Saturday, 24 December 2016

The Science of Colour: from Newton to Turner via Goethe


A ‘Turner evening sun’ photographed from the steps of the Turner Contemporary gallery and its reflection in their café’s window. It’s of no direct relevance, but this is a relatively long post and a relaxing first image may help the reader ...

In earlier posts I have reflected on aspects of my series of modest contributions to the work of the Learning Team at the wonderful, and for me wonderfully local, Turner Contemporary gallery (e.g. here and here). It’s also rather nice that I get a credit in a couple of short films that have come out of our contact (here and here) – and even one of my many tweets is quoted in another of their celebratory videos (here – see if you can spot it, it’s near the beginning). My own appreciation of art and of those who work within and for its promotion has been transformed by my contact with the gallery and its team. However, I think this is the first time I’ve devoted an entire post to a project of theirs in which I was able to make a contribution. It’s associated with their current exhibition of some of JMW Turner’s wonderful paintings and drawings, Adventures in Colour, and it gets an entire post by virtue of the fascinating background I unearthed whilst reading up for my role.

Our protagonists. (Centre: the Turner Contemporary’s exhibition leaflet; left: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe above Sir Isaac Newton; right Joseph Mallord William Turner.  Goethe’s and Turner’s images are adapted from those at www.tate.org.uk, Newton’s from http://www.biography.com/people/isaac-newton-9422656#synopsis)
Having been trained in Isaac Newton’s theories of colour as a physics student – prisms, ‘rainbow spectra’ etc. – I found myself more and more fascinated by the influence that Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s rather different approach to colour had on Turner’s work. Goethe came a century after Newton, and was a contemporary of Turner – although Goethe’s seminal work on colour was only translated into English, and thus made more easily accessible, in 1840. Goethe’s careful observations, made over a 40-year period, led him to reject Newton’s theory that all the colours we see are an admixture of two or more of the seven ‘rainbow’ colours he observed coming from a prism when illuminated by ‘white light’. ‘Darkness’, in this theory was simply the absence of light. By contrast, Goethe became fascinated by the boundary between light and dark, and was sure that colours emerged from the interplay between the two: in other words, ‘dark’ became an important and active component to the emergence of colour. He was, moreover, fascinated by the emotional connotations of colour: yellows and reds were warm, positive colours and blues and purples were cold and negative. Furthermore, he identified the concept of each colour having a complementary colour – look out of a window towards the sun and then close your eyes: the yellow of the sun becomes a blue ‘afterglow’; yellow and blue are complementary colours. Indeed, the concept of complementary colours becomes obvious when looking at the shadow created by an object placed in the beam of a single-colour light source. As an example, shine a green light onto the object and one will perceive a magenta shadow – the shadow is simply grey when looked at close up, but if viewed against the green surroundings our brains perceive it as magenta. This led him to define and draw a colour wheel showing the relationship between these complements. There’s so much more to all this, but I don’t want to overburden anyone with the details. To sum it all up one might say that we can explain all the optical phenomena we observe on a day-today basis using Newton’s physical theory, which has been tested out in umpteen ways over the years – even those ostensibly contrary observations of Goethe. Having said that, even though Goethe’s approach is not truly a scientific framework, his careful observations led him to some important conclusions associated with the role our brains play in our perception of colour. In that respect his ideas are actually quite contemporary. More to the point in the context of the project at the heart of this post, his observations caught the artistic imagination of Joseph Turner.

Goethe’s colour wheel showing the complementary colours on opposite sides of the circle (Image from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theory_of_Colours)
Turner was an experimenter: trying out new pigments, developing (and teaching) ideas of perspective and exploring different ways of applying colour for example. He was working at a time when subject disciplines were not as rigidly defined as they can seem to be nowadays; scientists, engineers and artists would interact quite naturally, whereas it can take a special effort to cross the imagined boundaries we have more recently defined for ourselves. The Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Arts, now wholly distinct entities, were at the time housed in the same building; Turner knew and was friends with famous scientists like Michael Faraday and Humphrey Davy, mathematicians like Mary Sommerville and engineers like Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Goethe’s ideas evidently also excited him. There is clear visual evidence of this in so many of Turner’s paintings, more especially those created later in his life. The considered use of colour to express emotion, the subtle use of light and dark interfaces and the associated use of complementary colours are all strong indicators of Goethe’s influence. Given that Goethe’s observations are focussed on human perception and emotion it’s perhaps no surprise that Turner’s later paintings, which at the time were seen by some as evidence of a deranged mind, still evoke such a powerful response from contemporary viewers. Although it would be possible to list a great many examples of paintings which demonstrate Goethe’s influence on Turner’s artistic practice, it will perhaps suffice to reproduce (below) a pair that he explicitly associated with Goethe’s ideas.

Left: Shade and Darkness - the Evening of the Deluge and 
Right: Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) - the Morning after the Deluge - Moses Writing the Book of Genesis. (Images from http://www.tate.org.uk) 
Both were exhibited 1843, and reflecting not only Goethe’s ideas on colour but the fascination of the time in ‘apocalyptic sublime nature’. On the left we see Turner’s play on light and dark and on the use of the more ‘negative’ colours; by contrast, on the right we have the warm positive colours being used as well as more than a passing reference to Goethe’s colour wheel.

The issue that faced me on the day of the Teachers Tea Party was how to try and encapsulate some of these concepts and theories into a 20-30 minute chat prior to going into the gallery itself. I have no idea whether what I attempted truly worked or not, since that depends very much on whether the participants are able to use the suggestions and ideas offered given the reality of their primary school classrooms. However, I’ll try to outline here a few of the things I tried out on the day by using some ‘home-made’ images.

In terms of Newton’s theory of colour, life is relatively easy in that most people have seen a spectrum – from water droplets as they generate a rainbow and probably also from a prism. The image top left provides a good example of the generation of a spectrum by splitting white light into its colours. This splitting occurs via a process called refraction: when light enters a medium, in this case the prism, the speed of light varies depending on its wavelength (i.e. its colour) and this causes the light to be ‘bent’ to different degrees. My simplified demonstration used a couple of laser pointers, one red and one green; I attached them to a ruler in order to help ensure they were pointing in the same direction. They enter the prism at the same angle, but emerge at different angles. Although I only possess an inexpensive perspex prism, the demonstration worked tolerably well and a clear separation between the red and green spots on a distant wall was easy to see.

