Latest posts

What I Read In November

UntitledFrans de Waal: Different A salutary and timely corrective to all those engaged in debates about sex and gender that nothing makes sense except in the light of evolution. Humans are animals, and so are our various itches and scratches. The problem, says distinguished primatologist de Waal, is that humans cannot help but put things into binary categories. ‘Sex’ is biological and for reproduction, and ‘gender’ is a cultural overlay. But chimpanzees (the common or perhaps less frequent variety) and bonobos (what used to be called pygmy chimpanzees) are two species, equally closely related to us, neither of which have language, and in whose universe the ideas of sex and reproduction cannot possibly be connected. Chimpanzees are male-dominated (mostly) and violent (sometimes); bonobos are female-dominated and have sex, in various positions, as a way of saying ‘hello’. Because animals have no language, and at the same time no sense that sex and reproduction are connected, there are likewise no simple lines to be drawn between sex for procreation and sex simply as something pleasurable to do, which logically leads to a rather relaxed idea of gender. This should be absolutely required reading for any person in a gender-studies program. The problem is that when they finish it they might realise that they don’t really have a program to go back to, because de Waal has explained everything. And I mean everything. De Waal takes conservatives and progressive attitudes to sex and gender to task with brio, and does so in such a pleasant, well-meaning, enlightened way that no-one could possibly be offended. Could they? Shortlisted for the Royal Society Science Book Prize 2022 (DISCLAIMER: as is one of mine).

Screenshot 2022-11-05 at 10.18.14Richard Osman: The Bullet that Missed by way of temporary respite from the Roman Empire I dived into this, the third in the series of whodunits by That Man On The Telly. It follows directly on from The Man Who Died Twice which in turn follows The Thursday Murder Club, and if you haven’t read any of these you are missing out. The Thursday Murder Club is an unlikely quartet of pensioners living in a retirement village that solves murders. They are not afraid to get their hands dirty themselves. Affectionate, warm, and killingly funny, The Bullet That Missed is the best of the three so far in its gloriously slick, twisty and turny way.




UntitledEdward Gibbon: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. 7 (Folio Society Edition) The greatness of Rome has long sunk into obscurity, and the successor, in Constantinople, is going the same way. In this, the penultimate volume, we read how the tide of Islamic expansion reached its highest and began to recede; how new invaders — Normans, Hungarians, Bulgarians — interrupted the course of life in Europe; and, most of all, of the Crusades, a series of events that epitomises heroic failure. Gibbon first wonders at how the seemingly inexorable rise of Islam was finally checked, and concludes that it was the result of its own internal factionalism. Had it stayed together, Islam might have gone much further, a reflection that is the source of one of the most famous quotes from this most quotable of authors:

Perhaps the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mohammed.

Despite numerous assaults, Constantinople hung on by the skin of its teeth: but, asks Gibbon, to what end? ‘In the revolution of ten centuries’, he writes,

not a single discovery was made to exalt the dignity or promote the happiness of mankind. Not a single idea has been added to the speculative systems of antiquity, and a succession of patient disciples became in their turn the dogmatic teachers of the next servile generation.

Where the first legions of the Prophet failed, the Seljuk Turks nearly succeeded, and indeed wrested from the Roman orbit, after a millennium, the Levant, including the holy places. At first, lucrative tourism allowed for pilgrimages to be made, but it entered the mind of one Peter the Hermit, a native of Amiens, that the Holy Land should be reclaimed for Christ. He returned from Jerusalem ‘an accomplished fanatic’, and found many willing ears, as ‘he excelled in the popular madness of the times’ — and so the First Crusade was born. Not that the motives of the crusaders were wholly or even partly honourable. Crusaders were granted relief from all their sins, unleashing a tide of licensed yobbery on the peaceful nations of Europe.

At the voice of their pastor, the robber, the incendiary, the homicide, arose by thousands to redeem their souls by repeating on the infidels the same deeds which they had exercised against their Christian brethren; and the terms of atonement were eagerly embraced by offenders of every rank and denomination.

Although some of the crusaders held on to statelets in Syria and Palestine for a few decades, they were ultimately defeated and the result of a great deal of religious fervour, spilled blood, sack, pillage and rapine was – well, bupkes. The ultimate betrayal was the Fourth Crusade in which the impoverished Byzantine Emperor called on the West to push back the Turks from his beleaguered city, resulting in the conquest of Constantinople itself, and its rule for sixty years by a consortium of petty French barons and Venetian merchant princes.

One might have thought, opines Gibbon, wistfully, that a result of this peculiar episode might have had the benefit of the direct infusion of ancient Greek literature and philosophy into Latin, rather than its circuitous route via Arabic. But the crusades ‘appear to me to have checked rather than forwarded the maturity of Europe’, and

if the ninth and tenth centuries were the times of darkness, the thirteenth and fourteenth were the age of absurdity and fable.

It all amounted to a waste of human capital on so monumental a scale that it makes the shame of it quite meaningless. But perhaps one benefit might have been the beginnings of the loosening of the feudal system. If the flower of European chivalry mortgaged their estates only to kill and pillage and bleed and die for Christ in a far-off country, then

The conflagration which destroyed the tall and barren trees of the forest gave air and scope to the vegetation of the smaller and nutritive plants of the soil.


