Seasonal Lists (and the REF)

The end of the year is, by custom, the time for lists. Lists of best (or worst) photos, opening book sentences, or celebrity fashion faux pas; lists of those who died or those who made their film/book/TV/sporting debuts. Think of a category and there is probably a list somewhere on this planet in print (or about to appear). I’m afraid I’m guilty of appearing on a handful of these end-of-year compilations.  I was asked to supply my favourite science joke to one newspaper, although I haven’t seen this appear yet*. I really struggled as I am not a good joke-teller and tend to forget the punchline or jumble up things up. I had to resort to soliciting jokes by email from an email-list to which I belong to. I also turned up a few days ago on the Daily Telegraph’s list of ’42 awesome’ female tweeters, much to my astonishment. Not being an avid Telegraph reader I only discovered this fact via, of course, Twitter and the sudden upsurge in the number of my Twitter followers.

The THE asked me to nominate a couple of books, one from my own field, one from outside (fiction or non-fiction) that had been published in 2013 to contribute to their collection of suggestions. This brought me up short since I discovered, particularly in the latter category, how few books I had read which fitted the bill. Although I had read many books outside my field during the year, fiction and non-fiction, their publication dates were rarely 2013. The oldest dated from exactly 150 years ago.  It was Aurora Floyd by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, a powerful book I had first come across and read a long time ago when laid up on the sofa with complications during pregnancy. Unfortunately its name got sufficiently jumbled in my head for me not to be able to track it down to buy until, this year, I had come across a reference to it in a book about women and marriage in Victorian literature.  Rereading it was a pleasure, although it seemed a very different book from when I’d read it first time around – a not unfamiliar sensation on rereading a novel in my experience.

At least for the science-related one I knew exactly which book I wanted to nominate: Project Sunshine, co-written by my friend and long-time collaborator Tony Ryan in conjunction with the writer (and dot com enterpreneur) Steve McKevitt.  Its sub-title ‘How science can use the sun to fuel and feed the world‘ gives the plot away. It is no coincidence that the project that Tony and I currently collaborate on is involved with organic photovoltaics nor that he spearheads a project entitled Shine at the University of Sheffield. If you want ready access to facts and figures about past and present aspects of our ever-increasing energy consumption, the consequences of our profligacy and possible ways out of this dilemma of the modern world, I’d thoroughly recommend this highly accessible text.

The most extraordinary list I ever found myself on was in fact not an end-of-year list but one that appeared in Psychologies Magazine a few summers ago. There I was listed in their ’58 people who have changed our lives’. I knew about this because they wrote to tell me I had been so honoured. My curiosity piqued by the letter I received I went out and bought a copy of the magazine and sought the list out, only to fail to spot my name: they didn’t have a science category so I looked at the Promoting Women group. Not there.  Society and activism? No, not there either. I started to be somewhat baffled and scanned other categories getting more and more puzzled each time: Digital Technology and Media? Health, Wellbeing and Food? I eventually found myself where I probably would least have expected it, under the heading of Psychology/Therapy/Self-help.  I felt I ought to be flattered, but as a physicist it was more than a little startling to find myself there.

As I have been metaphorically flicking through the recent spate of lists on the web, I was contemplating their prevalence and the reflection they provide on the year just past. The space they take up in the papers arises in part because this a quiet time for ‘news’, leaving aside genocide, floods and the like. It is also an obvious accident of the calendar since a full year should provide a good spread of new books, debuts and deaths without the need for the same optimistic guesswork involved in the closing days of the REF (will it appear with a date of 2013 even though it hasn’t appeared by November or not?). However even given that, a fashion faux pas on December 31st might not make it into the lists.

For me personally, the Christmas holidays also offer a welcome moment of calm when the email deluge desists (on the whole, although clearly not everyone packs up work at this time of year) and the office is officially shut. It is a moment when I allow myself the pleasure of not feeling obliged to keep an eye on things. My 2014 lectures can wait till, well, 2014 for me to cast an eye over last year’s offering to check they are still fit for purpose. I am not required to nip up and down to London as if I was almost a commuter because of an excess of committee meetings. I am free to let my mind wander where it will or to read all those books I’ve been promising myself to consume (but that won’t qualify if the THE comes back to me in a year’s time for my 2014 delectations). I can put my personal world in order metaphorically and literally.

Unfortunately the latter hasn’t happened yet with the piles of books, papers and general detritus still occupying my floor around me as I write. This year, my department is shut for a full two weeks and I am not even distracted by the depressing variety of family health issues which have overwhelmed and consumed my last three Christmasses. All I have to contend with is a damaged leg due to an incident involving my bicycle and some ice last week, and this even more securely ties me to the home fires and my rocking chair. I am enjoying my mental space; a rare time to catch breath – or do I just mean to vegetate? All this is a luxury in the life of an average academic and one to be savoured (although I admit some of my reading is serious enough to prompt future posts).

Lists – who needs them? The answer, I am afraid, is all of us. I may be free of an email deluge but I have spotted one or two poor blighted souls mentioning on Twitter that they have just got their list of REF submissions  that they have to score. We will all be waiting, with more or less bated breath, for the REF lists at the end of 2014. Love or hate the REF, it’s there and it will affect us in a myriad ways. Faux pas of a non-fashionable kind in our submissions will be being judged and the outcome waiting for us at the end of the long, dark tunnel that those individuals who did not manage to say ‘no’ firmly enough to the invitation to serve from HEFCE are about to enter.

Despite this, a good 2014 to you all!

*Added 29-12-13: The list of jokes can now be found on The Observer pages here but clearly mine wasn’t considered good enough to  make the grade to be included. I shall have to keep that list in case I need to start telling jokes in after dinner speeches when I move to Churchill College next year…

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