The rich fabric of inspiration

Both the Royal Institution (RI) and the Science Museum have been talked about this week and their validity has been brought into question. It led me to thinking about my childhood and what inspired me as a young person to get into science. What I came up with was a broad range of things that I remember having a profound effect on me and formed part of my journey. This is of course a bunch of anecdote so unless you are interested in other folks experience stop reading here.

My dad:

My dad is a tool-maker and has worked in factories making tools all of his working life. As a young child (~4/5) I would slope out to the garage at the weekend and watch dad fixing our car, an old rust-laden ford Anglia that needed constant attention. Sometimes I would hold a spanner or do a minor job, sometimes I would just squat down and watch patiently as my dad worked away. The garage was a constant attraction to me all the way up until I left home – filled with drills, soldering irons, jars of nails and screws, and any manner of kit you could lay your hands on. I feel that it was here that the seeds of “an experimentalist” were sown. Dad always encouraged us to do projects and would always spring into action if I had a grand idea but could not see how to make it work.

The Usbourne Dictionary of Science:

I had a beautiful hard back junior science dictionary from Usbourne. I could often be found reading this book from cover to cover. I can’t remember how many times I read it but always seemed to find something I’d missed each new time I read it. When I got a bit older, there was a more substantial Usbourne science dictionary which I also proceeded to devour. This was the first time I saw the term quantum physics and I proceeded to write down my thoughts about what I’d learned in my little Garfield diary (which I still have).

Mr Edwards:

This is funny, as I’d forgotten Mr Edwards and it wasn’t until my dad reminded me that I realised what an effect this teacher had on my choices. When I was 9 we had a teacher called Mr Edwards. We did all sorts of projects like making kites, playing with bulbs and batteries, and all sorts of other fun things. Of course this was all science, but I had no idea. I just remember them being the most fun six months of school I ever had. Sadly, he left halfway through the year so that put pay to all the fun! According to my family I talked about him a lot and I remember him looking a bit like Freddie Mercury.

The RI:

In year 6 (when I was 11) I was chosen as part of a lucky few from my school to watch a lecture at the RI. I remember arriving outside this enormously grand building that somehow portrayed all of the weight of its history at once. I don’t remember every single piece of the day, I don’t even remember what the lecturer was talking about although there were lots of fun demonstrations (as you would expect at the RI). What I remember is how I felt. I felt like an entire world I’d known nothing about previously had suddenly appeared before me and that I just wanted to know what it was all about. It’s hard to describe the feeling, nebulous but very real, wanting to understand something but not even knowing the right questions to ask. It was utterly thrilling.

Later (~15) when I had a lot more chance to think about science and had three years of formal science lessons behind me I had the opportunity to go back and listen to a series of lectures at the RI. As part of this we got to have a tour of the museum and Faraday’s labs. I actually found this bit more interesting than the lectures because it was a chance for me to walk in the footsteps of the greats of science. Being connected to the history of discovery was the key here. It felt important, and it felt like nowhere I’d ever been before as a bog standard, working class, comp student.

The Science Museum:

I cannot underestimate how much I fell in love with the Science Museum. I have been many times in my life and I can’t remember how old I was when I first went but I think I was 10/11. There was just so much to take in. There were huge steam engines, aeroplanes, and rockets and all manner of curiosities. I remember down in the basement there used to be a weird area with loads of strange hands on pieces of kit that smelled like a workshop and looked like it was from circa 1950’s. I remember the excitement and hilarity of our allotted time in the “launch pad” playing with huge bits of foam, fibre optics, lasers, and many things I strain to remember. I do remember some of the boys discovering that if you scuffed around on the carpet you could give each other electric shocks. Discovery right there!

The space gallery was the part that really left an impression on me. As a small child the concept of “all of space” and space travel petrified me (possibly because of Challenger). When I visited the space gallery I was started to realise how incredible space travel was and how brave and/or stupid the folks were who strapped themselves into these enormous vehicles. I remember the way the rockets and one of the Apollo capsules were arranged in this dark and labyrinthine room and the hairs on my arms standing on end. Sometimes I take a moment if I am at Imperial or the Dana centre to sneak into the space gallery and recapture the moment. It always feels like coming home.

The Eureka Science Master classes:

The RI trip when I was a teen was part of a scheme run by the University of Surrey (I grew up in surrey) called the Eureka Science Master classes. It was a university outreach scheme that gave the opportunity for school kids in the area of 14 or 15 years old to come into the university and learn about science and engineering in all its forms. I remember doing practical workshops on things as diverse as CAD design, biochemical engineering, and Boolean logic. There were also trips arranged to various lectures and museums in London. We went to what is now known as the Wellcome collection to the museum and to watch a lecture on the human genome project. I thought it was so fascinating that I almost did biology and genetics instead of physics (luckily I came to my senses). What my parents can attest to is that these master classes blew me away. I talked about them incessantly for weeks…and weeks…and weeks. It really sealed the deal for me and I also think it had something to do with me ending up at Surrey for my first degree.

