What Can You Do in a Minute?

Responding to the simplest questions about life as an academic scientist seems to pose me serious problems. I have written before about the difficulty I have in answering the straightforward question ‘who inspired you?’ because I don’t feel as if anyone did. It was books far more than any famous face that got me interested in science. A more recent question I was asked that I felt completely thrown by was ‘describe a typical minute in your job‘. This was for a US site (The Digits) devoted to encouraging young girls to engage with maths, or math as they would have it. Interviews for a children’s audience are particularly challenging because I have to try to find ways of making sense of what I do in their own terms and the questions aren’t necessarily ones that an adult would think to ask, or want an answer for.

Nevertheless this one gave me food for thought. Trying to describe something that would be sufficiently accessible for an 11 year old and still contain adequate accuracy to be meaningful was far from trivial. Of course the reality is that most of my days are spent at my computer dealing with emails or sitting in committee meetings and I certainly didn’t want that to be my response: not the way to get anyone enthused about science.

In the end I thought back to those moments of excitement that would creep up on me when I still did my own experiments, that sense of exploring the unknown every time I put a new sample in the electron microscope and waited to see what secrets it might reveal. That may sound overdramatic but, for a number of years, that really was the sensation I recall in the years when my own hands-on research was at its most heady and rewarding.

Now I don’t mean to imply my life was full of Eureka moments when the light dawned on me in an instant of illumination. I don’t believe that much of science progresses that way and it certainly hasn’t in my case. Nevertheless there is a wonderful feeling of excitement in having a new sample to hand and impatiently waiting to get it into focus to see what it can reveal. So, for the minute in question, I took the view that it was just long enough (depending on the experiment that may or may not be accurate) to do the necessary focussing for the sample to begin to disclose its secrets.

Of course, one of the challenges about microscopy in general is that a single image can never be taken as ‘typical’. The dangers of artefacts are always lurking just round the corner. A key challenge for every aspiring microscopist is to acquire the skill of knowing what is real and what is suspect and one of my most important roles as a PhD supervisor of microscopy students is to point out what is clearly artefactual and what just might be a genuinely exciting finding. Dampening their enthusiasm when misled by a feature of clearly dubious origin is no fun but an essential part of the training.

For the school child though, that level of detail is irrelevant. There is no doubt that that period when my personal research bloomed, when every new sample could potentially yield some new finding or provide ammunition for our models on the failure of plastics – or, later, the organisation in liquid crystalline polymers – was the most thrilling part of my career. Overlaid by years of only doing research through other people’s hands, however clever these hands may have been, it is good to recall the first-hand excitement that once upon I was privileged to feel. Still, after all these years, I can remember that buzz. That feeling that just around the corner lay another part of the solution and if I kept going a little longer, preparing samples or peering down the microscope, all would be revealed. On one occasion (I am ashamed to admit) I even worked in two adjacent rooms on two microscopes simultaneously. In one case doing a rather slow and laborious process of zapping my thin polymer films with the electron beam to create controlled cracks from which further failure would be encouraged to develop, in the other looking at the results of that failure on previously-prepared samples.

That piece of information did not form part of my answer for the young girls. Such overenthusiasm/nerdiness I think was best suppressed. However, I suspect that if you never feel that ludicrous level of excitement, involvement and curiosity that can keep the candles burning at both ends at least in short bursts, perhaps a research career is not for you. It can’t happen often and it can’t happen for long but it is the most heady of experiences, offset by the challenges of piecing all the disparate bits of evidence into a coherent whole, writing it up to your satisfaction and, ultimately, to the satisfaction of an editor and set of referees. Those later stages are less likely to get the juices flowing although that moment of acceptance may also give a spike of pleasure.

Unfortunately school science is unlikely to give many opportunities for any child to feel the buzz I describe here. The removal of assessment of practical work  as part of the A level mark that is just being introduced is a step in the wrong direction. But the reality is school science can rarely provide proper investigative opportunities. The Royal Society’s Partnership Grants scheme, in which scientists and schools (primary or secondary) work together on extra-curricular studies provide one possible opportunity for schools to expose students to genuine enquiry. The excitement of satisfying curiosity forms such a crucial part of the joy of science that it is a shame so many children can never get a sense of it.

As ever a simple, almost naïve question has provoked some serious reflection. Being forced to contemplate what science might have looked like to my much younger self has reminded me of so much that, for me at least, can get buried in the everyday world of professorial life; that life which can now feel far distanced from the actual practice of science.


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4 Responses to What Can You Do in a Minute?

  1. Bill Harvey says:

    Talking face to face with kids is easier because you know when they are with you and when you have lost them. A bit like students really.

    Years ago, I was told by a professor, that we should try communicating with 7 year olds because we don’t have the skills. My answer is pretty much the same as my answer to the IStructE view that we should not practice outside our field of experience. If I am satisfied that there is no-one preparing to do better then just get on with it.

  2. I go to primary schools (mainstream and SEN) to supplement teachers’ work. I take experiments and challenges with which to inspire. One day I was greeted at one of my regular schools by a group of 5-9yo pupils jumping up and down and chanting “We love science!” They are so open to ideas and so easy to enthral. Its hugely rewarding.

  3. Mark Field says:

    Another good one is to ask yourself is what the 10 year old you would be impressed with about your current life. This is often a good jumping off point for talking to children. The list is usually depressingly small, going on the responses of friends as well as my own thoughts, though thinking about it suggests things I would like to do now to add to that list – some things are still exciting after all this time.

    For me the list contains:
    I own every single James Bond movie, and my own computer
    (these two date me, when I was 10 either would have seemed difficult or impossible)
    I work on really cool electronics with quantum physics thrown in to the mix
    I was once woken up by a spaceship coming in to land *

    What’s on your list ?

    (* True story, about 2005 one of the space shuttles was diverted from Florida to land at Edwards airforce base in California – something that used to happen about once every two years or so when there was bad weather at Cape Canaveral – and this time the flight path took the shuttle right over my apartment. I was woken up at 4 am by the characteristic double sonic boom from the shock waves off the nose and wings)

  4. Bill Harvey says:

    Indeed, that is a good one, Mark, and reminds me that I was inspired by a visit to the Clifton Suspension Bridge in 1954 age 7. In 2007 at 60 I became one of the team caring for the bridge.

    For 30 years, my main business has been masonry bridges and Clifton has some interesting masonry parts.

    And for my whole life, I look back and divide people into those who said “You can do it” and those who told me I couldn’t, that I wasn’t good enough in some way.

    It is important that one doesn’t under estimate people, but also important that we don’t have a false confidence in our own abilities, especially in large scale engineering where people die if you get it wrong.

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