Screenshot 2022-11-22 at 18.20.38Rose Anne Kenny; Age Proof  The world is greying, and rapidly, and in medicine there is perhaps no greater growth area than gerontology – the medical issues facing older people. But as gerontologist Kenny shows in this book, you are as old as you feel, and there are myriad ways to keep youthful, cheerful and in the peak of fun and brio. In truth, this is not really what I was expecting from a science book. Although it does contain a lot of science, it reads much more as a self-help manual. There is no real narrative arc, and one could probably benefit by treating it as one of those old-fashioned health encyclopaedias you’d dip into to discover this and that. It could have been fleshed out with a lot more anecdotes, such as the one about the woman whose heart stopped whenever her son-in-law told her a dirty joke (which reminded me, if not the author, of the famous Monty Python sketch about the joke that’s so funny that people hearing it died laughing). It would also have benefited from a more scrupulous edit, and — call me grumpy — a lot fewer exclamation marks! (Here are a few more!!!) Shortlisted for the Royal Society Science Book Prize 2022 (a contest in which I also have a canine).

Screenshot 2022-11-25 at 20.05.11Peter Stott: Hot Air If ever there was a book too make you think, this is it. But beware – it will also make you angry. Angry at the wicked, selfish, and, it has to be said, evil people and institutions that seek to undermine, traduce, vilify and even criminalise the pursuit of science, for political ends, and in the service of powerful vested interests. Peter Stott comes across as the typical mild-mannered scientist who, in the early 1990s, found himself on the ground floor of the emerging science of climate change. As a scientist at the UK Meteorological Office, he has been at the sharp end of the research that shows, increasingly, and now unquestionably, that the world’s climate is changing, very rapidly, as a direct consequence of human activities. But he has also been at the sharp end of well-funded efforts to undermine the credibility of the science and the scientists themselves, aided at times by cackhanded and ill-informed news editors who wheel out long-discredited climate-change ‘sceptics’ for the sake of what they call ‘balance’. Thankfully the balance has shifted, for now, to embrace the reality of anthropogenic climate change – but for how long? Jair Bolsonaro was bested in Brazil by only a whisker, and if Trump succeeds in becoming US President again, the world might once again switch to the dark side. Shortlisted for the Royal Society Science Book Prize of 2022 (and, as you know by now, I also have a dog in that fight).

Posted in climate change denial, crusades, edward gibbon, frans de waal, gender, gender studies, gerontology, monty python world's funniest joke, Peter Stott, Richard Osman, rose Anne Kenny, royal society science book prize, sex, The Thursday Murder Club, Writing & Reading | Leave a comment

Has the World Changed (Enough)?

“The reported incidents of racism and misogyny are extremely alarming” according to Gareth Cook, fire brigade’s union regional organiser for London about the recent report into the London Fire Brigade. “Women have been “systematically failed” by the criminal justice system”, says Andy Marsh, the chief executive of the College of Policing about the way the system operates, in the same issue of the Guardian. I would like to think universities are not as systemically racist and misogynist as these two bodies, but I would not be confident about it. Just last week, a senior man (actually, he must be some years younger than me in age) felt it was appropriate to put his arm lightly round my waist at the end of a meeting? Why? What does he do to young women in a similarly inappropriate but casual way? Young, maybe even middle-aged women whose careers depend on his approval. I’ve written to him privately to point out the inappropriateness of his ways, not the first time I’ve done this to a senior man. The last time I made no headway, but one must try. Otherwise, as I’ve always said, I am complicit and I must live by my own tenets, however, anxiety-inducing it may be as I put pen to paper.

Young women in academia today certainly don’t seem to have an easy time of it in many instances. But, compared with previous generations, it is interesting to see they are willing to be outspoken about the issues, at least in safe spaces.  They expect to be able to talk about it and this, I guess, is progress from when I set out. Back then, I think we just took it all for granted as the way it was. Rather than actually trying to change it, the philosophy was probably simply a case of trying to traverse the landscape with as little damage as possible; a system which I, for one, assumed had to be this way, immutable. It took me a long time (perhaps when I read the seminal 1999 MIT report on the status of women) before I fully appreciated that the origins of some of the difficulties I faced might have resided somewhere other than within myself. That possibly the world could be constructed in a different way that recognized women fully, not merely expected us to play the part others assigned to us.

Last week I participated in an event hosted by the Lindemann Trust, whose committee I have just joined, to explore and discuss the experiences of women in the physical sciences. The Trust funds postdoctoral fellowships to the USA, but it has been dismayed by the low numbers of women applying for them. They are attempting to find solutions to the problems that obviously underlie this finding. There may be many reasons for the absence of women including: women aren’t tapped on the shoulder about the fellowships by their supervisors in the same proportions as men; women don’t have the confidence to put themselves forward in the absence of such encouragement; or their personal circumstances mean they don’t feel able to leave the UK even if they are aware of the opportunity. I worry particularly about the first of these, because there is nothing women can do if they don’t hear about the fellowships through the obvious channels and this is something that is outside their control.

The evening produced some thought-provoking comments about the barriers that women still perceive. I was also struck by the curiosity of the men who came along to try to understand the issues women face that they know they are probably blind to. The recurring problem of what does excellence look like and what criteria should be used to judge it was raised (and how stereotypes feed into those judgements): perhaps a topic requiring a blogpost of its own.  The feelings of loneliness in maths or engineering departments, when there are so few people looking like you, and tactics to cope with this. There was no sympathy for the line of turning yourself into an honorary man to fit in. This was a tactic one speaker had used and then forcefully rejected. I am conscious that at a certain part of my life I adopted such a mechanism when it came to raucous behaviour down the pub at the end of a conference day. I look back at that time with horror; it’s a persona I feel I’ve been trying to shift ever since in some people’s minds, but at the time it felt a wise strategy to allow me to gain a sense of belonging and inclusion when there were only a handful of other women around.

I am sure the Lindemann Trust will be digesting all the notes taken during the evening to see what, in their own small way, they can do to improve the situation and make sure the brilliant women out there have access to their fellowships. Communication is obviously part of it. I was pleased to see the email that goes out to all the members of my former department included a link to the Fellowship programme this week. In this way there is no need for a supervisor to point out – to a selected few only – that the scheme exists. It does still require confidence in applicants to take the next step, to find referees and to put an application together. Confidence is still a skill that is unevenly distributed amongst researchers, male or female, and may be completely uncorrelated with ability. (The Dunning-Kruger effect demonstrates this sad fact.)