It’s hard to know what had the most significant effect, and if any of these things had not happened whether I’d have still ended up where I am now. Maybe the most important thing is that my parents and my teachers never told me I couldn’t do science. I don’t know. What I do know is that all of these different factors produced a profound and memorable effect for me. I think it’s important for us to remember our own journeys since it will help shed light on how we should share science and technology to the next generation. Write about yours and pass it on!

Why reach for the stars?

For me, watching footage of the Saturn V rocket carrying Apollo 11 to the sky still gives me goosebumps and tears prick my eyes. Watching that grainy footage of Neil Armstrong (recorded, not live. I’m not that old dummies!) I found it almost impossible to believe we had reached the moon, especially using pretty primitive technology by today’s standards. When I had the good fortune to find myself in Florida for a conference I eschewed the obvious distractions of theme parks to go to the Kennedy centre. There’s nothing like a clutch of awesome rockets and huge buildings to bring out the child in me. This weekend the sad departure of Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, has caused some introspection about the need for space exploration. Many people argue “why send a man to the moon when people are starving and in need on Earth?”. For a scientist this raises a point worth discussing, these are my views on this “conundrum”.

Firstly – lets talk economics. If we are viewing this in purely monetary terms we need to look at some cold, hard numbers. The Apollo program between 1959 to 1973 cost the US $20.4 billion, which in 2010 terms (when it was reviewed) was equivalent to $109 billion. The total spend on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is estimated to be around $1.2 trillion dollars to date. NASA now costs the US around $9 billion per year.

Staying on the topic of economics, development of science and technology is strongly linked the health of the economy of a country. Using NASA as an example again – for every dollar spent on the space program, the US economy receives about $8 of economic benefit. Not to mention NASA has generated rafts of technology that has fed into civilian life from new materials to better medical devices.

So why are people still poor? This is obviously a whole can of worms that I’m only willing to prise the lid up on a crack. The economic system of choice, i.e. “free-market” capitalism, does very little to help developing countries get richer. Indeed to quote Ha-Joon Chang in “23 things they don’t tell you about capitalism”, “With only a few exceptions, all of today’s rich countries, including Britain and the US – the supposed homes of free trade and free market – have become rich through the combinations of protectionism, subsidies, and other policies that today they advise the developing countries not to adopt”. Nuff said. Read the book if you will, it’s pretty interesting.

The point is that we can “do more than one thing at once” here on earth. Indeed the countries with enough resources have a duty to explore, to develop science, technology, and medicine to benefit all of mankind. On a broader level curiosity-driven science often leads to a wealth of other expected and indeed unexpected technologies.

It is human to wonder, to explore, to be curious, whether that be exploring what’s behind the next fence or the next planet. Cut this vein, and as a species we will surely wither and die. We need to dream and aspire. To inspire and be inspired. The moon landing provided a potent, powerful and inspirational image of science and technology for many young people at that time. It still continues to inspire today.

For Neil Armstrong and all adventurers out there.

Some thoughts on science communication

Science communication – it’s an interesting one. I think I can speak on behalf of most people who indulge in outreach is that they started out with very noble ideas about changing the world, public perception of science, inspiring the next generation of scientists, and perhaps educating a few people along the way. I have had the fortune over the years to take many different platforms from school events, speaking to thousands of children in large theatres, to radio and (a little) television. I have had many experiences ranging from downright disheartening to unspeakably wonderful.

Outreach has become very important for science in the last few years especially in light of the impact agenda. The impact of such activities must be measureable and one cannot underestimate the importance of evaluation of outreach events in whatever form they take. I don’t doubt that it is better to be strategic with such activities given the demands on our time (especially paid time). Sometimes in the fight to get “bang for our buck” we inadvertently sweep aside the armies of students, teachers, and scientists who give up their spare time to speak to a café sci, a school event, a science fair, or local groups. These events often go unevaluated and may not contribute to any impact tick boxes but does this make them any less valid?

Over time I have come to realise that the noble reasons for doing outreach aren’t always the reasons I keep coming back to it. I enjoy outreach for the same reasons I enjoy performing dance – it’s the excitement I get from the show, the performance, and the connection with the audience. I derive pleasure from telling stories and making people smile, or feel something even if it is just for the 30 minutes I’ve spent talking to them. Most of the time I can deduce from the audience reactions, questions, and feedback people have enjoyed themselves. It’s entertainment, simple as that.