A good starting place for Goethe’s ideas was the projection of a slide showing a simple grid of black squares on a white background: grey ‘blobs’ may be perceived the corners of the squares. This is an easy way to signal the start of Goethe’s exploration of the interfaces between light and dark since we see something emerging in our vision which, were we to zoom in on the space, disappears: we need the light/dark interface and the imposition of our brains to make it work.
The next attempted demonstration was less successful at the venue due to the ambient lighting – it worked well at home with the curtains closed, so a re-run under more controlled lighting conditions would almost certainly improve things. (It probably goes without saying that colour-blindness, which affects about 4½% of the population – primarily men – will affect the results.) In order to illustrate our perception of complementary colours I projected a PowerPoint slide of uniform green and then created a shadow by holding an object in the light’s path: even with the background lighting it was still just about possible to see a slight magenta tinge to the otherwise grey shadow. A similar trial using a projected red slide led most people to say they could see a green tinge to the shadow. Now, the shadow is in fact grey; it’s not coloured at all in reality, but our brains have imposed on it the complementary colour to that of the light source. This can be demonstrated by getting close to the projected slide and focusing solely onto the shadow, which is simply grey (- maybe use a cardboard tube to help shut out the surrounding colour?). To see this effect in a more controlled setup, take a look at this video, about three minutes in. Next time you look at Turner’s paintings (and the work of a great many others since his time) pay attention to the colour of his shadows, and particularly those depicted with the sun low in the sky and thus giving a red/yellow light.

Returning now to our prism, it’s possible to use it to replicate something more of what led Goethe to state that colour emerges from the juxtaposition of light and dark. Instead of adopting the ‘Newtonian’ setup and using the prism to cast it rainbow spectrum from sunlight, try instead to look through the prism towards the window and look carefully at what happens in the vicinity of its stiles/rails or grills. There’s a need to experiment a little with the orientation of the prism, but eventually coloured bands will emerge at the edges – and the order in which the colours appear will differ depending on whether one is looking to the left or right, or above or below, the light/dark boundaries between glass and frame. This made no sense to Goethe in the context of Newton’s theory: not only had he seen colours not part of Newton’s basic seven-colour spectrum when exploring shadows (e.g. magenta from green illumination as above) but now even the spectra he observed through a prism differed from Newton’s.

My own simplistic attempt to illustrate these effects is shown above (- an elaborate setup involving an up-turned bin on top of my desk). Notice the appearance of the red end of the classic rainbow colours to the right or above a light/dark interface and the blue end to the left or below. Is this proof that Newtonian theories ought to be thrown out and replaced? No. I made the point above that all the colours we see, and which Goethe so carefully observed as he was getting to grips with our perception of complementary colours, may be generated by the admixture of two or more of Newton’s basic spectrum of colours. The apparently more complex observations associated with looking through a prism at light/dark interfaces may equally be explained using Newton’s theories. It this latter case, each part of the window glass is refracting the sunlight and therefore dispersing its various colours – but all of these ‘rainbows’ overlap and we see only the average of them all, which is of course white light/sunlight. The exception to this is at the edges of each window pane since at those places there can be no such averaging process. For instance, immediately to the right of the frame the refracted light through the glass overlaps with nothing to its left and we end up seeing the red half of the rainbow colours. It’s a little like having the window frame sit in the middle of the spectrum I’ve shown in the image shown third up from here.

Finally, one of my personal favourite paintings – or, rather, my talented wife’s version of it – serves to illustrate the way in which Turner made explicit use of the emotional connotations of colours described by Goethe. In his Rain, Steam, and Speed - The Great Western Railway (1844) he uses colour to convey the sense of power and excitement he felt in the context of the newly-emerging steam railways. Such paintings are not ‘accurate representations’ of a thing, place or process so much as evocations of their impact on the artist – and perhaps thereafter on some of us who have viewed their work down through the years.

For those wanting to learn more about Goethe’s observations and ideas I recommend the four-part video which begins here.

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Postscript for any readers in the Northwest USA: Since posting this, I have been made aware of an up-coming exhibition of paintings which includes work by JMW Turner alongside other wonderful paintings. For details, please see here. Also, there is an interesting associated profile of JMW Turner on the Artsy site here.



Saturday, 5 November 2016

Summer is Falling


A couple of years ago, closer to the nervous start of my blog, I wrote an entirely trivial post (here) which was little more than a ‘place-holder’ designed to demonstrate that I was still alive, but simply too busy to write. As the leaves fall and mark for us a pathway into the new autumn, I can look back on a summer which proved to be every bit as full as that earlier one, despite the fact that I had ‘retired’ from my former day-job in the meantime. On this occasion, by contrast, I resisted the temptation to post anything overtly trivial. After all, there’s always my Twitter feed …

Both our ‘ruby’ wedding anniversary (and the associated holiday) and my son’s wedding were time-consuming in the very best of ways, and a slew of gardening/DIY and other necessary tasks took a lot of the remaining time. (As a mildly techy digression, I’ve added as a postscript one such DIY task: installing a new TV aerial.) However, within that mix came some challenging but exciting opportunities in science communication, and it is these I’d like to major on in this post. It’s something of a smorgasbord (or tapas, if you prefer …) but, to my mind, that’s indicative of the fun of #SciComm. Included in the mix is the science of colour within an exhibition of the paintings of J.M.W. Turner, representing Canterbury Cathedral’s Glass Studio at what was almost certainly my last ever science conference, delivering my inaugural lecture series (on glass, naturally) for the local University of the Third Age, U3A, the possibility of sharing citizen-science ideas in the context of women ex-offenders and their children, and writing my first poem since school days. If nothing else, this ought to serve as evidence for the diversity of opportunity for those keen on science communication and public engagement with science.