It is nearly 50 years since I started my PhD. Things have changed since then on many fronts, and yet the system appears to remain stubbornly static when it comes to considering what an ideal academic should look like and do. Misogyny and racism lurk in so many of our professional spheres and systems. No university should read the headlines about the Fire Service or the Met and think they are exempt from bad behaviour lurking in their corridors.

Posted in confidence, harassment, Lindemann Trust, MIT, Women in science | Leave a comment


I regret to say that today I have had to do something I almost never do, mostly because I really hate doing it – and that’s abandon a book I had been reading. And I had got almost all the way through, too. I know, I know, this is like the person swimming the Channel who abandons the quest just as they get within sight of the further shore. But I really couldn’t muster the force to continue. I appreciate that many others will enjoy the book. Indeed, there were parts I found enjoyable – even instructive – but it seemed so poorly written, so ill-constructed, so flat, so full of error, with neither structure nor cadence, that I found the prospect of continuing just not worth the effort. No, I am not telling you which book it was.

The last time I abandoned a book, the tome in question was 2121, a dystopia by Susan Greenfield, which I gave up on page 19 (though I was sure I’d abandon it on page 12 – I just read a few pages more because I felt I had to make sure) which combined very poor characterisation with a seemingly total disregard for the entire canon of science fiction that the author sought to enter. Since then I have always always always finished what I start.

I fear I might have been spoiled. One book I shall surely finish is Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (I am 7/8ths through its 2,900-page extent). I started earlier this year and it has been a revelation. The prose is so lucid; the arguments so well constructed; the tone so measured (yet not without biting humour in places). Sure, it’s no potboiler, and requires concentration, but it is so well-wrought that most other things seem slack and ill-made by comparison. And I am listening to an audiobook version of The Lord of the Rings, narrated by Andy Serkis, on my daily dog walks. Tolkien, a philologist by profession, a poet by avocation, took infinite care over the words he used, because he realised that words have meaning; they have nuance; they have history; they have impact. They deserve respect.

And yet I feel terribly guilty. About not finishing a book, I mean. I think I need to calm down with a collection of SF short stories. Or just stare at the wall.

Posted in Writing & Reading | Leave a comment

Intelligent life: Isaiah Berlin

Thanks to the paucity of my education and cultural life I have come late to Isaiah Berlin, the noted philosopher and historian of ideas whose thinking provided such a guiding light to the 20th Century. But I’m definitely a fan now.

Isaiah Berlin - Archive on Four

I’d heard the name, of course, but would have been hard-pressed to tell you why he was well-known. I started tracking him down after reading a piece in the New Yorker about philosopher Elizabeth Anderson, whose ideas challenged Berlin’s assertion of the inevitable clash between freedom and equality. I liked Anderson’s notions of “relational, or democratic, equality: meeting as equals, regardless of where you were coming from or going to” and assumed that Berlin had somehow got it wrong.

But I should have looked before I leaped to that conclusion. When I did finally get around to probing Berlin’s thinking, through reading Michael Ignatieff’s fine biography, I found much more depth and nuance and humanity in Berlin’s thinking than I had supposed from that one observation in the New Yorker article.

I highlighted many passages as I read Ignatieff’s book but one of the few that I selected as especially resonant, highlighted in pink rather than yellow, could stand as my personal credo.

Screenshot of the Berlin biography extract. The text reads "In these wars, he belonged on the liberal left, but he warned his own side that their goals were in conflict. For every supposed gain in social justice there might be a corresponding loss of freedom. This conflict between ends was bound to defy smooth managerial solutions. The best that could be hoped for was some ‘logically untidy, flexible and even ambiguous compromise’. What the age calls for, Isaiah concluded, ‘is not (as we are often told) more faith, or stronger leadership, or more scientific organisation. Rather it is the opposite – less Messianic ardour, more enlightened scepticism, more toleration of idiosyncrasies.’ Fighting injustice was essential, but men ‘do not live only by fighting evils’. They live by choosing their own goals – a vast variety of them, seldom predictable, at times incompatible’. It was individual freedom, to choose well or ill, which had to be defended, not some ultimate vision of the human good. Since no disposition was faultless, no disposition was final. His motto in politics, he concluded, was: surtout pas trop de zèle."

Highlighted extract from Berlin’s biography. Full quote in the Alt text.

It rang such a sonorous bell I think because I have such a logically untidy mind and aspire, however falteringly, to an empathetic approach in debate and decision-making. “Empathy was, for Berlin,” Ignatieff writes, “the core liberal aptitude – the capacity to be open, receptive, unafraid in the face of opinions, temperaments, passions alien to one’s own.” Well, quite.

It’s an outlook I’ve tried to bring to discussions of open access and research assessment, but also, perhaps more critically, to work to address some of the challenges around equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) at my university and within higher education. EDI is steeped in conflicting values and perspectives; arguments in good faith struggle to be seen as such, since who you are – your history, your lived experience – weighs heavily within what you have to say.

The idea that the best that can be hoped for is some “logically untidy, flexible and ambiguous compromise” rings true for my experience of conversations about the gravity and impact of historical racism, for example, or the rights of cis and trans women, or where lines are to be drawn around free speech.

Berlin’s thinking is founded on a deep belief in pluralism and that values are  rooted in history and culture. For him variety really was the spice of life, and of liberalism in particular. But this also means that conflict is inevitable. The challenge is to find a way to deal with a conflict for which there is not likely to be a solution to satisfy everyone. The best we can hope for is for all sides in any debate to engage honestly, to recognise with Berlin that perspective matters (without somehow following the more simplistic ruts of identity politics), and to be able to live with ‘solutions’ that we may not like. For those of us in the majority in our diversifying society, that may sometimes call for the generosity to cede power.

