Wednesday, 12 July 2017

“Science is always wrong”


All the while I was doing it I would get quizzical, sometimes incredulous looks and comments from a sizable fraction of my academic colleagues. Why, they would ask, do I fight to stay closely involved when, in my position – whatever that was I never did fully understand, I could take my pick? ‘They needed my experience elsewhere’ where I would, apparently, ‘get a better shot at picking up research students’ … and so on and so forth. It wasn’t that dissimilar to the internationally well-known and highly respected senior colleague at a previous place of work informing me that I must be mad to leave a fast-track* career there for a junior academic post at an obscure provincial university. Their snippets of advice weren’t a million miles away from so many others I had heard before and have politely listened to since, all of which I am prepared to believe were well-meaning, and many of which may even have been right. However, sometimes no amount of dissuasion will ever be enough.

I helped to design our Foundation Year in Physics (which currently looks like this). It was a time of weak student recruitment and there’s no doubt that this motivated my head of department’s decision to task me and a couple of colleagues with the job. School-leavers with the ‘wrong’ qualifications to enter a Physics degree by conventional routes might change direction or make up for past under-performance by taking what was, in essence, a pre-degree programme of study. Result: more students going into Year 1 of our mainstream undergraduate course. Despite an initially reluctant involvement, I soon came to recognise that this had the potential to offer a ‘second chance’ to people who might need it. Goodness knows I’ve benefited from many of those in my time. Through more than two decades between its formation and my retirement, typically teaching over a quarter of the course to cohorts of up to 70 in number, I never found a group of students more worthy of my investment than were these ‘Year 0’ students. It is no surprise then that most of the innovations I experimented with were introduced in the hope of benefiting them – and thereafter the other groups I taught; I wrote about some of this in a couple of earlier post, here and here. What does this have to do with the title (which, by the way, is extracted from a longer quotation by George Bernard Shaw, see here)?
Read on …

One of the challenges was to persuade students who might regard themselves as ‘failures’ in one sense or another that they had something to contribute. An excellent route turned out to be the use of film/TV/computer game clips and other mass-media as a way into discussing their respective physics content, but another was for me to light a fuse by making an ostensibly outrageous comment – like the one in my title – and watching them defend their chosen subject. Eventually, we’d meander to the point at which most would recognise the kernel of truth in the proposition: history tells us that science is indeed always ‘wrong’. Let’s take one obvious example: the intellectual giant Isaac Newton gave us many elegant descriptions of the physical universe around us and no school textbook on physics is complete without the equations derived from his work. His research on light and colour, for instance, out-lasted the other descriptions available and still holds sway (see my post here to learn more). His description of the effects of gravity, although supreme for more than three centuries and still quite effective in most everyday circumstances, eventually gave way to Einstein’s work on the General Theory of Relativity. In other words, put crudely, Newton and the science associated with him was proved wrong in this regard. ‘Science’ was wrong and needed to be revised. The scientific knowledge we have today will be in need of revision tomorrow. It’s a humbling thought for us scientists – and we fail to take it on board at our peril. There is however a postscript to this line of reasoning. Whilst the results of scientific endeavour are always subject to change over time, it remains the case that that they give us the best insight into the workings of the physical world that we have at a given stage of history. We would have been fools to ignore Newton’s work, and thereby miss all the opportunities for advancement it afford us, on the off-chance that an Einstein was around the corner. We need also to keep in mind that science is more than its results: it’s a methodology, a way of asking questions and testing the limits to our understanding of the material world that is less susceptible to the vagaries of the human mind than some other means of inquiry.

My own early-stage career, as a graduate PhD student in the 1970s, put me in the position of demonstrating that one set of theories was inadequate and that an alternate was required. It was a scary thing to do at the time. Analogous thresholds have been crossed by the excellent former members of my research team from the mid-‘80s onward. However, there is only one true test of the commitment of an individual scientist to the principle of humility outlined above: what happens when one of their own pet theories or shiny experimental results are shown to be in need of revision … or replacement.

Now we reach the impetus behind my drafting of this post. A few days ago I received an email from a member of a German-Canadian research team describing in some detail why their recent data might require that a piece of work I was involved with over two decades ago probably needs to be re-interpreted. The email to me was a kindness – they could simply have written to the editor of the appropriate scientific journal and immediately lodged their comment in print; they wanted instead to see whether, on behalf of my co-authors of the time, I might like to say something first. I wrote back immediately. I shared with them the impracticality of pulling together the people and raw data of more than 20 years ago to undertake a re-analysis in light of this new information. I’m also pleased that I can say that I was able to commend and thank them for their work; I reassured them I saw this as science gaining benefit from their careful review.

Phew:
https://goo.gl/images/5N7Juf

* His words, not mine: I was never ‘fast-tracked’ through anything as far as I am aware, nor would I wish to be.



Friday, 26 May 2017

Paintings in Light



Welcome to the second instalment of my two-part post on the interaction of light with glass. The first part (in which I attempted to cover some foundations regarding what glass is, its transparency, the way light behaves as it passes through and how one can introduce colours) may be found here. As promised in that initial post, the intention is to move on to stained glass windows, and to highlight the interdisciplinary work of conservators who are committed to passing on these inherited treasures to future generations. Before diving into the subject itself I must acknowledge several people. First, my friend Martyn Barr who generously allowed me to recycle the title of his excellent book and use it as my own (see here, second and third paragraph, or here for further details). However, absolutely central to this piece is Léonie Seliger and her wonderful team at the Glass Studios of Canterbury Cathedral; I never tire of visiting them and of being able continually to learn new things from them. I am also very grateful to Jane Walker, the Cathedral’s Head of Communications, for her permission to use the images I captured on my 'phone during a recent visit.
Before I focus on the glass of Canterbury Cathedral I’ll share with you a few images from elsewhere, ecclesiastical and otherwise. On the left is a window I photographed in Folkestone (Kent, UK; All Souls church) after delivering a talk on glass there: the window was donated by the artist, Gabriel Loire, in the year of my birth; it is made from ‘chunks’ of coloured glass rather than cut sheets. Middle top shows a small part of the Roots of Knowledge windows by Tom Holdman, with the Big Bang depicted on the left and prehistoric humans to the right. Below that is shown a stained glass garden sculpture by Joe Szabo, spotted during a visit to the Royal Horticultural Society’s Wisley site. On the right are two examples of Louis Comfort Tiffany’s work; the top one I was fortunate to see during a visit to Chicago but not, sadly, the collection of lampshades shown below .

I doubt there are many people who are unaware of stained glass, even if they’ve seen only images; there are windows and other works of art based on the use of coloured and painted glass in buildings right around the world. In Europe, the techniques employed to create them date back more than a millennium, and novel examples continue to emerge. In order to maintain focus and to avoid turning this into an overly-long post, I will not attempt to describe how a window is made; that job has been done many times over (e.g. in Martyn Barr’s highly accessible book, see above, and in videos like this one, and this). The essential stages begin with the artist’s design, then cutting and shaping appropriately coloured glass to that design before painting on the fine detail – which may be fused into the glass surface using a furnace or occasionally ‘cold-painted’ onto the glass. The individual pieces are slotted into place using lengths of ‘H-shaped’ lead which are soldered together at each junction. For a large window comprising multiple sub-sections of the overall design each part is then tied to a supporting frame, usually of iron, using copper wire which has been soldered to the lead. There are variants on this formula, as in the windows created from relatively thick ‘chunks’ of coloured glass broken from a large block to create a more abstract effect, but I’ll confine my coverage of those to one of the images above.
These images will hopefully illustrate the way in which glass pieces are assembled and then sub-sections of a window are fixed to the frame. Copper wire is first attached to the leading, as in the mock-up shown top right, before being twisted around the frame to support the assembly in its final resting place. The ties shown in use on the right help to support Canterbury Cathedral’s Great South Window, recently re-installed after the surrounding masonry was replaced/renovated and the glass disassembled for conservation work. The image on the left shows the scaffolding I climbed through – with permission and a hard-hat, naturally – in order to get the in situ image.