Let’s begin with poetry, given that this was undoubtedly one of the more ‘off-piste’ undertakings of the summer. Readers of my blog will know that I have been an active supporter of the notion that scientists and those who work in the arts not only can communicate with one another but ought to. It takes effort, on both sides: new ‘languages’ must be learned and personal agendas left to one side, but we are all creative people and can, more often than not, tunnel through the cultural/educational barriers if we have a will so to do (see here for example, although half my posts are on this theme to one degree or another). It’s no surprise then, that I support the aims of the annual Fun Palaces initiative, including its unusual title (– see here for a post mentioning one such project). This summer I happened to spot their #WriteScience ‘competition’. The idea was that a scientist and a writer would get together to talk, and between them generate a poem inspired by that conversation. I am immensely blessed to know several successful authors, who between them write beautifully across genres from factual guides for young people to ‘Finnish weird’; included in their number is the hugely talented poet Nancy Gaffield, who I’ve mentioned before (e.g. here). Nancy was keen on the idea and we met over a mug of tea and talked for more than 90 minutes. We initially focused on the topic of waves since this was one piece of physics Nancy recalled from her own school days. My naïve expectation was that, inspired by my erudite teaching, she would write something amazing; instead, she issued a different challenge: we would each write a poem and then submit them both. I confess that my anxiety levels went through the roof at this point – I hadn’t written poetry since being forced to in my early teens; this was a bluff well called. The next 30 minutes or so were spent with me being inducted into a poetic form that I stood half a chance of coping with: concrete, or shape poetry (see here). I’ve lost count of the hours I spent obsessively creating my attempt at this, but eventually it came together and was submitted …
This is it, in all its 90-word glory.
Remarkably, a month or so later, I got an email from the national coordinator informing me that I was one of six finalists (here is the evidence). I rather suspect that the total number of entrants was close to, if not equal to, six; the result was nevertheless gratifying, and Nancy’s declaration of her pride in my work warmed my heart no end. Part of the finalists’ reward package was to pair them up with a local Fun Palace organiser; in my case it was with artist Sioux Peto, who had set up a one-day event (here) based in the Kent district of Swale. Sadly, the only time-slot left in her full programme of community events clashed with a prior commitment associated with my on-going work with the Glass Studio at Canterbury Cathedral. We agreed that in lieu of a personal appearance I would send her an audio recording including a reading of the poem. Sioux told me that it would play on a loop via a Bluetooth speaker in a rotating disco glitter ball … definitely a ‘first’ for me.

Usefully, this provides me with the perfect segue into another of the summer’s science communication highlights. I have been a fan of the Glass Studio at Canterbury Cathedral (here) for many years and have taken the opportunity to visit whenever the opportunity arises (e.g. here). Conservation and renovation projects are a major focus for the Cathedral at present, and this includes much work on its stained glass. A layer has been observed on the outside surface of some of the early Victorian glass which is puzzling the conservators and I was asked whether I might be able to help them understand it. The key point is that it can only be removed once everyone’s sure that it wasn’t put there intentionally by the glass artist, George Austin Jr., and on the basis of an informed choice of the most appropriate methods to use. Interestingly, the most severely affected areas are seen near the points at which the window’s leading is tied to the supporting iron frame (the ferramenta) by copper wire. This might suggest that one is seeing the effects of electrochemistry: dissimilar metals producing a small voltage in the presence of an aqueous medium (aka rain water containing dissolved salts of one sort or another) and thereby triggering a deposition process. However, this hypothesis might be disproved by direct experimental study: decisions should be evidence-based. Sadly, I’m no longer in a position to undertake such work in a hands-on way – that’s one of the very few downsides of retiring – but I do know people who are, and I know how one might seek out the best …
A small part of the seven large affected windows in the northern clerestory of the Cathedral’s nave; the external surface is shown on the left, the internal view is shown on the right.
(Image courtesy of Léonie Seliger, Canterbury Cathedral Glass Studio)

And so it was that, in early September, I travelled to Sheffield to participate in the centenary conference of the Society of Glass Technology. I took with me not only the laptop on which resided my talk on the “crystallization of a fluoro-apatite - mullite system using neutron diffraction” (- fluoro-apatites are a type of glass of considerable interest for dental applications) but also a large and beautifully crafted poster outlining the conservation problem and inviting collaborative input (see below). My own talk went tolerably well, according to those who heard it at least – I wasn’t very pleased with it myself, but the Cathedral’s poster generated huge amounts of interest. I stood next to it for the full two hours of the conference ‘poster session’ and discussed it with a continuous stream of interested glass experts. By the end I could barely speak. My oft-voiced apology for not being able to answer everyone’s detailed questions – on the ground that this is a topic at some distance from my own areas of expertise – turned out not to be a serious issue. I had been briefed well enough to understand what was being said and offered. Indeed, I was able to take back with me a collection of business cards, observations and recommendations that, between them, should allow the Glass Studio team to move forward on this important conservation project. I intend to stay in touch with them, naturally, and would like to think that a future blog post will contain some details of the final conservation strategy they adopt.


I cannot leave the subject of my four-day trip to what turned out to be an excellent international conference on glass art and science without noting the fact that the Society of Glass Technology, in this their centenary year, chose to honour me with a Fellowship. The award was made during the conference banquet, held amidst the stained glass and unique architecture of Sheffield Cathedral and in the company of some wonderfully talented people. I could also use the journey to and from the SGT conference as yet another segue to a new paragraph, this time citing the inspiration of a railway carriage as I drafted my ‘homework’ for the Creative Writing course I’ve signed up to. But that’s for another day …