For more on Berlin, I can recommend the recent Archive on 4 radio documentary which explores his life as one of the last great public intellectuals and makes good use of recordings of his uniquely plummy gabble. I particularly liked his description of the qualifications for membership of the intelligentsia: “…belief in reason, belief in progress, hatred of all forms of irrational conduct, together with a profound moral concern for society.” 


Posted in philosophy, science, Science Culture | Leave a comment

Communication breakdown

Twitter is dead. Long live … whatever comes next.

Twitter actually died a few years back. It was around about the time when your timeline began to fill up with images.

About the same time that The Algorithm started showing you what it thought was important to you, rather than what you chose to see.

After it moved from 140 characters to 280.

We accepted it at first. We thought these features were benefits.

About the same time it became a pulpit, a Speakers’ Corner perhaps, for voices rather than for people.

The power of Twitter was never in its content delivery. Not even in its ability to point to content—despite pharma companies the world over thinking that if it’s being seen on Twitter it must be reaching the target audience (trust me: this is [part of] the day job).


Twitter was about the connection, about the network; about the people.

That’s why we called it social networking, not social media.

It’s why we had #FollowFriday—a mechanism to say here, here’s someone you ought to get to know; they’re interesting.

What’s next, I wonder. Have we lost the ability to make connections through the interwebs? Is it really all about consuming content now, about clicks and likes and reshares? I met many people through Twitter, people I still like and talk to and care for, regardless of what they actually produce or how many followers they have.

Will the next generation be able to connect in the way we did a dozen years ago, to make those relationships and friendships that never, really, actually, depended on churning out virogenic bon mots?

I don’t know.

But I can’t help but feel, that in this world so battered by the consequences of COVID-19, we have lost something important.

Posted in Ill-considered rants, internet, social media, twitter | Leave a comment

Refereeing and Bullies

We’ve heard a lot about bullying at the heart of government in recent days. One defence of the behaviour of the former Chief Whip is that it used to be worse, much worse. That is of course a line one hears about predatory behaviour in academia. What was once regarded as ‘normal’, most certainly isn’t now. But it still goes on and, as today’s report for OfS indicates, universities continue to struggle to put in place appropriate mechanisms to deal with sexual harassment.

In Government, as in academia, there are power imbalances to worry about when considering making a complaint about behaviour. In a recent survey of violence (broadly defined and not just literal violence) on campus, what seemed to me telling (and depressing) in the findings was the low proportion of those who were subjected to this violence who actually reported it. Many were worried about retaliation by the perpetrator or that their studies/research would be terminated, as well as realistically worrying that going through due process might be a deeply unpleasant experience. That is why I believe it is so important, as I’ve written before, that those observing incidents – be they incidents of bullying, belittling, or actual physical aggression or sexual harassment  – should be willing to take action and not just leave it to the victim. Too often it is easier to look the other way, even if an observer doesn’t go quite so far as to side with the aggressor.

At what point does it become safe to act? How far up the ladder does one have to go before it ceases to feel potentially dangerous to call someone out? I’m not sure I know the answer to that. But, even in the more modest arena of filing a referee’s report, I was struck by the comment I saw on Twitter this week bringing home the trepidation which can strike even senior academics when faced with having to confront, virtually, a ‘powerful man’ in their research field. The situation arose because a journal was asking the individual to sign their name to a critical referee’s report, and the referee was nervous in case of ‘repercussions’. This is desperately sad. As academics we should not be in a situation where we feel worried about doing our professional jobs properly in case of inappropriate responses from those with power. The person who put this tweet out is already a member of their national academy, so not exactly junior. Nevertheless, as I wrote a short while ago, mid-career was exactly the moment I found things toughest, so I understand their anxieties. Power imbalances can still feel very real.

That tweet reminded me of a situation I once faced when still a junior lecturer. I had refereed a paper by a Nobel Prize winner in my field, Pierre-Gilles de Gennes, and I was convinced he was wrong although his approach (theoretical) was very interesting. I had experimental evidence which contradicted him, although it hadn’t yet been published, so it was not altogether easy to refute his position in my report. After I had submitted it, I discovered he was visiting Cambridge and I had a slot to talk with him. At that point I could have either discussed his ideas in a totally neutral way, without letting on that I had seen the preprint and indeed had commented on it, or I could say upfront that I was the referee. With some nervousness, I chose the latter path, because anything else would have seemed somewhat dishonest.

At the time I did not know De Gennes at all well, but in later years it became very clear to me that he  was not the sort of man who needed to put others down to feed his self-importance. (He was also a great supporter of women in science.) When I set out my position, and with the unpublished electron micrographs to hand to bolster my case, we simply had a really interesting discussion. There wasn’t a hint of a refusal to accept my views as valid, or a need to show his superiority to a mere junior like me who was contradicting him. I felt relieved and also reassured that scientists, at such different points in their life, could sensibly discuss their different viewpoints. It could, of course, have all gone wrong. I did not know him well enough to be sure in advance I wasn’t going to put myself in an unpleasant situation.

Another occasion where refereeing anonymously took me into strange territory was when I refereed a grant from Tom McLeish, now sadly desperately ill. As a referee I wrote that his experimental programme would be interesting but could not work on the polymer he had selected (PMMA, which would have disintegrated in the electron microscopy experiments he was planning), but should work on a different one (polystyrene). A short while later Tom contacted me to ask for my advice, to check whether the referee was right in what they said. With a straight face I said I was sure they were right. This was a long time ago, when applicants were allowed not only to respond to referees but, at least in this case, to change their programme to accord with what the referee said. Tom duly got the grant and set about his revised set of experiments.