When light passes through them, the windows ‘come to life’. However, the way in which they do so is affected by more than just the nature of the incident sunlight. For instance, in glass sheets made by traditional methods rather than by the commercially dominant float glass process – blowing a tube shape, cutting off the ends, slicing along its length and allowing the cylinder to fold outwards – there will be variations in thickness apart from anything else. Add to that the fact that older glasses, medieval for example, will probably include cullet (waste or recycled glass) of varying provenance, and differences in colour/shading from one part of the sheet to another will almost certainly be apparent. The fragment shown here illustrates this effect. There is a great deal of fascinating
archaeological science undertaken on such specimens, and the origins of particular glasses may now be revealed in some detail by studying the material at a microscopic level. (For those wanting to dig a little deeper, into the red-coloured glasses of antiquity for example, I suggest a close look at the accounts published by Ian Freestone, who is also very much involved in the project I initially outline here (second half), and which I’ll update below.)

One of the more profound effects of a stained glass window on the light passing through it, beyond selecting out a particular colour that is, is associated with the phenomenon of light scattering. Whether we realise it or not, we have all seen the effects of light scattering: blue daytime skies giving way to red sunsets, the whiteness of clouds and of milk etc.; all of this is due to the way in which particles (dust, water droplets, suspended fat droplets etc.) scatter beams of light. So it is too with stained glass windows. If through the effects of corrosion or by the artist’s will the surface regions of a piece of glass become porous, or perhaps picks up a ‘powdery’ layer through chemical attack or the accretion of particulates, something similar happens. Viewing such a window from the inside, that is to say with the window back-lit, gives the impression that the window ‘glows’ – the light coming through it is being scattered in all directions, irrespective of the colour of the glass. This is beautifully illustrated in the images below, associated with a major exhibition mounted by Canterbury Cathedral’s Glass Studio in the USA (see here and here). Some of the oldest surviving medieval stained glass windows that were being removed as part of the Cathedral’s rolling programme of building conservation work travelled to the USA for a season, and as a part of the exhibition the Glass Studio team made a modern replica of one of those windows …
Look first at the image on the left: which window comprises old, ‘rough-surfaced’ glass and which is the modern replica? Both are identically back-lit. Notice that the window on the left looks relatively ‘dull’ yet casts a bright pattern on the floor, whereas the window to the right of the picture appears much brighter but casts only a shadow on the floor. This illustrates the effect of light scattering. The modern window is on the left: the light that passes through it simply travels on until it reaches a surface, in this case the floor. The original window on the right of the picture takes the light that has passed through the coloured glass and, at or near the surface, scatters it widely – so we enjoy the coloured glow from whichever direction we view it, but very little of that light is left to carry on through to the floor. The photo on the right shows the head of the Glass Studio, Léonie, and a senior member of the team, Laura, standing in the transmitted light of a large modern window: just think of the patterns of brightly coloured light that would have bathed Canterbury Cathedral when its medieval windows were young.
Now we move into the realms of conservation. One might naïvely suggest any surface layers ought to be cleaned off in order to return the glass to its original state, but nothing is that straightforward. Remember that some surfaces may have had detail added via the application of a paint, which may have been fused into the surface or simply be applied ‘cold’. Moreover, many of the older glass pieces may be fragile and there is a risk of irreparable damage – especially if the surface layer turns out to be deeper than anticipated. Then comes the need to know what the surface layer is made of since whatever is used to remove it must not also damage the native glass below; this itself can be a complex issue to resolve. However, the question becomes far more complex when the glass artists themselves apply a surface coating since current thinking is that an intentionally applied layer must be left in situ – irrespective of whether we might feel it was ill-advised, or whether it has changed over time. After all, many world-famous paintings change over time because their pigments or other media were not stable – this can be a serious problem with some of the J.M.W. Turner’s work for example because he was keen to experiment with novel paints – and we would be outraged if they were ‘tampered with’. In terms of stained glass windows this particular issue is widespread. For instance, it was not uncommon for Victorian (i.e. 19th century) stained glass artists to try to make their windows look older than they were: perhaps by sprinkling iron fillings onto the surface and then fusing them into the glass in a furnace. Ironically, this has in some cases left us with medieval windows that appear to be younger than Victorian ones. Adding a colour-wash to the surface was also practiced, perhaps to reduce the brightness of a particular section in order to keep it more in line with the window as a whole or artificially to generate the light scattering effect discussed above.

It is exactly this sort of issue currently facing the Glass Studio at Canterbury Cathedral: Victorian windows that are being removed as part of their wider conservation/renovation programme and which, to use the technical term, have a series of ‘blobs’ or patches in particular locations on the glass. The problem was outlined in a post I uploaded last year: here, second half. However, the good news with which I will end this update is that a strong international team of experts is now pooling its efforts in order to resolve the problem. Thus, added to the considerable experience and expertise of the staff of the Glass Studio is an archaeologist from University College London, Ian Freestone, who specialises in applying scientific methods to the study of old glass, and a conservation scientist from Lisbon, Márcia Vilarigues with a wealth of relevant knowledge. I met Ian a few years ago, and have been reading his papers for much longer, and had the pleasure of meeting Márcia for the first time at the conference on glass I wrote about in the post mentioned just above. We finally managed to get us all together a few weeks ago and spent the best part of a day touring the site and poring over examples of the problem at hand. Minute samples of the troubling ‘blobs’ have now gone back to Lisbon for analysis and I have high hopes that we’ll soon know what it is we’re dealing with – and that this will give Léonie and her team the additional scientific insights they need in order to undertake genuinely appropriate conservation work on the windows. The day itself provided a wonderful opportunity to learn from each other in a spirit of partnership – although I rather suspect that I had the most to learn, by far – and I doubt I could convey its excitement adequately in the words of a blog post. In lieu of the better prose required I’ll end by sharing some of the images I captured from the day …
Phase 1: the journey up using the construction workers’ cage lift gave us some extraordinary views of the Bell Harry tower, some heavy-duty masonry, amusing gargoyles and down towards the Cathedral Gate and the city beyond.
Phase 2: the working platform sits atop a huge scaffolding assembly which straddles the nave a long way below; some sense of the height is possible using the left hand image, taken through a hole in the safety netting at the end of the platform and towards the quire and the altar. Even with the nave far below us, the space up there was still enormous. However, the key thing was being able to see some of the affected windows which are still in their original masonry settings.
Phase 3: poring over one of the windows now in the Glass Studio in order to get a better view of the ‘blobs’, which are all-too-evident in the left hand images (these show the same area of the window but viewed from either side – i.e. external and internal surfaces). Tiny amounts of surface material were then carefully removed for detailed scientific analysis.
Phase 4 & etc.: the results, conclusions and conservation decisions are yet to emerge; as in all areas of research, perhaps especially in the area of Heritage Science, patience is a virtue: watch this space …


Further reading
Although I spent a large fraction of my career as a scientist studying glass – there are innumerable entries on the subject within posts on my blog, e.g. here – I have come relatively late to stained glass and its conservation. However, for what it’s worth, these are the books that now sit on my shelves:

Paintings in Light by Martyn Barr, ISBN 978-0-9563429-4-2
Stained Glass of Canterbury Cathedral by M.A. Michael, ISBN 1-85759-365-0
Stained Glass in Canterbury Cathedral by S. Brown, ISBN 0-906211-31-X
Notes on the Painted Glass of Canterbury Cathedral by F.W. Farrar, a digitised version of the1897 original from bibliolife.com (I bought it online from a retailer specialising in out-of-print titles, here.)
Conservation of Glass by R. Newton and S. Davison, ISBN 0-7506-2448-5
The Conservation of Glass and Ceramics ed. by N.H. Tennent, ISBN 1-873936-18-4

Naturally, there is much also available online – both as text and as videos; you might like to take a look at the material uploaded from Canterbury Cathedral for example (e.g. here)

On the history of glass more generally, I find I have the following:
A Short history of Glass by C. Zerwick, ISBN 0-87290-121-1
Glass: a short history by D. Whitehouse, ISBN 978-0-7141-5086-4
5000 Years of Glass ed. H. Tait, ISBN 978-0-7141-5095-6
The Glass Bathyscaphe by A. Macfarlane and G. Martin, ISBN 1-86197-394-2



Monday, 8 May 2017

Colour my Glass


This is the first of a two-part post on glass, and in particular on the way in which light interacts with it. In this first instalment I’ll attempt to cover some glass basics: what glass is, its transparency, the way light behaves as it passes through and how one can introduce colours. Hopefully, this prepares the way for a closer look at stained glass in the second chapter and at a specific, Victorian, example of the sort of issues faced by conservators of Canterbury Cathedral’s stained glass windows.

Rather than spend a lot of time reiterating what I, and others, have written or spoken on in the past regarding what glass is, I’ll offer a brief description and then a couple of links to previous posts and videos. You can choose how wide-ranging you want to go, or how deep you’d like to dig – and by the same token, how long you want to spend on the topic. Perhaps the easiest place to start is via the assumption that most of us are familiar with what a crystal looks like. Even if you don’t have large diamonds or sapphires kicking around the place, you’ll have perhaps seen a crystal of quartz, or even grown salt or other crystals whilst at school. The one thing they have in common is the regularity of their respective shapes: all salt crystals are cubic, natural (i.e. uncut or polished) diamonds are, well, diamond-shaped and so on. The shape they display to us arises directly from the equally regular arrangement of their constituent atoms. Thus, the atoms in a quartz crystal – atoms of silicon and twice as many of oxygen – are also arranged regularly as though on an ever-repeating lattice. In this case however the atoms are arranged in a pyramid-like fashion (shown in the four-part figure below), which gives quartz crystals their characteristic shape. This provides for us a bridge into understanding glass, since the prototypical glass, silica, on which all our windows, bottles etc. are based, has an identical chemical composition to quartz: two oxygen atoms for each silicon atom. Just as in quartz, the atoms are in a pyramidal arrangement with their nearest neighbours – but the key difference is that silica typically solidifies too fast for the atoms to arrange themselves perfectly in 3D: the angles (and distances) vary just a little from one group of atoms to another. This addition of a small degree of disorder is enough to rob the material of any semblance of the regular facets observed with a crystal.
From left to right: a crystal of quartz, showing the regular facets associated with all quartz crystals which arise from the regular arrangement of atoms shown in the second figure (after Prof. A.C Wright). If the key angles vary by a small amount – less than 10 degrees – from one group of atoms to the next then one has the sort of disordered atomic arrangement depicted in the computer-generated model shown in the penultimate figure (after Prof. A. Cormack); it is this disordered structure that is associated with glass, as in the virtual MineCraft® building I wrote about here and which is depicted on the right.

Should you wish to read beyond this basic description I have written about glass, in its several guises, in several former posts, but this one is perhaps the most relevant; move on to this post if you would like learn something of the ‘human factor’ within scientific research into such materials. On the other hand, if you’d prefer to sit back and watch a video presentation on the subject, then look no further than the recording of a public lecture I delivered a few years ago in one of my local museums. The video is approximately 58 minutes long, although the introductory material is confined to the first eight minutes or so.

Having established the basics, and keeping in sight the target of understanding the way in which light is altered as it passes through glass – and coloured glass in particular – one ought first to tackle the matter of glass ‘transparency’. We tend to think of the windows in domestic and commercial buildings, windscreens, display screens etc. when we think about glass in the everyday. We can see through glass: it’s ‘transparent’ (see here for an excellent insight into why this might be). Indeed, the secret of the success of world-wide fibre optic communications resides in the exceptional transparency of the silica glass at its core, first demonstrated in the early 1970s by Donald Keck and co-workers. However, ‘ordinary’ glass isn’t perfectly transparent and might not be very transparent at all under certain circumstances. It all boils down to what sort of glass it is (its chemical composition, whether it includes bubbles, impurities & etc.) and what sort of ‘light’ we’re talking about. I have tried to illustrate this in the images below. The two images on the left show three types of glass: a common (soda-lime) glass typically used in windows, bottles etc. which sits inside a tube of Pyrex glass (a borosilicate) and which, in its turn, sits within the outer tube of pure silica. Viewed side on (left) the composite glass rod seems reasonably transparent, but when viewed end-on (middle image) so that we’re trying to look through a far greater thickness of glass it is obvious that the transparency varies a lot between glasses. Turning now to the diagram on the right, this illustrates the degree to which transparency, or the ability of the glass to transmit light, varies depending on what sort of light is involved. This simplistic diagram provides a representation of the situation with a car windscreen for example: of course we need a high level of light transmission for the visible part of the spectrum – the rainbow colours – but we don’t want a lot of infra-red or ultra-violet getting through as it’s preferable neither to overheat nor to get sunburnt; however, it is important that microwaves are able to pass through as our passengers may wish to use their mobile phones. The situation is very similar for window glass, and a great deal of research and development has gone into the formulation of glasses tailored to achieve these ends.
Please see the text above for an explanation of these figures.
Having now introduced some of the caveats and subtleties behind apparently simple comments such as “glass is transparent” we ought also to mention the important ways in which even transparent glass affects light as it passes through. Key phenomena are refraction and dispersion, which allow us to fabricate lenses and use prisms as well as to explain why a swimming pool looks to be less deep than it really is and where a rainbow comes from. Refraction is the phenomenon by which light is ‘bent’ as it passes from one transparent medium to another, and dispersion tells us that the magnitude of such processes depends on the wavelength – the colour – of the light. I’ll not weigh this post down with a lot of detail since it would be a bit of a diversion from the principal thread. However, if you’d like to know more then please take a look at two of my earlier posts: one on the origin of rainbows (here) and another which illustrates theories of colour through the use of a prism (here).

The final stage of this first post in the pair brings us to the subject of coloured glass. The reason that window glass is reasonably transparent is explained very well at the atomic level in the video I recommended earlier (here): in essence, there are few mechanisms within the glass able to reduce the amount of light passing through. We can change and control that situation, and do so by design. What is needed is the introduction of small concentrations of one or more metals, each of which will offer at least one route by which light of a particular colour will be absorbed. Thus, adding a metal which absorbs light at the red end of the visible spectrum (i.e. from the ‘rainbow colours’) ensures that the light transmitted through the glass has no red within it. We have, in effect, coloured the glass. For example, to give a blue-coloured glass one could use cobalt, copper or ferrous iron; nickel, chromium or ferric iron would yield a yellow-looking glass. Moreover, one can play with the addition of more than one type of metal. For example, a glass containing both ferric and ferrous forms of iron would appear green since that mid-section of the visible light spectrum would be the only part not absorbed by one or the other forms of iron. In passing, I had the privilege of taking part in a project run by the Turner Contemporary Gallery a few years ago in which the topic of colour was explored by a local group of young people. This included a visit to the Glass Studio at Canterbury Cathedral to examine the artistic use of such coloured glasses; the video record of the project is here and my short voice-over on the scientific background to the colours of glass starts at about two minutes in.
One can map the development of the chemistry of metals by looking at the coloured glass used by artists of the time. Within a very few years of their discovery, often less than a decade, a new metal would find itself being used within the glass industry. Some metals imbued not only a particular colour, but more exotic effects. Neodymium, for instance, will colour a glass blue in daylight – but this becomes more red in colour if the glass is illuminated with UV light (a ‘dark light’). Even more dramatic is the effect of UV on the green glass created by adding uranium – yes, uranium was used also – since it fluoresces and emits a very bright yellow-green light.