As to the other science communication/public engagement opportunities I listed at the start of this post – some are arguably still at too early a stage to say much about, and others warrant a post all to themselves. I will however mention in passing the three-lecture course on glass I had the privilege of leading for the local branch of the U3A. This was a new challenge for me in the sense that my talks for the non-expert have generally been one-off events of 30-50 minutes, and now I had three 90-minute sessions available. The scope this gave me was very welcome, although it did gobble up a lot of preparation time – including a final stage in which I had to cull material in order to be able to fit it in to a comfortable pace that would allow lots of questions and discussion. I’d love to think that I’ll be asked to do this again next year since I enjoyed the whole thing immensely and have a better sense, post hoc, of how it might best be done, but I’m content to leave that in the hands of others.
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Postscript, which turns this post from one of ‘average’ length to a distinctly longer read …
As an example of this summer’s DIY I might mention fitting a new digital TV aerial in my mother’s attic to improve the signal quality and strength to the device she uses to record all her favourite programmes. That task was in itself fairly straightforward, despite the need to work in an overly warm, cobweb infested space with inadequate head-clearance and only rafters to stand on. Having looked up where the nearest transmitter was, I needed to get its magnetic compass heading from my mother’s location. I could have dug out a map and deployed my schoolboy trigonometry, but as most people would these days I used an online app … All that remained was to ensure I had the orientation of the aerial right for the polarisation of the transmitter’s signal and then work through the mechanics of aerial assembly and installation. All of this information is easily accessible online. What it reminded me of was a much earlier, pre-internet, attempt to install an aerial optimised to receive good quality stereo radio signals at a location in which I struggled even to get mono signals for some stations. I still have the book I turned to, which had been given to me as a school achievement prize (in 1968!); it was called Popular Electronics and Computers by F.G. Rayer, and it contained a guide to building a simple VHF folded dipole aerial. It proved to be a resounding success, and a variant of it sits in the attic of my current house and works very well in conjunction with my pre-digital radio tuner. There are days when being a bit of a geek has its rewards – although digital radio has altered the scene now of course. 
The current radio aerial: this folded half-wave dipole is made from copper wire stripped from an odd piece of cable, the two ends of which are connected to the central core and the surrounding shielding mesh of the coaxial cable that runs to the radio tuner. The length of the dipole wire is given by 0.95/2 times the wavelength of the radio station one wishes most to boost (although it’ll work reasonably well for anything broadcasting nearby – if in doubt, aim for the middle of the FM frequencies you tend to listen to). Wavelength is given by speed of light/frequency. Using BBC Radio 3 at 92.6 MHz as an example, the dipole wire length is (0.95 x 300)/(2 x 92.6) = 1.54 m.




Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Pressure and planets: taking science on holiday


Gentle warning: although shorter than my average post, it contains a higher than usual geek-like content. You have been warned.

About a month ago, as an early celebration of our 40th wedding anniversary, my wife and I went on a trip to Switzerland – by train. Whilst getting around Switzerland by train, cable car and funicular was a complete joy, it has to be admitted that the haul there and back again was a long one. Even for a supporter of train travel it was long. However, even these journeys had their mitigating factors. The slowly changing scenery moving past our window was one, much as it was when we crossed the Canadian Rockies by train some years back, ending up in Vancouver. On the way out we broke our journey in Strasbourg where, apart from a view of the buildings associated with our soon-to-be-former membership of the EU, I was able to indulge in a little glass-spotting …
One of the more spectacular stained glass windows to be found in Strasbourg Cathedral. (The original image was elliptical since I had to photograph the high-level round window from the aisle of the church: I have ‘adjusted’ the image to undo the effects of perspective.)
Conversations with our fellow travellers are a bonus as well, but a physicist’s mind also has a tendency to wander into less populated mental territory. Almost without realising it I found myself converting the displayed speed of one of ours train from the km/hr shown on its display into metres/second (over 85 metres each second!) and thence into miles per hour. That’s around 200 mph, should you wish to know. (In passing, you’ll probably be grateful that I have resisted the temptation to digress into a paragraph or two on measurement units. It will surely come, but perhaps in a future post …) Now, unless we approach the speed of sound, which is about 340 m/s near sea level, the drag due to air friction increases as the square of the speed. As an example, the drag will have increased four-fold as the train accelerated from 100 mph to 200 mph; these numbers underline the importance of streamlined designs and all the engineering behind them. Of course, the frictional drag also depends on the density of the medium through which an object is moving. For instance, the reason a submarine is subject to relatively huge frictional forces is simply because it’s moving through a medium, sea water, which is more than 800 times denser that the air at the surface. Similarly, providing it can still get enough oxygen for its engines to function, a jet is better off flying in the thinner air present at high altitude. In a (very) round-about way, this observation provides the introduction to one of the central topics of this post …

The highlight of our vacation, if you’ll forgive the weak pun, was a journey to Europe’s highest railway station, Jungfrauhoch at an altitude of 3454 m (11,371 ft). It’s a stunning location, as many are in Switzerland, and we were fortunate to get only a little snow, low wind speeds, breaks in the cloud and temperatures not too far below 0°C. Just above Jungfrauhoch – accessible via a lift/elevator I’m glad to say – is the Sphinx Observatory (here) at 3571 m. Although not used in the classic ‘star-gazing’ sense, there are several international ecological/environmental research projects based there (here). These include spectroscopic solar observation as a means of probing the Earth’s atmosphere: in others words, looking carefully at what wavelengths light is ‘filtered out’ of the Sun’s rays as a means of identifying with precision the constituents of this high-altitude air. However, as a chronic asthmatic, and having the left-overs from a recent cold the worst symptoms of which had miraculously abated the day prior to our journey, one of my pre-occupations on the day was breathing. In true geeky style, this served to prompt a simple experiment to illustrate the effects of air pressure.
The Sphinx Observatory; the inset of yours truly not only helps to prove that I was there, but also serves to mask a few unsightly cables.
The experimental setup was simple: take an empty plastic water bottle and screw it tight shut at high altitude, then simply compare it with an otherwise identical bottle back at ‘base camp’ (aka our hotel room, which happened to be at a more modest 586 m altitude). The image below says it all. 
The bottle on the left provides the 586 m reference point, as it were, whilst the bottle on the right – sealed shut at Jungfrauhoch’s 3454 m, and therefore almost 3 km higher – has been partially crushed. The reason is straightforward. At the altitude of our hotel the air pressure was about 94480 Pa (Pascal: equivalent to about 945 mb, or 13.7 psi) but the bottle sealed at Jungfrauhoch started its journey with an air pressure of only 66154 Pa (about 9.6 psi, so only 70% of the lower altitude value). In other words, as the pressure outside the bottle started to increase as we were descending, it simply crushed the bottle, reducing its volume to the point at which outside and inside pressures were in balance again. And where does this ‘pressure’ come from? Well, from the collision of the air molecules with the bottle’s inner and outer surfaces: more collisions per second on the outside surface of the bottle than on the inner surface will result in a net force which will push the sides inwards. Why were there more collisions each second on the bottle’s outside surface as we descended? Simply because the air’s pressure is related to its density: higher pressure means higher density, which in turn means there are more molecules available to collide with the bottle. The density of the air at Jungfrauhoch was about 0.85 kg per cubic metre, but this had risen to about 1.1 kg/cubic metre by the time we had descended to the hotel.