That could have been the end of the story, and I had certainly forgotten all about it until I heard Tom talking about his research in the conference bar, telling his circle how helpful I’d been to him in confirming the tiresome referee had indeed been right in what they’d said. At that point I had to tell him that I had been the referee. Much mirth all round ensued.

Those two personal anecdotes indicate that I have been, as I have frequently said, lucky in many of my interactions with fellow scientists. I believe both episodes illustrate how we would like exchanges around refereeing to take place, without the anxieties expressed by the tweet I mentioned earlier. But the reality is, bullies are out there and some people – however senior and in no need for more status – do feel that others need to suck up to them, and a critical referee’s report requires retaliation. Sadly, the stories coming out of Harvard about Sheila Jasanoff’s alleged behaviour in the Science and Technology Studies program which she leads there reinforce the idea that disagreeing with some academics may be profoundly dangerous for one’s career and mental wellbeing. Bullies lurk. Taking risks is not always a game worth playing, however much science should be objective and not about vendettas or power. Academia remains peppered with unsavoury characters who get far on bad behaviour and it seems institutions are not good at counteracting such behaviour.




Posted in bullies, de Gennes, hierarchies, power imbalance, Science Culture | Leave a comment

In which we fall

autumn leaves

Fireworks crackle in the darkness: yesterday’s Bonfire Night stretching to fill the entire weekend. The torrential rains have given way to an almost full moon, glowing cold-silver in the eastern sky. November is always a positive month, with the cosiness of a warm home as nights close in, various celebrations to anticipate and the frenzy of Term 1 lecturing having somewhat peaked as we start our downhill crash towards Christmas.

I have not written in a long time because work has been ruthless and all-encompassing, filling up every hour, even when I rise too early and retire too late in a vain attempt to wrest back control. Burning at both ends, my middle feels exhausted and sometimes only partially present. I scribble in my journal when I get a spare moment – a few swaying stops on the Underground, or a decadent five-minute break over coffee – but there is time for little else. A couple of snatched chapters of a novel, cuddles with my son, the 30 minutes of cardio exercise I prioritise over sleep each morning, my daily Duolingo lessons, half-hearted attempts to tame the feral garden before winter sets in. This weekend I managed to cook a hearty stew, bake a pie, play a Chopin Nocturne for fifteen minutes at the piano and put some narcissus bulbs into containers for forcing, but I worked many hours on various academic chores and face a soberingly long list come tomorrow morning. The clamour for my time never ceases; I just grimly slice off heads as ten more sprout back to take their places.

But things are exciting in the lab: I’ve recently got a few new grants, with some others submitted; we also have a number of papers in press, in revision, pending or in the final throes of preparation. Many people are asking to collaborate with us, from great labs all over the world, and that opens up new intriguing possibilities for the research. It’s stimulating and it propels everything forward. On the other side of my portfolio, the small cohort of medical students I’m teaching this year on my course are honestly a joy, and I feel very privileged to be able to work with such bright young people. So life is good, even if sometimes it borders on unbearably stressful.

I just have to keep going.

Posted in academia, Domestic bliss, Gardening, Joshua, Research, staring into the abyss, students, Teaching, The profession of science, work-life balance | Leave a comment

Research Leadership: Are we Getting it Right?

We are stuck in an academic world where the model of how science research is done appears not to have shifted much from that deemed appropriate fifty years ago. Back then (more or less when I set out, give or take a few years), there was – certainly in Cambridge – typically only one professor in a department, even quite large ones. This person was also usually also the head of the department, and often expected their name to go on any paper forthcoming from that department, a practice that was beginning to be phased out by my day. I doubt they had any training in leadership, or indeed in anything beyond science, but they expected others to fall into line with their beliefs. And they had a platform to make this happen.

HEPI have just published a report Research Leadership Matters: Agility, Alignment, Ambition, authored by Matthew Flinders. He argues that collectively we are not doing very well on leadership in academia. As Nick Hillman says in the introduction

‘Research leadership matters because without thinking seriously about the cultures and contexts in which researchers and research users can thrive, the massive investment in research and development funding that has been committed by the Government will not achieve its full potential and the chances of failure will increase.’

As the UK waits to see just how much alleged fat is being trimmed from budgets, potentially including recent uplifts in R+D funding, there will no doubt be much scrutiny in Whitehall about whether the community is able to deliver good returns on the public purse investment into research.

I think the concerns expressed in this HEPI report are well-founded and relevant. Leadership in academia is a bit of a hit and miss affair. Many people rise through the ranks due to their research excellence, regardless of their ability to work with large teams (even if they oversee such a team), to look beyond their personal silo or to value different perspectives. They may be ineffective in their interactions with others. Project management may not be a phrase they are particularly comfortable with. Perhaps they are still burying their head in the sands when it comes to EDI initiatives, letting bullying go by on the nod (or even be the perpetrators) or failing to make sure all who need it receive mentoring.

Reading the report prompted me to consider leaders of my own department over the years, and what leadership meant to them, and so I’ll start by briefly discussing the Cavendish Laboratory’s successes and failures on this front, before returning to the report. In the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, there has been a long tradition of strong men (of course) at the top. Ernest Rutherford was an interesting example. He was referred to as ‘the crocodile’ by his colleague, the Russian low temperature physicist Pyotr Kapitza. The nomenclature has been variously attributed to Kapitza’s alleged fear of Rutherford biting off his head, or alternatively ascribed to his booming voice which could be heard before his arrival, similar to the crocodile’s alarm clock in Peter Pan; or, yet again, that in Russia a crocodile represents the ‘father of the family, and it has a stiff neck and cannot turn back. It just goes forward with gaping jaws’. Whichever interpretation you choose to believe, you may want to consider whether that is the sort of person you want leading a major laboratory. Regardless, Rutherford certainly built a remarkable team around him who definitely got results, including Nobel Prizes for Kapitza, James Chadwick, John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton, to add to his own.