In the next post we’ll focus on one aspect of the artistic and architectural use of coloured/stained glass, and on the conservation issues associated with old stained glass windows. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this image of one of the many delightful pieces to come out of Peter Layton’s studios; this piece is from his Mirage series.




Monday, 17 April 2017

Peers, papers and ponds


One of the nice things associated with being ‘retired’ is that one can take advantage of a great deal more flexibility within one’s week. However, that only really works in the presence of a variety of opportunities. Thankfully, I continue to benefit from the positive effects of the sort of serendipity I have mentioned often in earlier posts when reflecting on aspects of my life as a scientist. In the last couple of weeks, for example, the more usual spread of activities has been augmented by the need to review the results of some still-novel research from my former research team, an invitation to present certificates-of-achievement to more the 70 amazing students and the chance to engage with a fascinating conservation project.

I have written before about teaching undergraduate physics students and some of the fun I’ve had exploring innovative ways to improve my effectiveness and their learning (see here and here). What I didn’t write about at the time were the ways in which one could successfully support and amplify all this using suitable, trained volunteers from the students themselves. I had the opportunity of helping to test-run and then to develop an academic peer mentoring scheme at my university which was introduced and championed by a particularly committed leader in student support, Allia Wilson, and her team. In essence, certainly as I implemented it within my department, the scheme provides a framework for small groups of those in the first stages of their degree programme to learn directly from capable students in the latter half of their programme. It’s a tremendous scheme, not only for those early-stage students who take advantage of it but also for the volunteer mentors themselves who benefit by digging deeper into their own studies and by learning more about themselves as people, teachers and leaders. Given the tenor of this introduction it will not surprise you to hear that I was, and remain, a huge fan of the scheme. Being invited to present awards to about 70 of this year’s approximately 300 trained volunteers was therefore an opportunity not to be missed. It was of course good to catch up with former colleagues and to be able to say a few words to those gathered, but the highlight was hearing from the mentors themselves – informally during the preceding buffet lunch or after the formalities were over, and in the handful of case-study presentations some of them were able to make. It’s good to see that the project is in safe hands and continues to make a positive contribution.
The obligatory group shot at the end of the ceremonies;
I’m in there somewhere, but I’ll leave the location as a minor mystery for you to resolve.

Although I am no longer actively initiating research projects, there are a few things that couldn’t be brought to completion before ‘retirement’. Slowly, this work is emerging into the light. This week, a former PhD student, now a lecturer in Chemistry at a UK university, sent me her draft manuscript for a paper on silver-doped bioactive glass. Together with our collaborators/partners, we had synthesised a series of sol-gel silicate glasses (see the second half of this post for some generic background and links to further information, or here - again, second half) with various levels of silver added, collected the data but not had sufficient time to analyse or interpret it. Why this particular set of materials? The host bioactive silicate glass bonds to bone and promotes bone regeneration, and the silver imbues it with antibacterial properties. This data was only a few years old, in contrast with the second set of results which came my way – this time from a former research associate in my team, now a senior academic in both the UK and in Canada. She and I collected the data, on a rare-earth doped phosphate glass of great interest within the field of optoelectronics, more than a decade ago during an extended and very demanding experiment in the USA. The ‘delay’ in getting to this final stage arose from the extraordinary complexity of the data and the need to develop analysis routines almost from scratch. In both cases, I’m now looking forward to completing these outstanding projects. I wonder what else is yet to emerge from my former working life …
Schematic representations of the atomic-scale structural features within a rare earth phosphate glass are shown here. On the left is depicted the nearest neighbour environment of oxygen (O) and phosphorus (P) atoms around a rare earth (R); on the right, a slightly larger-scale representation of the interrelationship between the rare earth (yellow) and neighbouring phosphate groups (pink). 

Having now covered ‘peers’ and ‘papers’ we are left only with the ‘ponds’ mentioned in the title. I have been pondering writing a post on vaguely science-related aspects of gardening for some time. However, I’m not a gardener in the classic sense of knowing a lot about flowers and shrubs and so on – I only really enjoy growing edible plants, and we don’t have a garden nearly large enough to allow much of that. I value what I might call the therapy of practical work in the garden, and thankfully my wife – who does know about flowers and shrubs – takes care of the ‘proper’ gardening: our complementary skills make for a good team. What does interest me is being able to make the place a little more attractive to birds, insects and other small creatures. In their turn they give me the chance to sit and stare, and to read and reflect in their midst. So, rather than write a post on the biology and chemistry of making good quality compost or the importance of pH and oxygen levels in a garden pond etc. I’ll share with you a naïve and extremely amateur five-minute video tour of the place.
The video was shot in a single take using my ’phone, so you’ll not be too surprised by the quality either of the picture or of the audio/commentary: I make no claims for it whatsoever, it is ‘a bit of fun’, partially inspired by snippets from BBC's Gardeners World and elsewhere. (Yes, I do realise that at one point I use the word ‘pond’ when I mean ‘garden’. I also omitted all sorts of things I might have mentioned; never mind.)

Postscript: As a very significant bonus to what I’ve written about above, I spent over five hours at Canterbury Cathedral a few days ago in the company of some exceptionally talented scientists, conservators and creative artists. We were focused on conservation issues associated with their stained glass. I have been thinking about writing something on the interaction of light with glass – my favourite material – and this additional opportunity to learn more about the subject of stained glass turns the idea into a high priority. However, rather than expand this short post into an exceptionally long one I’ll devote a separate piece to the topic. Watch this space …


Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Shadows of Science: finding a new voice



In a short article posted early in June last year (2016) I was, yet again, musing on the topic of ‘scientists as real-life people’. The post was catalysed by my discovery, in a book on words which have no clear-cut equivalent in English, of a Japanese word which encapsulates the act of gazing into space without thinking about anything in particular. The post was titled Boketto. As an experiment, for my own benefit more than anyone else’s, I appended to the core reflection a short story I had written as a piece of ‘homework’ for the creative writing group I was a member of. However, I later got cold feet and deleted it. This may have been premature. Having now written several short stories for one writing group or another (and even a competition-winning shape/concrete poem, see here) I have spotted a distinct theme which prompts me to reconsider. I have no desire at present to move my blog away from its core raison d’être – namely to offer posts on being a scientist and on public engagement – but it is evident to me that even my creative writing exercises derive their essence from my life as a scientist. The fact that they are all informed by my experiences as a scientist and an academic ought not to be a surprise of course, given that all authors – even the very amateur ones like me – write out of themselves in some way.

What I intent to do, therefore, is to post a handful of them and allow those interested in reading them to do so and to come to their own verdict. They are all reasonably short, varying from about 1200 to 2000 words, and have had the significant benefit of constructive criticism from fellow amateurs more talented than me; one of the stories even made it to the final ten in a local competition and is due to appear in a small anthology. In this introductory post I will try to draw out some of the more direct links with the events, themes, places or follies of my career. It might also be of interest to fellow creative writers out there if I try to give you a ‘feel’ for the background to each of the exercises: what were the tasks set by our group leaders that gave rise to the stories you read. I have posted them separately, in the order in which they were written, and have included links to each of the stories below; in that way this post will act as a contents page as well as an introduction. I hope you will explore, and perhaps even enjoy, one or more of my stories – but I must of necessity leave that with you.