I should add in passing that this effect had been noted by my children during a much earlier holiday, in 1998 in fact. This vacation included a stay in Yosemite National Park, within which the altitude varies between about 1200 and 1500 m. Their observation was, in a sense, the obverse of my simplistic experiment: they noted that an unopened bag of crisps (or potato chips in the local language) had inflated like a balloon. What they were seeing, of course, was the effect of higher pressure inside the bag than outside. The bag was sealed in a factory at low altitude, and was about to be consumed at higher altitude: there were more collisions each second between the air molecules and the inside surface of the bag than were occurring at its outer surface.

Ah, the joys of taking physics on vacation. There’s more from Switzerland however.

Part way through our holiday, in the depths of the night, I spotted what I initially thought might be Saturn, which I knew was supposed to be visible at the time. It was low in the sky and near the almost-full moon. The snapshot I took at the time is shown below. Just to be sure, I contacted a local amateur astronomy club via Twitter – so useful to have access to a ‘hive-mind’ on such occasions. I am grateful to @AshfordAstro and to @roger931 for letting me know that I had, in fact, been observing Mars that night. Either way, this is the sort of thing that can, for me at least, boost the spirits through any stretch of broken sleep. It also served to remind me that one of my plans for ‘retirement’ was to invest in a small telescope and to get back into the astronomy that inspired me so much as a young person. I must find the time to do that …
This was taken on our very modest compact camera, which was steadied using the window frame in our hotel room.



Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Boketto


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

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

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

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


Thursday, 26 May 2016

Blessed and Humbled: a celebration


A little over a month ago, just before 10 am on a decidedly damp day, my wife and I arrived at the venue for a one-day conference and evening meal. There was nothing unusual about the subject matter in terms of my being there: it was on ‘Partnerships in multidisciplinary studies of disordered materials and biomaterials’ – right at the core of my ‘nomadic’ scientific interests, which I’ve written about often (e.g. here and here). No, the profound difference here, and what rendered the conference unique, was that it had been organised by a friend and ex-colleague (Gavin Mountjoy) specifically as a means of “celebrating the scientific career of [yours truly] at his retirement”. What follows is a brief personal reflection on the day.

The formalities of registration and the ubiquity of accessing Wi-Fi at a modern conference are thankfully followed by …
…the first chance for all of us to meet, greet and start the process of catching up over a drink and some biscuits.
I am, and will remain, immensely grateful to Gavin for coming up with the idea and translating it into reality; it really was very kind of him, and given how busy I know him to be I dread to think how many hours he must have spent on it. However, the closer I got to the day itself the more trepidation there was alongside the enthusiasm for catching up with past members of my research team and with friends and research partners throughout my career. As one of the former members of my team noted in the emailed reply to Gavin’s invitation, which I got to see afterwards, and in her typically discerning fashion: “That's a long day for him to be the centre of attention, he may do some grumbling!” As is so often the case, no sooner had I collected my copy of the timetable and my name badge – yes, amusing in the circumstances – than the nerves disappeared and I found myself enjoying again the ebb and flow of coffee-fuelled, science-oriented conversation. What struck me almost immediately was the spread in those able to be present: 
° in terms of scientific background, with a fairly wide range of the sciences represented together with a few who’d not really call themselves scientists at all;
° geographically in that they were folk there not only from all over the UK but also from The Netherlands, Japan and as far afield as Beijing in China (an ex-postdoc in my team who’d flown over just for this event – with a gift to enhance my tea drinking life!);
° with regard to their various pathways in life, with some from my old research team having stayed in science and others moving into new fields of endeavour. It was an especial pleasure to meet spouses/partners for the first time, and in one case their lovely six-month old baby;
° and in terms of time. The latter, time, gave some unexpected and delightful twists. For instance, it was lovely to be able to introduce people to each other who, simply because they’d worked with me at different stages in my three decades as an academic research scientist, had never before met. Hearing recent co-workers describe me as, in essence, calm, wise and measured – which was very flattering – and then folk from the earlier days of my research team pointing out that this didn’t quite match their memories was glorious. Thus, although it was a little frustrating to have insufficient time to spend with each and every one of these wonderful people, there was something rather special that emerged from the conversations within small groups. After all, that’s the way we’d often spent the long hours waiting for data to come in (or the x-ray or neutron source to be repaired and be switched back on); science can be a very social pursuit (see also here). If nothing else, this offered evidence of change and perhaps of growth. If so, that’s a good thing I think; either way, it was very amusing. 

The simple pleasure of spending time with people ought never to be under-estimated; this is as true for scientists as for anyone else.
The talks, delivered by people I admire, trust and like, included much on the area of work I have written about before (e.g. here, here and here). One of the nice things about the topics covered, speaking for myself you understand, was that research was admixed with thoughts on science ethics and philosophy, with the need to communicate our work effectively through engagement with diverse audiences, and with more than a little time spent on the importance of supporting what one might call the community of scientists. It was good to hear about research developments since my departure from the scene and I took great pleasure in the thought that these kind folk still had before them so much of what I have been privileged to enjoy of the excitement of discovery and the camaraderie that can accompany it. Interestingly, my blog posts were cited far more than I would have anticipated; I found this a little curious, but also gratifying. However, out of all these riches I took away as a key point, and one I hope is diffused throughout my blog: it’s people, real people, who do science. Indeed, the speaker I have known for the longest time, since the early ’80s in fact, said as much and I’m grateful to him for encapsulating the thought so well.