I think its ok to do outreach on your own time “just because”. If I chose to speak to a group of 20 octogenarians about science it doesn’t tick many of the impact boxes. But I enjoy it and they enjoy it and that is a valid human experience. Many people chose to spend their own time doing these activities and it’s their choice, ergo theirs to decide if they are wasting their time or not.

I am not for one minute suggesting that large, targeted activities and proper evaluation are not necessary. They are definitely important and give us data and markers for many purposes. We should just be careful not to write off or be snobbish about smaller or less targeted outreach activities. People are making connections, being entertained, and being made to think, even if it is just for one glorious fleeting moment.

It’s hip to be square

Recently some people on the internet have been getting their underwear in a tangle over the usage of the term geek/nerd. This arose because of Mark Henderson’s seminal (heh, I said seminal, heh) book about how scientists shall inherit the earth called “The Geek Manifesto”. Rumblings of “it’s not helpful” have been rebounding around the twitters like a game of pong. Some people in science and technology don’t want to be branded a geek/nerd on account of apparently negative connotations.

Here’s the rub – geek/nerd ceased to be pejorative some time ago. At the very least it is sort of adorable and the most, aspirational. The internet rules the world and the internet is in turn ruled by vast swathes of people who self-identify as geeks/nerds. The creative digital industry is awash with folks who will answer to that branding. Sections of the music industry too are propped up by geek/nerd tendencies.

The terms have even been reappropriated as verbs. To be geeky/nerdy about something is to know everything there is to know about that particular thing. Whether that thing is computers, music, or fashion is up to said geek/nerd.

The geek/nerd stamp is everywhere. Take fashion – all the cool kids have been geeking it up for years with thick framed specs, ill-fitting jumpers, and retro wear (par example). It’s not just hipsters, it is increasingly mainstream as can be seen by doing a quick google of geek chic.

Most people who really know about music, record music, play music would confess to being geeky/nerdy. Hell, there’s even a genre called “Nerdcore”. See acts like MC Lars for reference.

Even mainstream TV has jumped on the bandwagon with shows such as the Big Bang Theory and the IT Crowd. Now I know that these shows were designed to “laugh at the nerd”, but in reality a lot of people sympathise and identify with the main protagonists. I mean, who wouldn’t want to wrap up Moss and take him home in your pocket?

People try hard to be geeks/nerds. So next time you get branded a geek/nerd for being a scientist/mathematician/engineer be proud.  What is means in reality is that you are hip, clever, and part of a culture that will inherit the earth. Mwoahahahhahahhahaha mwoahahahahaha mwoahahaahha ….*cough cough*

Hungry for Raspberry Pi

In the UK, the birthplace of modern computing, we have a problem. We have ensured that, through an untimely ICT curriculum, that computer programming is off the menu.  A large proportion of today’s children have access to computers (~75% of households have a computer) and so will be familiar with standard software packages from a very early age. What they may not be familiar with is the art of how to tell a computer what to do.

Way back in the mid 80’s (when I were a lass, blah) our primary school had one computer. It was a BBC micro and was granted to whichever class had been lucky enough to reserve it. It was a huge, beige monster that ate 5 ½ inch floppies right in front of our eyes. The class would gather round in awe, playing games collectively with teacher at the helm. People may laugh at these old pieces of technology but they had one striking advantage. These computers did not wear the glossy mask of a slick user interface. They demanded your attention at the command line. In order to get what you want, you had to be drawn into the world of BASIC.

In my last year at primary some designated mini-nerds (yes I was one) were allowed to “play around” with the micro at lunchtimes. This consisted of my friend and I watching two of our classmates copying BASIC programs out of a “how to” book. The computer was kept in a little curious annex of our classroom where all the supplies, paints, and random artefacts were kept. There in the half-light we stared open mouthed at the strange syntax appearing across the black screen. When the time came to run the code there was always frustration because a comma was missed, or some other syntax error. Then eventually the triumph came when the program resulted in some rudimentary action like a polygon drawing itself on the screen.

A couple of years later a second hand ZX spectrum came into my possession with its blistering 128 kB of RAM. I had already been bitten by the BASIC bug. I had little time for the attractions of Jet Set Willy, Dizzy, or Horace Goes Skiing. I just wanted to copy programs into the computer and see what they did.  I didn’t really understand how it all worked but I had the feeling that I was circling the edge of a technical world that I wanted to be part of. My greatest triumph was to successfully reproduce a game called “star racer”. It was a thrilling adventure in which asterisks race each other across the screen, resulting in a somewhat predictable climax. I recorded it onto cassette, keeping it for posterity.