1) The Baptism of Jon arose from a task which began with the following tasks: pick a character’s name and give this person a tattoo, choose a second character who will either help or hinder the first; there must be a setback, but then a resolution. (Those of you who write will recognise this as a variant of the classic story arc.) There’s no immediate link with the physical sciences but, almost unconsciously at first, I ended up setting the story in a conference room. I’ve been sitting in such rooms, off and on, for four decades …

2) Triple Scoop takes us back to the early 1980s when I was making repeated extended trips to a national laboratory in the USA. I included something of this period of my career in an earlier post (here). The dramatic event at the centre of the story actually happened, and my homage to American ice cream parlours of the time definitely comes from the heart, but the characters are made up: some autobiographical traits and many others borrowed from a mishmash of acquaintances and observation.

3) Carriage C was originally drafted at the rate of ~500 words per installment through a five-session creative writing course with the local University of the Third Age, U3A, but then re-edited to iron out the consequential disjointedness and weakened overall direction. The initial exercise called for a description of a place/space in the absence of people – I wrote it on the train from London to Sheffield, where I was participating in the centenary meeting of the UK’s Society of Glass technology (see here, second half, for my reflections on the conference). Thus, I owe the entire trajectory of the story to this conference journey. Moreover, one of the fellow scientists travelling with me provided the initial constructive feedback.

4) The choice of title for the next story, New Blood, reminds me, although only in hindsight, of the government scheme to help address the age profile of UK universities in the mid-1980s. It was on the strength of this injection of funds that I was able to begin my three-decade academic career. This was a challenging exercise, heavily constrained by the requirement to use the first sentence (in italics) as the opening lines for the story. However, the vision of a group of people jointly writing a ‘make-or-break’ document came directly from experience. Almost all my published scientific output – follow the link at the bottom of the right hand column to 'orcid' for more details – has been collaborative by choice; most of this was managed using fax machines and later via the internet, but not all. There was one truly major item deemed to be so important that we shut ourselves in a room and worked on it in precisely the manner depicted in this story. With genuine affection I wrote about this team of people here.

5) Mr and Mrs Micawber arose from another challenging exercise, in this case to write a short story inspired by an image our creative writing group’s leader had provided. I have included in the post the image allocated to me, together with a crude diagram I thought might prove useful. Apart from a nod towards a pair of characters in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, the setting of the story is heavily inspired by lectures I used to deliver to new physics students during the latter, more confident and relaxed, phase of my academic career. In order to engage those students who lacked confidence in the ‘strange’ learning environment they found themselves in I would show clips from movies as the starting point for science-focused discussion or problem-solving. I made passing reference to this approach in an earlier post, here. An oft-used clip was that of the approach and docking sequence at the rotating space station depicted in Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: a space odyssey’ – a film my daughter once described as “three hours in which nothing happens”, but which to my mind has remained one of the classics of the genre. Thus, Emma and Wilkins Micawber, live on an analogous station sited at the first Earth-Moon Lagrange point ...

I sincerely hope and trust that I will continue to be able to write short fictional stories in the stimulating company of diverse, but universally creative, fellow writers. I do so for my own pleasure, but it will be interesting to see how my life as a scientist continues to inform and populate even these ostensibly ‘non-scientific’ creative writing exercises.


P.s. since posting this, and the five short stories that went with it, I'm glad to say that I've continued to write even fiction as through the lens of my lifelong love of science. My tally of shape/concrete poems has now reached two with a poem titled Cusp, after the mathematical term and which proudly displays the word 'singularity' right at its centre (the first poem, Harmonics, is mentioned here). There is added to this my first free-form poem, which was inspired by what I stumbled across during a mid-experiment walk out of the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory a couple of decades ago. There's a new short story as well, set in the park below Glasgow University within site of the statue of physical scientist Lord Kelvin.



Triple Scoop (story 2)


This is the second installment of the 'appendix' to my post Shadows of Science: finding a new voice ...
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His eyes had long-since given up the struggle to focus on reading, and staring at the screen hanging from the ceiling in front of him brought no relief to this bored weariness. John had never been able to sleep in a chair, and after five hours in the air – more than nine since dragging himself out of bed – his envy of those who could was almost palpable. It didn’t help that Zoë, his boss, had been out for the count for a while now. Even when she was still awake the conversation hadn’t actually flowed. He’d never had to travel with her before, and the fact that she was coming to review his progress made it all feel a little awkward. John turned back from the tiny oval window and glanced in her direction: in fairness, she had at least made an effort and it occurred to him that he could try a little harder to help build their relationship. She wasn’t a bad boss he conceded to himself. There were some advantages in having a career-manager running the team rather than another scientist like himself: at least she understood the system and could use it to good effect. In truth, the entire project might have remained a pipe-dream had she not known exactly how to negotiate through both the UK’s bureaucracy and the analogous American maze. Her use of the cringingly cosy relationship between Reagan and Mrs T. in side-stepping some of the security objections had actually been quite impressive. This internal discussion, one of so many conducted within his borderline-depressive head, concluded with the thought that it was, on balance, reasonable that she might want to see how things were going. This was his third extended trip back to the facility after all. 

He turned back to the window, focusing first on the scratches in the acrylic inner layer and then through his own weary face and out into the big blue. He couldn’t remember when the Atlantic had given way to solid land below; it had all become a bit of a blur, boringly familiar for all its foreignness. The background noise from the aircraft, a DC10-34 of the sort he had come to know far too well, seemed to dissolve all the individual conversations he knew must be taking place around him. He was in that trance-like introspective zone defined only by present tiredness and the rest that refuses to come. 

“What’s the time; how long have I been dozing?” Zoë had stirred, breaking the bubble.

“I’m not sure really; only half an hour or so. We ought to be getting something to eat and drink soon; I hope so anyway.”

Zoë leaned out sideways, craning her neck. “Oh yes, good guess – I can see the cabin crew shuffling around each other in their little station. I’m quite peckish. You OK?”

John never got the chance reply.

The bang coincided with a feeling of being shoved, but from nowhere in particular: whilst the sound came vaguely from below, the jolt seemed to come from everywhere – through his feet, his backside, the elbow resting on the narrow window frame; everywhere. This was not good. That much would have been obvious to everyone, but what really surprised him was the silence. No-one made a sound; even the aircraft seemed quieter. The conversations habitually going on in his head seemed also to diffuse away, making way for something deeper and darker, beyond language. For the few tens of seconds it lasted, this was surreal. 

It was the seat belt sign repeatedly pinging its way into their consciousness that initiated the change. Now, even as buckles clicked and straps were pulled, everyone turned to look at their neighbours as if to discern answers to their voiceless questions. Following Zoë’s eyes, John strained upward against his own seat belt and could just about make out the cabin crew leaving their catering tasks and strapping themselves in; one of them held a handset against her ear. He sat back down hard and re-tightened his belt as the plane banked and rapidly lost altitude. Neither John, with his semi-detached analytical mind, nor Zoë out of her added years of maturity, could accurately have told anyone how long these phases lasted. In all likelihood, barely a minute would have elapsed thus far – if that – but ones perception of time is subjective; it seemed longer. 