If you read the book by Brian Cathcart, The Fly in the Cathedral, it becomes very clear how much Rutherford controlled who did what in his laboratory. The same might be said, although with less success, of Lawrence Bragg, his successor as head of the Cavendish. Bragg tried to stop Francis Crick studying DNA so that he could finish his PhD, which was meant to be about the structures of polypeptides and proteins. Bragg saw Crick’s pairing with Jim Watson contemplating (theoretically) the DNA structure, as a distraction which would stop Crick ever finishing his thesis. On this occasion the word of the head of department did not cut any ice with the student. One can consider whether the ends justified Crick’s means.

By the time I was studying for my PhD, Neville Mott had succeeded Bragg and, in turn, he had been succeeded by Brian Pippard. Pippard had strong views on many things, be they people, research or how Physics should be taught. That last aspect I met first hand as, not only did he lecture me on thermodynamics (a lecture course of which my prevailing memory is the way his eyebrows bobbed up and down as he spoke; the physics went over my head, I suspect testament to his idiosyncratic attitudes towards teaching.) but I vividly remember one of the questions he set in my final exams. It wasn’t about facts, or equations. No bookwork, but a real test of physical insight provided by a drawing of some bizarre collection of charged plates, with the instruction to draw in the field lines. I hadn’t a clue what the answer was, and I certainly don’t remember what I drew, merely that I erased many versions as I scrabbled around for insight. In hindsight, it was a perfectly fair question but at the time I felt, this is unreasonable: we hadn’t been provided with guidelines for how to answer such a question. I’d like to think my scientific understanding has improved since then, even if my memory of key equations has got worse.

Turning to his attitude towards research, as a new researcher, holding one of the initial batch of Royal Society URF’s and attempting to get my first grant, I remember his comments to me over a cup of coffee (he had by now become emeritus), questioning why I needed research funding at all. Although it may be paraphrasing his remarks, the intent was very much ‘I did it all with string and sealing wax, why do you need cash?’. Even those remarks pale into insignificance with later words he uttered to me about my research (by which time I was well-established and starting to move towards biology) that ‘things have come to a sad pass when people at the Cavendish study starch.’ It was demoralising, but at least I had the enthusiastic support in what I did of the man who by then was head of department, Sam Edwards, to counter such negativity.

More damaging for others during the Pippard era was the way he did not appear to be supportive of more junior colleagues applying for promotion; a couple of lecturers were stuck at that pay grade for years because of this, even as the Cambridge system opened up promotions. He had his views and he was going to stick with them. Mentoring the pair if he really didn’t think they were up to scratch (as others most certainly did)? I don’t think that crossed his mind.

Returning to the HEPI report, there are many comments with which I wholeheartedly agree but which will need some very fundamental rethinking of the current research paradigm. This is probably well overdue, given that the system has, at its heart, changed little even as the numbers involved and the world around academe have changed so radically. I will just pick out three of the recommendations which particularly resonate with me:

  • Facilitate Mobility: A ‘Discipline Hopping’ funding scheme and ‘Research Re-Entry Fellowships’ (or ‘Returnships’) should be piloted to facilitate inter-disciplinary and inter-sectoral mobility.
  • Reconfigure Resources – The vast majority of research funding is distributed on a highly individualised basis with little explicit thought to the cultivation of collaborative skills or the creation of innovative teams. This should be reviewed.
  • Reassess What Counts – Reward structures within universities generally do little to incentivise research leadership. It is critical that reward systems are better able to assess contributions to collaborative ventures and engagement in non-academic but research-related environments.

The world in which researchers work now is not about a lone genius beavering away on their own (think Henry Cavendish or Albert Einstein); it may involve many disciplines and large teams (think about how we are going to make progress regarding the energy transition); and we do not want to reward those who have no care for their teams, however good their results. Thus it is particularly serious when someone who has been rewarded with success and risen to the top is found guilty of bullying behaviour, as was the case both for Alice Gast at Imperial and Fiona Watt at the MRC. I note these are both women, and I do worry if somehow they are being held to a higher standard than men, because statistically I find it surprising we don’t hear more about men being found guilty of the same offence. In anyone, it is pernicious.

We need to pay more attention to leadership, but also to the shape of the whole academic pyramid, the competitiveness provoked by the structures, the incentives we offer for good – and bad – behaviour and the career trajectories we recommend to ECRs. Paying attention to leadership has to be part of the incentive structures we create, as we move beyond the metaphorical weight of papers or length of citation lists when we judge others. All metrics are in danger of bias, as highlighted by the Metric Tide and increasing numbers of research papers since. We must not allow the numbers to be followed slavishly.

I hope many in the community read the HEPI report and digest its recommendations. We don’t expect to be amateurs when we’re let loose in a laboratory, and that should equally be true when we are let loose on running a group, a department or a university.

Posted in bullying, HEPI, Matthew Flinders, mentoring, Research, Science Culture, teams | Leave a comment

In The Air Tonight

Untitled The dream of any author is having their books on sale in the duty-free shops at major airports, alongside the generic thrillers and self-help manuals. Imagine my pleasure therefore at receiving this snap taken by Professor F___ W___, who spotted A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth in field conditions, in a duty-free shop at Dubai Airport. Even more amazingly, the store had displayed the book (my book, noch) as its monthly promotional selection. This really has to be the apotheosis of my zenith this week. Thank you Dubai, and Professor F___ W___!

