When you have been inhabiting any space for a substantial length of time it tends to be somewhat dispiriting and challenging to move out and move on. Quite unconnected with any of the other moves I’ve written about recently (here and here), I am also going to be moving from one rather large office to what I suspect will be a rather smaller one in the weeks ahead. So, it is time for a clear out.
After around 10 years in this office, according to one of those well-known laws of Nature, I have expanded to fill the space available. Some of the space is occupied by mounds of REF paperwork, which should soon be unnecessary as the die will have been cast upon submission. Some of the space is occupied by kind gifts from Oriental visitors, which have no obvious home other than a corner of the desk. Much is occupied by material I am loth to throw away, yet equally know that I ought to. This category includes details of many past conferences attended, reports (hard copy) that I feel sure will one day come in useful and paperwork (and, if going far enough back, artwork in the form of glossy micrographs and line drawings) associated with journal papers long in print – or worse those that never quite saw the light of day for one reason or another. I know as soon as I throw them out I will regret it: I will suddenly receive a request from someone requesting to know was it 1988 or 1989 that that memorable debate happened at conference X or I will want to reproduce a figure electronically of one of those old glossy photographs that demonstrate what one could do with an electron microscope before the digital age. All these categories of material I will linger over and keep as much as I can because, well, you never know when it will come in useful do you?
However, much of my office – about 3 four-drawer filing cabinets worth to be precise – I think can usefully be used as landfill. This consists of a fairly long career’s worth of Xeroxed or printed papers from the era when they weren’t available on the web. Papers dating back to my PhD days on grain boundary embrittlement are unlikely to feature in my future research and even if, for some obscure reason, I suddenly felt an urge to remind myself of the intricacies of faceting in copper grain boundaries, I would not need to rummage through my filing cabinets when no doubt I could find the information on JStor. So, a drastic pruning of anything metallurgical looks as if it is called for. But as soon as I commit that to paper I realise that a current project on organic photovoltaics is suddenly turning into a study of what’s going on at the metal electrodes, so maybe even that would be unwise.
Then there are the papers dating back to the days when I transformed myself into a polymer physicist, when I read voraciously (because I was so pig ignorant of the field) and finally fell in love with research; this, note you, was during my 2nd postdoc - I was a late developer. These papers, (many of which are preprints because that was how they were circulated when Papers ASAP did not exist, nor preprints come in virtual web-based form) I will throw out with regret. I regard those years as the key formative ones for my career, when I felt that I never knew what exciting things lurked just around the metaphorical corner of my research or what puzzle each new sample might throw up as I imaged it in the electron microscope. That was a heady period as I found my researcher’s feet and, as I see it, grew up into a serious practicing scientist. It will be hard to throw all that away even if I haven’t looked through any of the papers in years.
There are also drawers connected with random bits of my more recent work. Brief forays into areas that never quite took off. Areas such as plant cell walls, resulting in a not very exciting thesis or two rather too full of null results for much enthusiasm, however competent the students; or papers covering the story of chocolate (or rather the absence of any story for the student), where much X-ray beam time at the synchrotron source at Daresbury never did reveal any secrets as to why chocolate extruded at room temperature was so very different from the normal melt-processed variety.
Finally there are the more substantial areas which nevertheless are behind me. Notably this includes the years of papers on starch, when my own research seems to have been very productive however bizarre a topic for a physicist this may seem to be. These years continued until I realised I couldn’t see how my kind of physics could provide any further insights; the idea of examining yet another cultivar or mutant just couldn’t excite me any more. All of these – and many other topics – I think can readily be dispensed with. But it will need an awful lot of bin bags to get them out of my office. It will be time consuming and a wrench, but will have to be done. A necessary task and one that will neatly, albeit briefly, plug the gap in my life I will shortly feel as the REF burden passes on to the official committees.