Out of this time-dilated state, focus gradually began to creep back in to John’s thoughts. The sound of the engines was still there, although their tone had been altered from the constant drone that travelled with them across the ocean. If he craned his neck he could tell that the wing on his side was apparently intact. Presumably the other side of the aircraft was in a similar state as the descent, although very rapid, seemed to be taking place in a controlled fashion; they were a long way from falling out of the sky. More than that, the oxygen masks hadn’t dropped from overhead so there was unlikely to have been a serious breach to the aircraft’s skin. Zoë looked reasonably calm as she stared forward and towards the cabin crew, although she was avoiding eye contact and had her hands firmly pushed down onto her legs. John found himself praying. Not for himself so much as for his wife and kids and then for the rest of his family – even for Zoë – that they’d be OK no matter what. Still no-one spoke. Shouldn’t there be screaming or something? Had he looked towards the window at this point John would have seen much the same face gazing back at him as before, apparently dispassionate although perhaps now with a clearer hint of the lines and furrows that become etched on us all eventually.

Then came the voice. This was not the immediately forgettable guy who cheerily welcomed us all to the flight. No, this person introduced himself as the captain. He spoke slowly, in a controlled fashion and with an intonation John could only describe as reminiscent of ‘Gone with the Wind’. It was a voice that positively exuded calm and confidence; everyone, John included, drank it in as though it was the elixir of the gods. 
“There is no immediate danger. One of our hydraulic compressors developed a fault and is now out of action. This could cause a problem when we come to lower the undercarriage prior to landing, but we have others in the system so it may come to nothing.” 

May? MAY? He stared at the point in the ceiling he thought the voice had emerged from, almost as though it gave him some form of direct contact with the person at the other end.

“Our intended destination remains the best choice for us given our position, and as an international gateway, Dallas–Fort Worth is able to deploy the very best facilities.”

The blindingly obvious question regarding what these ‘facilities’ were for, which presumably took shape in more heads than John’s, wasn’t answered. The captain went on to ask everyone to stay seated with their belts fastened. He must have followed his announcement with another set of instructions for the cabin crew because they soon unbuckled themselves, stowed all their catering stuff away again and then began a studied walk through the cabin. This was ostensibly to check seat belts but was mostly an attempt to follow their leader in calming fears. It occurred to John that the crew’s rate of progress through the cabin was barely interrupted at all; so in need of this token of reason-defying comfort, the overwhelming majority of passengers evidently accepted it without question. So did he.

It is probable that the majority of the conversations that now erupted around the cabin were variants on the one between Zoë and John: mostly at the level of small-talk, or what passes for that in their respective worlds. John spoke of the built-in redundancy within the aircraft’s engineering systems meaning that ‘there’s always a spare’, Zoë of her belief that ‘they’ know what they’re doing; mutually reassuring vacuous statements which brought them a reminder of their former sanity. The important words were left unspoken, echoing within their heads. Whether in deference to this internal caucus, or as an acknowledgement that the great distance between them had hitherto been bridged only by their work, the words faded away. Zoë opened her book and made an effort to read, and John turned again to look out of the window. He could make out features of a size he’d usually expect to see only in the final minutes of descent towards an airport, but the ground was closer now of course. The landscape, framed as it was by this small oval window, looked like a pale brown colour wash his wife might apply as she started another of her watercolours. It was all so typical of the Southwest in summer, and rather pretty in its own way. He guessed they were in Arkansas, although it could be eastern Texas. There were occasional parallel lines created by the ubiquitous pickup truck, and undulations delineated by their shadows; in the distance, he spotted elongated lakes and clumps of pinyon pine. 

When the sun shone up at him it appeared so suddenly that it surprised his eyes and made him recoil for a moment. In a long finger of water, placed there to create exactly the right angle to his window, to his eyes, was the sun. It ran along the surface keeping pace with him until switched off by the wilderness dust before, a few seconds later, demanding to be seen again in the surface of the next lake or pond. John couldn’t help but smile at the thought of schoolboy physics driving a dazzling light show such as this, or was it the other way around? Either way, it was beautiful: too beautiful to leave behind. He turned back to Zoë, determined to make some contact – to hold on to normality. He talked of feeling the warmth of the late afternoon Texas air cocooning their skin when they disembarked; he smiled as he confessed his traditional first task: locating a proper American ice cream parlour the instant he was through immigration and customs. But today was a special. Today he would treat himself to a new flavour and he’d buy one for her. She smiled back, as a parent smiles at a child, but she didn’t speak.

The tone of the engines changed and the plane’s speed dropped as they reduced their altitude further. Unpleasantly loud noises started coming from beneath his feet, like the sound his dad’s car had made all those years back when the clutch and gear box had failed half way through their family holiday – only worse. Muscles re-tensed all around the cabin, Zoë’s hands pushed her book down onto her legs with force and John had to will himself to keep his eyes open as he mentally rehearsed the brace position. The noise continued for several minutes before stopping.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are approaching Dallas–Fort Worth. We have been given priority over other traffic and they confirm their readiness for our arrival.” 
The captain’s announcement signaled the imminent and inevitable arrival of their make-or-break moment; it made the cabin crew’s standard-issue housekeeping announcements regarding tray tables and seat backs seem vaguely light-hearted. John kept his eyes to the window as the ground approached; Zoë closed hers tight. 

A dozen or more red trucks were driving alongside the runway but failing to keep up. 

One way or another they must land, any second now. 

So many breaths being held, held, held. 

John decided that he’d treat himself to three scoops today.



© R.J. Newport, November 2016.



The Baptism of Jon (story 1)


This is the first installment of the 'appendix' to my post Shadows of Science: finding a new voice ...
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Only Sara noticed when the side door opened and a non-descript man diffused into the room, every inch the IT support guy. She was careful to ensure that her gaze didn’t dwell on him in case others should begin to pay attention. His timing was perfect; the final speaker before lunch had easily survived the few shallow, notice-me questions at the end. This was a weary audience all aching to stretch their legs, or pee, or just to be able to refocus their eyes away from the screen; there was much shuffling of chairs. It had been a long morning session of technical talks; yes, she thought, catching his unremarkable movements reflected in a window, this is the time. Her fingers moved, almost unconsciously, to the small blue lamb tattooed high on her neck and under her hair; she thought of his, a dolphin.

Jonathan Whistler is a man who habitually walks through the corridors of his life with eyes cast down lest the betrayals and disappointments of his past reflect themselves in the faces of others. He’s not a man to be noticed, never stands out in the crowd; even his clothes would only whisper apologetically of their middle-of-the-road chain-store pedigree. No-one notices Jon, no-one remembers him; except Sara, maybe.

He walked around the edge of the small conference room to the podium. Climbing the three steps he moved quietly across the carpeted platform, behind the session chair’s table, and knelt down behind the lectern. An audio system, lighting panel and various projector controls faced him, all interconnected through a snake’s nest of cables – a surprisingly large feature given that most devices had communicated with one another wirelessly since his refit of the room. Now at least there was no confusion: this was his territory; here he was lord. He reached towards the far left corner of the shelf, his fingers feeling under the useful mass of mostly redundant cables. He only needed the small matt black box, which he slipped into his pocket. All morning, and all of yesterday, speaker after speaker had connected their laptops to the system in the assured belief that everything was contained within the four walls of their venue. And since yesterday morning, Jon’s little black box had been watching and listening more attentively than any delegate. It had also been digging: excavating into the recesses of each and every laptop haplessly delivered into its unfelt embrace. A great deal was entrusted to the hard drives it welcomed; data, yes of course, but so much more: desire, motive, deceit – all of it now in Jon’s pocket as he stood back up and retraced his steps.