Leave a comment

What I Read In October

Screenshot 2022-10-03 at 08.02.15Shon Faye: The Transgender Issue I was alerted to this by Stephen: it was something of an eye-opener. From the amount of newsprint and airtime devote to trans people, you’d think they were engaged in a full-scale invasion. Shon Faye shows that they constitute a near-negligible proportion of the population and are oppressed in every way by a majority that would rather they didn’t exist and will go some considerable way to fulfilling that desire. Marginalised, they, like many other minorities, struggle to find employment and are over-represented in the gig economy and sex work. Demonised by the right-leaning press as woke snowflakes that want to shut down free speech: exhibited by the left-leaning press largely as a problem for feminism, the regular person is entitled to ask what’s really going on — and Shon Faye tells us. (Aside: I was brought up by my mother, a WI stalwart, listening to Woman’s Hour on the radio. She hadn’t listened to it for years, she said, as it had been more concerned these days with gender politics than issues that were, to her, of greater interest. I switched on and was immediately pitched into a furious argument between a radical feminist and a trans person. In the old days, I thought, audiences could be titillated by bear-baiting. I switched off). The fact is that nobody wants to be trans as a kind of woke fashion accessory. People transition because they must. What commentators of all political stripes lack is the lived experience, and this is supplied by Shon Faye, though she is at pains to point out that this is not a memoir, rather a survey of how trans people at all stages of life have to negotiate the world. The Transgender Issue is unapologetically left-wing in tone, which is fair enough, but one does get the impression it is preaching to the choir, when it deserves to be read far outside activist or LGBTQ+ circles. When Faye turns from ideology to pragmatic politics, she is absolutely compelling. A section on prisons, for example, articulates why the UK’s current penal system needs reform. Not for ideological reasons, but because prison doesn’t work as a means either of reducing crime or rehabilitating offenders, most of whom shouldn’t be locked up anyway. It is tempting, as a reviewer, to wish for a book the author hadn’t written. There is a lot — necessarily so — on the often fraught relations between the trans community and others in the LGBTQ+ rainbow, and, yes, with feminists. This might give ammunition to those conservatives who wish to find divisions and exploit them (Faye is well aware of this, and gives examples of unholy alliances between religious conservatives and anti-trans feminists) but very little about how gender ideation in our societies is conditioned by religious tradition, and nothing at all about the participation of trans people in sport — another topic of seemingly obsessive interest by legislators, and, therefore, news media. After reading this book, though, I am convinced that the most fundamental human right must be that a person should have absolute autonomy over their own body. Nobody else — not politicians, not priests, not doctors, not psychiatrists — should be able to gainsay a person’s gender identity. In an ideal world, people should be judged by the content of their character, not the content of their underpants. Full disclosure: I identify as a cis heterosexual white male who supports Norwich City FC and although socially liberal, generally votes conservative. And yet this book derailed my political outlook. In other words, it does what all books attempt but few achieve — it can change peoples’ minds. It might help that I have a son who is trans and who has introduced me to wonderful people in the queer community.  But I am also a member of a historically oppressed and ‘othered’ minority and as such I was struck by this passage:

Moral panics rely on an inherent paradox: that the rights of a small minority of the population wielding little institutional power are in fact a risk to the majority. This is achieved by inciting in the population a mixture of moral disgust and anxiety about contagion.

Sound like anyone you know?

UntitledJoe Haldeman: Peace and War Three novels in one here, what the book clubs would call ‘counts as one choice’. The first, The Forever War, published in 1974, is SF as Vietnam aftershock (based on the author’s own Vietnam experience), and rightly hailed as a genre classic. William Mandella is one of Earth’s brightest and best, conscripted to fight the alien Taurans. But constant accelerations to sizeable fractions of light speed means that when his tour is over, relativity ensures that all his friends and family are dead, and even society has changed to the edge of unintelligibility. The only thing he can do is re-enlist. The sequel, Forever Free (1999), follows Mandella and the veterans as they try and fail to settle down on the subarctic planet of Middle Finger, chafing against the homogeneous and authoritarian mass that the human race has become. It’s a bit of a plod, and overcompensates in the final ten pages when it goes a bit loopy. Forever Peace is connected with the first two only thematically, in that the protagonists are reluctant soldiers trying to bring an end to warfare. It’s set in the mid-21st century in which the United States uses remotely controlled soldiers or ‘soldier boys’ to wage a seemingly never-ending war on a hydra-like profusion of rebel groups in the failed states of the global south. Mix in a vast particle physics experiment that has the potential to suck the cosmos into a black hole, with a conspiracy of Christian fundamentalists and white supremacists who’ll stop at nothing to see this happen, and parts of the novel, written in 1997, seem horribly prescient. It’s an enjoyable read, though the author tends to get bogged down in unnecessary details of the characters’ daily lives, a phenomenon known to SF writers as ‘Squid-On-The-Mantelpiece‘ in which the prospect of imminent apocalypse renders as tedious any attempt to dramatise the everyday.

Untitled Edward Gibbon: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Folio Society Edition) – Vol 6. This volume is, like Gaul, divided into three parts. The first is an extended essay on the internecine warfare between early Christian sects about the nature of the Incarnation, which, like the earlier arguments about the nature of the Trinity, Gibbon finds as exasperating as we do. So much ink — and blood — spilled over distinctions so fine as to be invisible. Comparing two of the various schismatic sects:

… their intestine divisions are more numerous, and their doctors (as far as I can measure the degrees of nonsense) are more remote from the precincts of reason.

There’s a mess in ‘ere, but no Messiah. And if that wasn’t enough, the Byzantines get themselves embroiled in a furore about whether the adoration of icons counts as idolatry, as if the profusion of saints and martyrs, miracles and relics didn’t already count as some kind of backsliding into polytheism.

In the long night of superstition the Christians had wandered far away from the simplicity of the Gospel: nor was it easy for them to discern the clue, and tread back the mazes of the labyrinth.

