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.

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.