Once back in the corridor, Jon walked towards the stairs and began the two-storey climb. The door onto the flat roof which hosted the company’s microwave communications equipment was locked to all staff, except for those in the IT team of course. He walked gingerly to the parapet, but peered over only momentarily – just enough time to verify that the truck was there, its back covered in the sticky netting they’d talked about. With almost palpable relief he gently lobbed his little black box over the side. His sacred task, his longed-for baptism into Sara’s world, was entering its final stage.

The lighter steps he took as he descended the stairs would not have been noticed by anyone who didn’t know Jon well, and so few did, but in a passing glance which nevertheless took it all in, Sara noted them as he turned onto the final flight. He was about six steps from the end when he allowed himself to look up for long enough to see her; she was smiling as she waltzed through the scanner and left the building with half a dozen other hungry delegates. She’ll make her excuses and split from them once she’s out of site he thought. So far, so good.

It took two finger-trembling attempts to key in his code for the staff scanner before Jon could swipe himself through the barrier and leave by the less obvious rear door. Turning left into the alleyway he walked towards the road at his habitual moderate pace but then speeded up, keen to get to their café. Maybe he’d find one of the leather sofas was free – a perfect place for the promised debriefing conversation and his payment. The money was neither here nor there; he’d even toyed with the idea of donating it to some charity or other. No, Jon’s hoped-for reward took the less defined shape of acceptance: acceptance by Sara into her life, acceptance as a person worthy of a place at her side as she fought to right the wrongs around them. His mind was still in full flight when he stepped through the café’s door and saw her already seated. She had evidently bought him his usual mug of Earl Grey, but she was not alone.

Not knowing quite what to do, Jon smiled weakly and followed her eyes as they directed him towards the empty wooden chair at their small circular table.
“Please sit down Jon. This is Cynthia. I work for her.”

Cynthia was a neatly dressed woman who could have been in her late fifties but might equally pass for a forty-something were it not for the greying hair and the deep creases around her fathomless eyes. She looked first at Sara and then at Jon. Here was a person accustomed to having all eyes on her, all of the time.
“Allow me to congratulate you Jon: you did well; the information you gathered is already with our analysts; they’re pleased, very pleased I hear.”
Cynthia paused for long enough to allow her voice to register with him, and to take a sip of coffee. 
“I apologise for the subterfuge, but in the circumstances it was necessary. Don’t reproach Sara: she was under orders to recruit you, which she so evidently achieved of course. Once you’re properly on the payroll there’s so much more we can share with you.”

Jon had been sinking, but was propelled back towards the surface by an ill-defined anger derived from one too many perplexing betrayals.
“What are you talking about? Sara, what’s going on? I’m working with you; the tattoos, what about …” 
His voice faded as realisation dawned.

Sara stared at her cup; she didn’t speak. The impasse was over only when Cynthia signalled her to leave, which she did in silence, eyes averted. Cynthia continued
“There’s no turning back Jon, like it or not you work for us now. We’ll be in touch in due course; carry on as normal in the meantime.”
She paused, this time to finish her coffee before rising.
“Au revoir Jon.”

Half an hour later, Jon was still staring at a cold tea when two fresh mugs were set down. The chair opposite was drawn back and she sat down, just as she had done three months before.


© R.J. Newport, 27/5/16



Carriage C (story 3)


This is the third installment of the 'appendix' to my post Shadows of Science: finding a new voice ...
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From one reluctant sliding door to the other, Carriage C was, at its heart, a linear world. The well-trodden, aisle carpet accentuated its nature with a weft of faded coloured lines. The ranked exhibition of seats was hung with a matrix of dashed lines on their tired upholstery. At their sides, pitted and slightly sticky arm rests seemed to point the way to somewhere – even as they held their occupants in place – and atop each one stood the ranks of fatuous reservation cards and bright orange hand-holds. The spaces between were obliged to echo this relentless theme, which was reflected by the metallic grills of a faltering ventilation system and by fluorescent lights in the ceiling, and by the luggage racks to the side. Around and about this world, in the streaking universe in which it sat, only filial shapes seemed to exist in the pallid evening light: tracks beneath, cirrus above, fences and power cables to the side. A straight line, made up of rows, moving linearly through life. Neither Carriage C nor any part of the train could have discerned at departure the significance of this particular set of lines-in-motion, this one date, this precise time. Complexity, discovery or empathy may dawn as lines branch or intersect or entwine, but ignorance rather than simplicity will partner the parallel or the orthogonal. Carriage C had already been, and was destined again to become the incubator of each.

None of this can be the concern of a watcher. They are never told the reasons why; their duty is to watch and to listen, unnoticed, and then to synthesise and report. That’s their job, it’s what they’re trained to do: embed themselves into a group in order to dig deep and range wide. There is a sort of beauty to the immersion process, at first anyway. But each time a diligently created and wholly inhabited character is set aside at the end of a run, a little more of the watcher is lost. Some begin to find it more difficult to relocate themselves, whilst others give up the attempt and fade away from the inside. Beauty begins to die and only the beast thrives; the Adams and the Eves have eaten of the fruit and then must come The Fall; judgement will surely follow.

----~----



Toilet

Luggage
John
Patrick

Charlie
Kez
Ros
Me

Cheryl
George
?
Phil

?
?
?
?

?
?






I was sat in my preferred rear-facing aisle seat. Opposite me sat Patrick – never, ever Pat – with an unopened book of word searches on the table in front of him. In the window seat next to him was John, who’d reluctantly closed the cover on his Tablet when he realised that there was no WiFi on the train but who still couldn’t bring himself to return it to his day-bag. Ros sat across from John, next to me, mostly content to gaze out of the window and to smile. On the other side of the aisle, and joining the conversation in their necessarily semi-detached fashion, sat Cheryl, George, Kez and Charlie. We’d be joined from time to time by the more sociable of the passers-by on their way to the toilets, each one being quietly cursed by Cheryl until the engaged light went out again. When he was satisfied that the hare was running well within his own group of immediate neighbours, Phil would kneel on his seat in order to peer over our table and drop an occasional aerial tit-bit into our midst. Together, our coach represented the young singles from last year’s intake.

We all agreed that few, if any of the passengers would ever have been in a chartered carriage before, let alone a whole train. It had taken several return trips to achieve the transfer using old London buses, the ‘Heritage Fleet’, replete with burly ‘conductor’ on the door. The station’s concourse had been largely devoid of people until we filled it. Pretty much the entire institute was on the trip – along with their partners and dependant offspring. At least, that’s what Phil told us, and he should know given whose desk it is he reputedly perches on so often. There had been a lot of suspicion, even hostility, when it was announced that we were being privatised, especially with the project finally edging towards the breakthrough everyone had been working such long hours to achieve. We rehearsed the arguments again in our little group at one end of the carriage – a location chosen in order that Cheryl could get to the toilets easily, although having seen them that proximity seemed less desirable – and it was universally acknowledged that our fears had been misguided. Well, almost universally. The ever-questioning Charlie had steadfastly declined to join the club and was still frowning now. Nobody quite followed her arguments through to any conclusion however. I made a real effort to support her though, and I could see she had a point or two but come on, I asked: how could it be all that bad to be taken over by a concern prepared to whisk us all off on a three-week trip? OK, the promised luxury hadn’t yet materialised, but we were on a train in the UK for goodness sake – ‘luxury’ would be more than a little surprising at this juncture. Set all that alongside the new salary package though … well, who cares?

Cheryl had dropped out of the banter and was staring at the ‘engaged’ light, which had been on for some time now.
“Sorry, got to go. I’ll pop along to the other end of the carriage; maybe the loo in the next one is free.”