The talks were a real pleasure to listen to (this, left, on synchrotron x-ray methods by Silvia Ramos, late of the Diamond Light Source); Julian Jones asked me to pose for a picture with him before the talks got underway – and then edited it into his slides on bioactive glasses, along with a cute Simpson-esque image to mark our meeting in 2002.
It is inevitable, perhaps natural, to hear decisions, events and outcomes described through the lens of post hoc rationalisation. There is a risk that history gets re-written. What may seem, looking back, to have been associated with a logical progression of thought and planning might in truth owe more to serendipity and ‘trial and error’, and to have relied upon individuals and the team as a whole being able to discern and sift the useful from the rest. Having said that, we can learn from the generic lessons revealed through hindsight – and we should value them accordingly. Apart from the central importance of the fact that it is people who do science, I also believe that one needs to be as open and generous with one’s co-workers as one is with ideas; sharing matters. Moreover, honesty and integrity are of course ideals always worth striving for – in professional life as elsewhere. Out of these things come the ethos of a research team, and of the partnerships and wider community in which it operates. However well or poorly I have learned or lived up to these tenets myself, I count myself as fortunate to have worked alongside many who themselves have shown a deep appreciation of their worth. My own contribution and legacy, whatever that is judged to be, will disperse and diffuse – as it must: I am moving on to new things, content in the knowledge that excellent people continue the work. 

One of many images captured by Gavin or my wife during the day: this one was taken after the dinner and captures the group who worked so well together during about 15 years of research on bioactive glasses (see here). The four ‘principal investigators’ are central to the front row – Julian Jones, Mark Smith, me and Jonathan Knowles; we were once described in connection with one of our funding bids as The Dream Team: a label that’s hard to forget.
And this brings me to the title of my post … at the end of the meeting, prior to the entirely enjoyable evening meal that was still to come, I was given the chance to say a few words. I had prepared nothing; my hope was that the events of the day would put words into my mouth. What came out as my heartfelt thanks to everyone was pinned to the two words ‘blessed’ and ‘humbled’: blessed to have been able to get to know and to work alongside some utterly amazing people, and humbled that they had given of their time (and money) to participate in this day of celebration in my honour. Those same two words still hold true as I complete this reflection. A day of celebration? Yes, certainly; but to my mind it was a day that celebrated us all, and did so through the relationships that bind us together across the globe, through time and in umpteen other ways.

Taken by Gavin, the event's originator and organiser, this image captures many of those who participated.
________________________________________________________________

I recently completed a series of posts in which I reflect on a few themes associated with my life and career as a research scientist and university academic; these may be found at:
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 – tales from a travelling scientist.
6) Why so many? – gender balance in the research team
7) Committees: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly – making things work: discussion, consensus and decision?
8) Large-scale Facilities for Small-scale Science – the big ‘toys’ I’ve helped to build and to nurture
9a) Experiments in Teaching and Learning – teaching at a university (part 1)
9b) Flipping Lectures – teaching at a university (part 2)


Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Flipping Lectures


(Reflections on a life in science: #9b teaching at a university)


This is the second instalment of my end-of-career reflection on undergraduate teaching and learning – or, rather, on a few of the ‘experiments’ I undertook in that context.

Final year projects are often regarded as the highlight of a student’s time with us and I was fortunate in having a leading role in defining their ethos. They offer the scope for genuinely open-ended high-level research, albeit necessarily time-limited and confined to areas in which there’s a suitable academic guide. Although still applicable to the minority of students, it has always encouraged me to see how many of them achieve enough work of a high enough standard to find its way into co-authored research journal papers. For the four-year masters-level degree programme, wherein the project constituted half of the final year and was therefore a ‘big deal’, a particular innovation was the introduction of ‘role play’ into their summative talk. I set the whole thing up as though it was a research conference: abstract booklet, tight timetable … and the pièce de la résistance: bringing someone in to film the whole thing and then using the footage to provide feedback. From its inception, this conference model had the effect of encouraging students to raise their game. One of the most common student feedback comments established that this was simultaneously the scariest and also the most exhilarating part of the whole exercise. Even now, a decade or so later and after successive generations of our external examiners have praised the practice, my old department remains almost unique in offering the experience.

Getting a pat on the back is usually fun, and my one-and-only entry into the Faculty awards process yielded sufficient prize money to purchase the camcorder, microphones and other kit needed to consolidate the longer-term use of video-recording as a teaching and learning tool. However, whilst I gladly left all that kit behind me when I retired, I made sure to bring home the mugs presented to me in the annual awards made on the basis of student nominations.
In some senses however, the role-play idea only really took flight in the context of the group projects undertaken by our three-year BSc students. Groups of six or so students would each settle on a topic to work on and then elect a Project Manager who would ‘pitch’ the idea to me – in my role as CEO you understand. Once we’d agreed the overall scope of the work they would define their objectives in writing, including work allocation frameworks, a rational Gantt Chart and so on. From that point onward I would interact only with the Managers (- unless something went horrendously wrong, which was exceptionally rare); progress was monitored via the minutes from their weekly meetings. Key to embedding this role play was to convey the idea that the group succeeded, or didn’t, as a group: at assessment, marks were given to the group rather than to the individual (- again, with rarely-invoked safeguards). Furthermore, peer assessment played a part; for instance, a group’s presentation at the end of the whole thing – also recorded for feedback by the way, subject to all the appropriate ethical permissions – was evaluated by the other groups. There was an unmistakable ‘buzz’ to these group projects. A fairly natural development became possible about three years ago when an admirable colleague (George Dobre) secured pump-priming funds from the Institute of Physics to create links between our students and industry and other external organisations. The whole group project concept is now set within joint work with a variety of places ranging from the aerospace industry to the NHS and local museums.

