD thereafter. The PhD began in the September following my graduation; unfortunately, John was away until the following January (- this was before e-mail or fax remember, and even long-distance ’phone calls were an expensive rarity) and no-one in the research group was completely clear about was I was supposed to be doing. Something of a baptism through fire one might say, but ‘what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger’ … or so the saying goes. The ‘hero’ of the moment was Alan Howe, who guided me through those first few months when, in common with many PhD students, ‘throwing in the towel’ seemed like the obvious thing to do on many occasions. John remained an important figure in my career for a long time thereafter, and I am grateful to have been able to work with him, but it is to Alan I owe the bigger debt in terms of helping me to shape my research ethic: his legacy lives on. Although now reduced to the exchange of Christmas letters, Alan is nevertheless the one ex-Leicester person with whom I remain in contact. There is a long list of people associated with what became a decade at the University of Leicester that I could, and perhaps should mention – but we’d be here for ages and so I shall stop at this point …
A farewell gift from my fellow early-career colleagues at Leicester by way of a tongue-in-cheek recognition of my attempts to improve our lot: “To Bob, To enable you to continue stirring”. They evidently couldn’t find a suitable wooden spoon, so this had to suffice; it did the job well enough.

After Leicester came the spallation neutron source, later named ISIS, at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, RAL. I was privileged to work here during the final few years of construction of this major international research facility. The longer-term benefit to my career of this intensive experience is inestimable, and the camaraderie associated with bringing such a major machine to its successful first operations in December 1984 is something I’ll never forget. Countless people helped to shape my professional world-view during my time at the RAL but I’ll mention only two here: Spencer Howells and Alan Leadbetter. I remain grateful to Spencer for his long-standing kindness which began with the loan of his charming cottage when my wife, one year old daughter and I first moved to the RAL. Unbeknownst to me, Alan had been chosen as the science director for the ISIS project just prior to my interview and so sat on the selection panel. We had a discussion about science, as one does, during which I criticised one of his research papers (- it was all very constructive: anger should play no part in scientific challenge, although pride may be wounded for a while). A measure of the person he was is that I was appointed not despite that discussion but, in part, because of it. I developed a huge respect for his leadership, and still regard him as a benchmark inspiration in that regard. We have been in contact many times since those days, during which time he’s had a formative influence on the nature and content of the talks on glass I deliver to non-expert audiences.
By good fortune, Spencer and his family were seconded to the USA and needed house-sitters at a time when we were finding it hard to rent a house near RAL whilst we waited for a buyer for our house in Leicester: we occupied part of this lovely place. (It took almost a year to sell our Leicester house as the Midlands market had 'slumped'; the Thames Valley region, by contrast, was buoyant and as a result we never managed to buy a house during our time in Oxfordshire.)

The next stop was the University of Kent’s Physics Laboratory, which was later merged with Chemistry, under my headship, in order to create the School of Physical Sciences. It is from this base that I retire at the end of September. Once again, it would be all-but impossible to mention everyone who deserves to be. I’ll limit myself to three, and keep even that to a brief statement, since more information will emerge quite naturally in related posts on university life and on the nomadic development of my research activities. John Strange was Head of Department when I arrived and to him I therefore owe, in part, my job; beyond that I learned a huge amount about the ins and outs of running a university department – indeed, much of what was subsequently achieved was of necessity built upon foundations he laid. I was paired with Alan Chadwick, a chemist, from very early on and given the task of running the Chemical Physics BSc course with him. Sadly, this excellent degree programme is now closed down; it was a wonderful synthesis of elements of the Physics and of the Chemistry degree programmes which produced some of the most rounded science graduates I have ever known. Alan re-kindled my nascent interest in chemistry and thereby opened anew the potential for research across the interface between the physical sciences, and beyond, that was to become the keynote of my research career. It was also with Alan that I got back into archaeology in more recent years through a joint contribution to the conservation of Henry VIII’s Mary Rose (here). Ann Edwards is now living in the USA with her family, but in 1986 she was graduating with a BSc in Chemical Physics and then began working with me as my first ever PhD student. It would be hard to encapsulate adequately my gratitude to her for being exactly the right person to take on this novice academic on his first step into the world of university research as a fledgling academic (here, 4th paragraph).
My wife’s line drawing of the Physics Laboratory of the late ’80s, from a viewpoint now build upon, and showing the dome of the original student observatory; this drawing was used on the cover of countless departmental publications in following years. On the right is my very first graduating class of Chemical Physics students (my all-time favourite degree programme) showing not only me but the three people I’ve chosen to highlight: Ann Edwards (front row, left), John Strange (front, 5th from the right) and Alan Chadwick (back row, 3rd from the left; travel left three more places and you’ll reach the younger me).

Again and again I have noted the partial nature of this post: a series of all-too-brief snapshots of some of the events and people to have played a role in shaping the development and evolution of my career. However, it’s already the longest single post I’ve written and I question the wisdom of digging much deeper or going much broader this side of the auto-biography I will probably never write.

* … and to add context to this, one might recall that rationing only finally disappeared when I was two years old; I grew up on one of the many post-war council estates ('social housing') created during the reconstruction phase -which was, no doubt, a good period for my dad: a highly skilled bricklayer). The ‘cold war’ – one manifestation of which was the space race – had already begun when I was born and I retain, for example, vivid memories of the 1962 Cuba Blockade and humanity’s countdown to nuclear war. Later public service leaflets, delivered to every home in the UK, could be seen to be deeply flawed by even the most early-stage scientist.

# … including this synopsis of the official enquiry into President Kennedy’s shocking assassination, which was followed not long afterwards by the equally upsetting murder of Martin Luther-King.