She threaded herself out of her seat, then turned and walked towards the hoped-for sanctuary as briskly as the train would permit, one hand-hold to the next, until she disappeared through the sliding door. There had been a transient lull whilst we silently acknowledged her declaration, and a couple of us even turned towards her in order to offer a sympathetic smile, but the chatter picked up its pace again as she crossed our invisible border. Charlie, on the other hand, went quiet and simply stared after Cheryl; one eyebrow was slightly raised, I noticed, as though quizzical.

The late afternoon autumnal sun was good to see after a week of wall-to-wall clouds, but as it sank in the sky it dawned on me that I was likely to get dazzled fairly soon. For a moment I toyed with the idea of grabbing Cheryl’s seat whilst she was away; I’d explain myself away by saying something about being more sociable perhaps. In all likelihood I would have stayed where I was anyway, but spotting the pull-down blind eased the decision-making process. Almost as the request that the blind be pulled down had left my lips, the train went into a tunnel. Those who had travelled this line before ought to have expected it, but we’d all been so wrapped up in our little conversations that it seemed to come as a mildly irritating surprise. Had there been any mobile signal to start with I’d probably have joined in with the usual muttered annoyance, but no-one had picked anything up since we left the station; well, not in our group anyway. Much more surprising, and annoying, was the fact that the train’s brakes were slammed on once we were a few seconds in, and along with their screeching the carriage lights flickered and then went out. The transition from sunshine to tunnel-darkness left all of us sightless for a while, even with the benefit of the train’s so-called emergency lights – which didn’t seem even vaguely fit-for-purpose. Once the brakes had finally been eased off and back into silence, and when the lights had been reborn, no-one spoke until, a short while later, the train began to accelerate towards normality again. It was rapidly growing dark outside now and the fluorescent tube lighting in the carriage accentuated the change. Most people had lost all sense of where we were.

“What was that all about?”
There could be no answer to Charlie’s rhetorical question of course, beyond resigned shoulder shrugs.
“Cheryl’s taking her time isn’t she? I’m going to see if I can find a buffet car anyway so I’ll check on her as I pass. Anyone want anything?”
There were too many coffee- and tea-deprived people for one pair of hands to satisfy so I offered to go with her. Curiously, I felt my heart rate go up a little as I did so, but maybe it was just my stressed imagination; either way, this could be a golden opportunity. Charlie didn’t say no; in fact she didn’t say anything at all.

I couldn’t decide whether to walk in front of her or to follow and it all got a little farcical before we set off along the aisle. I ended up leading the way, but wishing I wasn’t. Two sliding doors later and we were in the next carriage. The toilet was vacant, no Cheryl. Charlie, now frowning in puzzlement and with something of an edge to her voice, thought she’d either had to walk to the next one or had decided to get something from the buffet herself, so we walked on. This time Charlie was in front, but walking faster than was comfortable given the imposition of random sideways lurches as the train adjusted itself to some new peculiarity in the tracks. The last thing I wanted was to end up on someone’s lap or to be spread across a table; looking ungainly was not an ambition right now. The next toilet emptied its middle-aged occupant as we approached. It certainly wasn’t Cheryl.
“The next carriage is the buffet car, she must be in there.”

Charlie didn’t turn or offer any acknowledgement of my helpful comment; maybe she didn’t hear. She walked on, if anything the pace was faster still.

The buffet car was empty and it took only a second to register the obvious fact of Cheryl’s continued absence. Surely she hadn’t walked even further? Charlie almost ran through to the other end, but the door to what must be the executives’ First Class carriages was not only locked but blacked out. I couldn’t see Charlie’s face properly until she turned back towards me. The frown was still there, but something new and vaguely contagious had been added: was it fear, or anger? I had no clear idea what to do or say, so I did what I always do: rush in like the foolish character I have become.
“Huh! I didn’t realise our bosses were that stand-offish; I’ll get us a drink: tea without sugar, yes?”
I turned, neither expecting nor getting a reply, and only then remembered that the buffet was unstaffed.

“Try not to be too much of an idiot, this is serious. I’m worried. I still don’t know exactly why I am, but I am. And it’s not just about Cheryl, although I’m sure she’s a part of it. I think we need to get back to the others and take stock: maybe someone has a piece of the jigsaw I’m missing.”
She started to retrace her steps at the same rapid pace she had adopted for the walk here, but we got no further than the buffet car’s sliding door. This too was now locked, and although done more crudely using plastic sheeting taped to the far side, it was also blacked out. We just stared at each other, momentarily transfixed within our respective worlds of confusion, but there was a familiar sound at the other end of the car. The door to the First Class carriages had slid open; we turned to see three people, a woman and two men, walking past the counter and towards us. They stopped a couple of metres away.

Cheryl had two guys standing close behind her shoulders, both dressed like the conductors on our ‘heritage buses’. I recognised one of them, or thought I did.

It was Charlie who spoke first.
“Cheryl?”

Cheryl stared impassively towards Charlie; she seemed not to register my presence at all.
“You still haven’t quite put it all together have you Charlie? But you’ve begun to get much closer and if you had only listened more carefully to Phil’s gossip and thought about its pedigree I think you’d have seen enough of the truth to have made the jump. You’re certainly clever enough; I’ve always given you credit for that. It’s the fact that you’re also such a very inquisitive person that tipped the scale in terms of my interest though; I’ve been staying close to you for a reason.” 
A hint of a wry smile played momentarily across her face. 
“I can see there’s a dawning of some sense of the reality of where this is all heading. It’s too late. You’ve walked into a swamp in which, whether you know it or not, you’re already sinking. Your colleagues are about to begin a new life at our replacement facility. They’ll be exceptionally well looked after as long as their work for us remains as good as it was. You, however, will not be joining them.”

Her face turned towards me with her eyes following a second or so later, after they had released Charlie’s incredulous stare. In that small act she had tacitly handed Charlie over to one of the conductors; without noticeable effort, he moved behind her and covered her mouth. Her attempts to break loose were futile; only her eyes were free, expressing the shocked supremacy of primitive emotion in their stare.
“Your file suggests a well-trained and effective watcher but, how shall I put it, you seem to have developed a tendency to be a little naïve, or downright sloppy of late. I’ve been evaluating you as a side-line: watching the watcher if you will. I’m sorry about that; one doesn’t like to undermine a colleague – even a colleague one’s never met before. You will be re-assigned.”

By the time she had finished speaking, the contents of a small syringe had already been emptied high up into the back of Charlie’s neck. Released from her conductor’s grip, she dropped to the floor in silence. Only then did I realise how much I had grown to like her or, rather, the idea of her.

I barely had time to see the taser before it was fired.

----~----

Refreshment trolleys had started to ply their way back and forth through their carriage and all its neighbours within minutes of the buffet car’s closure, and the fact that everything was free served only to enliven the nascent holiday mood. Perhaps it was the sheer volume of food consumed, but most people relaxed into silence after a while or drifted into a shallow sleep. Given the growing darkness, no-one had paid attention to the route the train began taking after it had left the tunnel, and the fact that their dimly lit terminus wasn’t immediately recognisable seemed to cause no great concern. Save for a few whining children, they left the train quietly, still feeling a little groggy but glad to have been told that their baggage would be taken care of by porters. It took no more than ten or fifteen minutes of gentle but efficient shepherding to funnel a train-load of people from the quiet platform into a couple of covered passageways that lead directly onto the waiting cruise ship. No-one had yet missed the two recent recruits from carriage C, and over the next day or so they would choose to believe the well-crafted rumours about them that Phil would whisper into their ears.

But I have a copy of the surveillance files, all neatly cross-linked using voice pattern and keyword analysis, and with the individuals’ movements tracked using both gait and facial recognition software. So, I know the truth, or at least I know something closer to it, and now also do you: take care …


© R.J. Newport, October-December 2016.