The group projects also provide me with my final example, which deals with the matter of teachers learning from their students. A group had decided to work around the topic of science in movies, and they expanded on this by designing a demonstration experiment projectile motion to illustrate one particularly poor bit of ‘Hollywood physics’. They trialed their experiment in a local school and with their first-year peers, and got some very positive feedback. I was so taken with what they achieved that I began to incorporate and develop the use of movie clips, snippets from newspapers etc. in my own teaching in order to try to spark discussion and analytical appraisal. Within a year I was extolling its virtues at teaching conferences. Somehow, a journalist in the USA heard about it and wanted to incorporate the idea in an article he was writing. Thankfully, the student group’s project manager was still around, by then as a postgraduate research student, and we jointly participated in a 45-minute ’phone interview with the journalist. The story made the front cover of the magazine, which was nice – but the bigger story remains centred on the long-term contribution made by my students on the way I presented physics to their succeeding generations. Such fun.
Science News was, and I believe still is, an American science magazine published by the Society of Science and the Public. The group project manager whose team kicked this whole thing off contributed hugely to the interview; she is now a lecturer in physics herself (here).
My innovative swansong was a move away from the more conventional lecture, which was an experiment unnervingly described as ‘brave’ by several colleagues. Having made audio recordings of my lectures for several years so that students could download them for revision (and perhaps for other good-natured purposes - see YouTube clip here) it was a natural step to volunteer to join the small team spending a year testing out the proposed new system for video-recording lectures. The trial went well; it was relatively easy for the lecturer to use once we’d ironed out the bugs, and my students loved it. Interestingly, the fear that students would simply not attend lectures, in favour of simply watching online, never materialised: evidently, the ‘live show’ is still worth getting up for. With a couple of years of video-recorded lectures in the digital bank, a tempting new experiment became feasible: FLIPped lectures. This is an approach which, in essence, has students study the next bit of the syllabus at their convenience in advance of the timetabled ‘lecture’ slot, and then use the face-to-face time they have with the lecturer to explore aspects they couldn’t fully understand, work through related problem-solving exercises and so on. My students had been asking for more supported/guided problem-solving work for quite a while, but the traditional timetable simply couldn’t accommodate extra sessions; FLIPping the lectures not only made this possible, but re-enforced the value of personal study and of studying alongside friends. There was additional support via small-group Peer Mentoring sessions (here) for those who wished to avail themselves of it. This was a scheme I introduced into the department a few years earlier within which, after some training, more experienced students held learning support drop-in sessions for their early-years peers. As for any novel approach, and arguably especially for a scheme that dropped altogether the teaching philosophy endemic to most of their education hitherto, there were a few sceptical students. However, on the whole the feedback was overwhelmingly positive; this was underlined by the end-of-year results: for the first time, as far as I can recall, absolutely no-one failed the FLIPped module. I’m delighted to say that a handful of my ex-colleagues are taking this approach forward within their own teaching; it’s good to know that there is a positive legacy.
This screenshot from my university’s e-learning web pages reveals a further legacy in that a few minutes from one of my own lecture recordings is still used to demonstrate the software to aspiring lecturers; quite flattering really.
I have studiously stayed away from any attempt at a review or appraisal of the more generic aspects of teaching and learning developments during my career: it’s a huge topic and would need far more space than is practicable this pair of blog posts. It is perhaps sufficient to note that I began teaching using a very conventional ‘chalk & talk’ approach – almost unaltered since before I was a student in the early ’70s – within which the technology was limited to the occasional use of an overhead projector. Students took handwritten notes; there were almost no handouts and neither were copies of the notes or other support material available on the internet (which simply wasn’t available then, any more than PCs were). However, as I pointed out in the first instalment of this two-part reflection, as ICT capability and capacity developed so it became possible to explore and exploit its potential, and by the time I retired video-enabled FLIPped approaches could readily be realised – along with a fast-emerging use of smartphones and …


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.
5) Suitcase Science: travelling in hope – tales from a travelling scientist.
6) Why so many? – gender balance in the research team
7) Committees: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly – making things work: discussion, consensus and decision?
8) Large-scale Facilities for Small-scale Science – the big ‘toys’ I’ve helped to build and to nurture
9a) Experiments in Teaching and Learning – teaching at a university (part 1)

Saturday, 14 May 2016

Experiments in Teaching and Learning


(Reflections on a life in science: #9a teaching at a university)

More than six months ago I promised a colleague that I would record a few reflections on my three-decade academic career. With this post I hope to complete what was originally envisaged as three or four posts, but which has evidently grown to nine. Given that my work with undergraduate students has been such a major part of my career, it’s perhaps not too surprising that this turned out to be a longer post than the average post, much longer. One post has therefore become two, with the prosaic sub-headings 9a and 9b …

Teaching (and learning) has always had a special place in both my heart: from the school teachers who inspired me (here), and despite those who did not, through to the final university lecture I delivered earlier this year, and to my continuing outreach and public engagement activities (pick almost any of my posts, e.g. here). There must be a focus however, and in the context of this post I intend to concentrate on my teaching as a university lecturer – one of the many aspects of my job that I loved. I’ll try to highlight a few examples of the sort of innovation (experimentation, or 'playing' in other words) that I have stumbled upon during my three decades as an apprentice to several masters, including my students. In one sense, nothing has changed: after all, the fundamentals of Physics at the undergraduate level are largely the same now as they were at the start of my career. There have been changes to the syllabus of course. These are usually introduced to cull material considered as ‘redundant’ in order to provide ‘space’ for new topics – and skills – as their perceived importance emerges, or to rework the way in which the material is handled. Some of the more noticeable changes are arguably those associated with modes of delivery and of study. In part, although not central in my opinion, this is driven by a change in the culture of the profession. One might contrast my first lecture, when I had been thrown in at the proverbial ‘deep end’ a couple of weeks after taking up my junior lectureship, to the more overtly constrained nature of today’s three-year probationary period in which extensive training, monitoring and mentoring support is provided within a ‘lightened’ workload. This supportive environment is potentially of significant benefit; it was not, however, a part of my own experience. Thus, my motivation owes almost nothing to formal training programmes but rather a lot to a cocktail of inspirational colleagues, a desire always to be doing something new, and for want of a better description, a fear of being seen to do a bad job. In other words I pick up on interesting ideas, I don’t like intellectual stagnation and I had a need to battle ‘Imposter Syndrome’. It is also important to note the fact that, irrespective of one’s motivation, much of this change has been technology-enabled in one way or another.