It wasn’t until university that programming crossed my path again, when we had two years of enforced FORTRAN (which I secretly loved). Had it not been for my early brush with BASIC I don’t think I’d have taken to FORTRAN so readily.  As a group we spent many nights in the computer lab battling through compiling errors, gradually losing the will to live. Then at the 11th hour, our sense of worth returning as our codes began to obey the laws of physics. Nothing filled me with satisfaction and pride more than being able to produce a well-executed program.

We need to let young people learn and play with programming again. Teaching programming as part of ICT in schools would ensure future generations were well equipped to operate in a computer centric world.  The birth of cheap, programmable computers like the Raspberry Pi could revolutionise the classroom and school computing forever. I applaud the education driven ethos of the Raspberry Pi foundation and wish them the best of luck in this endeavour. Also I’m totally going to buy one…

10 PRINT “hello world”

20 GOTO 10

Why I left research

My life on the face of it, 1.5 years ago, was of a physicist working her way to a career at the top.  I had a permanent post at the Rutherford Appleton Lab doing research into ways of making fusion energy with very high power lasers. The type of laser fusion I had been working on, called fast ignition, had been the centre of a European wide project to investigate the feasibility of this energy source. My future was bright and I couldn’t have believed in something more than my topic of research. For me, the prospect of helping to create a sustainable and relatively clean energy source was motivation enough to drag my corpse out of bed in the morning.

The problem with physics is that it has the tendency to throw the unexpected at you. In my case – the type of laser driven fusion I was looking into suddenly fell out of favour. This affected quite a large group of people and tensions were high. Consequently in order to survive, diversification became the order of the day. I was adamant that I wanted to continue looking into to laser driven fusion.  Most of my expertise (and interest) was in short pulse, high intensity lasers and this was of upmost relevance to fast ignition. The more favoured schemes depend only on long pulse, lower intensity lasers. I had some limited experience with this and so began to look towards these schemes for research ideas.

So far, so good. However, I am not a robot (!) and emotionally I really found it hard to just “move on” as was expected of me. I had not only invested time into my research, I had invested a substantial piece of myself. The hole it left behind was real and was only exacerbated by the fact that I found the physics of the other schemes frankly boring in comparison! I know that this post sounds like a giant whinge from an ingrate who should feel lucky to have a job at all. The point is, to do research well you must love it and believe it. It can’t just be a bland occupation that fills the space between nine and five. It must excite, amaze, and inspire you. If you don’t buy into your own research, how on earth will research councils, decision makers, and the good old taxpayer do so?

At this point the doubt set in, impostor syndrome doing its best to win over the voice of reason. I began to drift and lifted my foot off the gas. I had never experienced a plateau before and I found it most disconcerting. It didn’t help that I had done my PhD, postdoc, and current post at the same lab. I started to feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. It was then that I actively began to think about what I would do outside of the warm, comforting, and ultimately safe environment I was in.

At the same time as this I had fallen in love! We all know that chance means these encounters are rare and precious. M was finishing his PhD and looking for gainful employment. This weighed heavily on my mind, since the “two-body problem” causes havoc for many couples in academia. It is almost seen as a badge of honour for an academic to leave all that they love, the ultimate sacrifice, in exchange for a glittering career in research. Having had a long term, two-city relationship in the past, I was very keen for this not to happen again. Miraculously two positions came up with the same deadline, in the same institution! It was a sociology teaching fellowship for him and an industrial/business development position in plasma physics and fusion for me. It seemed, for a person who doesn’t believe in fate, like fate. Luckily we both succeeded in being employed and the plan fired into action.

And so began the process of extracting myself from the lab and 10 years of research, memories, and all the people I had collected along the way. For a nuts and bolts type of girl the prospect of a life outside the lab was a daunting one. However, even if I had stayed in research the pull away from the lab into writing grants and administration was inevitable. This move was just accelerating the process. Unsurprisingly the announcement of my move sparked a lot of chatter but ultimately my colleagues, my family and friends, and the wider community eventually seemed to understand.

On my last day I walked into the target area of the laser lab by myself to look at all we had accomplished in the last 10 years. I waved goodbye to the cumbersome, if not awkwardly beautiful neutron detectors of my PhD.  I doffed my cap to the target chamber in which I had spent many a frustrating, body-suited, goggled up hour lining up instruments, lasers, and anything else we could get our hands on. I also paid respect to the annoying parts of the system that I wouldn’t have to do battle with again. What a sight I must have been, a grown woman shedding tear or two over inanimate objects that had become friends.

But there are no regrets. Why did I leave research? For the adventure, for the excitement of new ways of having impact, and most important of all for love!