The manifestations of these driving forces need not be confined to the lecture theatre or teaching laboratory of course. Indeed, the very first memory I have of raising the eyebrows of more ‘traditionalist’ colleagues was when I introduced Earl Grey tea and ‘proper coffee’ into my weekly small-group tutorial sessions with first year students, and encouraged them to bring along biscuits or doughnuts. We also had a habit of rushing through the set-piece assignments in order to get to some more interesting contemporary science. Years later, one particularly successful graduate who had been a part of this regime recalled her introduction to Earl Grey tea with such fondness that I donated my teapot to her when I retired; she is herself now a talented physics lecturer, so perhaps the habit will live on in some way. On the larger scale, I remain proud of the fact that I used what influence I had accumulated by the mid ‘90s – so, about a decade after arriving – to establish a large and well-situated room in our department as a ‘study room’ for our students, and to equip it with decent furniture, a suite of PCs and copies of key textbooks. Even in the face of a change of building and the intense pressure on space that exists nowadays, I am delighted to be able to say that the Study Room is still going strong. In truth, it has become so integral to the working life of our students that it would take a brave person indeed to close it down.

The Study Room as it looks in its present form (during the Easter vacation when its use drops off for a week or two). Amazingly, despite several moves, the compilation of cartoons on the walls have survived from when I pulled them together almost 20 years ago (from here); they depict events associated with science and technology as seen through the eyes of newspaper cartoonists from the ‘60s onwards.
However, the principal focus of this post was to be innovation in teaching. My first really bold step started in the late '80s and was associated with exploring computer-aided learning of basic maths. and of scientific programming (in Fortran 7, should you be interested). A novel hypertext software package, Guide, written by someone at my own university, became available and I was keen to explore its potential. I possessed the lecture notes and a pile of textbooks, but had precious little time available to turn them into the student-paced self-learning tools I envisaged. I invoked then a scheme I have since used many times in various guises: to recruit a suitable group of motivated students to work as a team in order to pull everything together under my guidance. For two or three successive Summer vacations, and using small amounts of money I had managed to obtain from one organisation or another (e.g. the Nuffield Foundation), I paid these small groups first to draft and then to ‘polish’ the material. It worked wonderfully well: the project students, several of whom wanted to go into teaching as a profession, gained some great work experience and I ended up with working software packages. The programming course was successfully deployed immediately and continues to be used to this day, albeit within a more modern hypertext framework (HTML), and further developed and modified by my several successors. The maths. package never really saw the light of day: almost as soon as it became ready for ‘field- tests’ our course design changed in such a way as to render it redundant and I took on new teaching duties. C’est la vie. It survived for a few years as an online tool for those students who wanted to use it for their own purposes. These were the very first examples at my university, and amongst the first in the country, of an entire lecture module being presented in this way. The key reason it was appreciated by our students was the freedom it gave them to work at whatever pace suited their abilities: the autodidacts and those already competent at part or all of the syllabus could race forward, whilst those needing to go over things more slowly could do so – and I was released to focus my efforts on those students needing the most help. It saved me absolutely no time overall, far from it, but I remain convinced that the learning experience was improved for the student. For anyone tempted to suggest that this was a forerunner of today’s MOOCs (Massive Open Online Course), I can only say that I sincerely hope not: in my opinion, a key element to a university education is ‘social’ – learning with and from others, working within a team and so on, and I would always want to preserve this.

There have been exciting ideas and plans that have left only an ethereal legacy, or none at all, which is par for the course. One such project, which I led during the late ’90s but which never did come to fruition, was called Refreshing Physics (see here). This was predicated on the use of context-led learning: presenting physics not subject-by-subject in the traditional sense but through the context of ‘real-world’ phenomena and experimental data. For example, using natural phenomena such as earthquakes and storms as the setting for the physics of waves and vibrations, electric fields, angular momentum etc. (see here). Part of the philosophy was to make the transition between school ‘A’-level Physics and first year university work a lot smoother than is typically the case; we aimed to ensure that undergraduates were more enthused by Physics and less intimidated by it. Moreover it was a key tenet that we establish a strong advisory input from those companies and organisations that employ graduate physicists. Lauded by everyone we showed it to, from government ministries to professional bodies like the Institute of Physics, and by the educators we presented it to at conferences, we nevertheless failed to raise the financial backing required to explore it fully and to test it out. We found ourselves in a funding ‘Catch 22’, with our own University saying we needed to get external funding and the external organisations saying they expected, as a minimum, pump-priming funds from our university. To this day I remain utterly convinced of the value of this teaching and learning approach, but I have long since resigned myself to the fact that it’ll not happen – certainly not on my watch.

One of the very first things the Refreshing Physics team organised was an all-day meeting between some of our undergraduates and year 11/12 pupils (then called sixth-formers) and their teachers in order to understand better what the school-university transitional problems might be and how we might mitigate their negative effects.

The second installment will be uploaded in about a week ...


Earlier posts in this series:
1) The Girt Pikebeginnings and transitions. 
2) Do Labels Last a Lifetime? – people and other influences. 
3) Nomadic Research: random walk or purposefuljourney? – a timeline in research. 
4) Tools of the Trade – instruments and gadgets.
5) Suitcase Science: travelling in hope – tales from a travelling scientist. 
6) Why so many? – gender balance in the research team
7) Committees: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly– making things work: discussion, consensus and decision?
8) Large-scale Facilities for Small-scaleScience – the big ‘toys’ I’ve helped to build and to nurture