The second part is a chronological, one-damned-thing-after-another treatment of the decline of the Byzantine Empire as far as their conquest by the Crusaders, a sixty-monarch, six-hundred-year canter through time compressed into a few pages. Gibbon himself feels it a bit rushed:

In a composition of some days, in a perusal of some hours, six hundred years have rolled away, and the duration of a life or reign is contracted to a fleeting moment: the grave is ever beside the throne; the success of a criminal is almost instantly followed by the loss of his prize; and our immortal reason survives and disdains the sixty phantoms of kings who have passed before our eyes, and faintly dwell on our remembrance.

This telescoped treatment, however, allows Gibbon to reflect on the point of it all, the struggles of the various Michaels and Basils and Leos and Borises and Rishis and Constantines (all of whom are appalling) up the greasy imperial pole:

Was personal happiness the aim and object of their ambition? I shall not descant on the vulgar topics of the misery of kings; but I may surely observe that their condition, of all others, is the most pregnant with fear, and the least susceptible of hope.

Then there is an excursion into the reign of Charlemagne and whether the Frankish Empire was in any sense Holy or Roman. But all this is hors-d’oeuvres to the main dish, an examination of ‘one of the most memorable revolutions which have impressed a new and lasting character on the nations of the globe’ — the sudden emergence and rapid spread of Islam. This appeared from, almost literally, nowhere, and spread from the Indus to the Atlantic in the space of a century. Its success is partly attributable to its emergence at a time when the Roman and Persian Empires were at their weakest.

The birth of Mohammed was fortunately placed in the most degenerate and disorderly period of the Persians, the Romans, and the barbarians of Europe; the empires of Trajan, or even Constantine or Charlemagne, would have repelled the assaults of the naked Saracens, and the torrent of fanaticism might have been obscurely lost in the sands of Arabia.

Part of Islam’s appeal, though, is its simplicity:

‘I believe in one God, and Mohammed is the apostle of God’, is the simple and invariable profession of Islam. The intellectual image of the Deity has never been degraded by any visible idol; the honours of the prophet have never transgressed the measure of human virtue; and his living precepts have restrained the gratitude of his disciples within the bounds of reason and religion.

What a refreshing contrast, Gibbon seems to say, with the sterile complexities of Christian theology:

… the religion of Mohammed might seem less inconsistent with reason than the creed of mystery and superstition which, in the seventh century, disgraced the simplicity of the Gospel.

Screenshot 2022-10-26 at 05.59.53Jeremy Farrar and Anjana Ahuja: Spike Passionate, polemical and partisan, this is a first-hand account of the first year or so of the Coronavirus pandemic from one at the eye of the storm. Farrar is the Director of the Wellcome Trust, an expert on the spread of epidemics, and was a member of SAGE, the group of scientists advising the UK government on policy — if only the government cared to listen. Ahuja is a journalist who pulled Farrar’s diary of the plague year into the form of something like a thriller. The large cast of characters and the forest of organisational acronyms can be hard to navigate but there’s a helpful glossary and dramatic personae at the end. This is very much a view from the trenches and does not count as a comprehensive history of the pandemic, for much is omitted. There is almost nothing on, say, the efficacy of wearing masks; the studies showing that the virus does not live on surfaces; and the pernicious effects of the anti-vaccination movement. And although the author does like to take political pot shots, his view is selective. He discusses the former (Labour) Prime Minister Gordon Brown (with whom he is on first-name terms) although his role was peripheral, yet nowhere at all does he mention the (Conservative) then-Chancellor Rishi Sunak and his colleagues at the Treasury whose heroic work kept the economy alive during the lockdown. Although it is regrettably true that the Conservative Party is historically very poor at understanding science, balance should not be a casualty of the author’s understandable frustration. Nevertheless, when the history of the pandemic comes to be written, this will be important source material. Shortlisted for the Royal Society Science Book Prize 2022 (DISCLAIMER: I also have a dog in that fight).

UntitledNick Davidson: The Greywacke Cast your mind back to the early nineteenth century when two titans of geology — the ambitious, social climbing ex-soldier Roderick Murchison and the mild-mannered cleric Adam Sedgwick sought to map the confusing jumble of rocks that was Wales. Back in the day, everything older than the Old Red Sandstone was a muddle called the Greywacke, and this is the story about how it gave up its secrets. In the end, Murchison’s Silurian trumped Sedgwick’s Cambrian, and the two once close colleagues fell out spectacularly. It was only resolved in the next generation when an even more mild-mannered schoolteacher, Charles Lapworth, came along and discovered the Ordovician that sat between them. This is a classic piece of popular history of science (I am reminded of The Cuvier-Geoffroy Debate by Toby Appel, another tale about whow two close friends fell out over scientific minutiae). The author — a documentary filmmaker and outdoorsman  — has done his work with incredible diligence, not only digging into rarely seen archives but tramping the same fells and rills as his protagonists.  An immensely satisfying read. Shortlisted for the Royal Society Science Book Prize 2022 (DISCLAIMER: I also have a dog in that fight).

Posted in anjana ahuja, edward gibbon, forever free, forever peace, Jeremy farrar, Joe Haldeman, nick davidson, Shon Faye, spike, the Cuvier Geoffroy debate, the decline and fall of the roman empire, the forever war, the greywacke, the transgender issue, toby appel, Writing & Reading | Comments Off on What I Read In October

Does Life Get Better at Mid-Career?

Julie Gould and Nature Careers podcasts have been running an interesting series (Muddle of the Middle) on what it’s like to be a mid-career/middle aged scientist. A time when precarity is likely to be past, but reality of all the different strands impacting on one’s life come into sharp focus. I certainly didn’t find it an easy time, and looking back to the years of my 40’s, I still find it difficult to judge what the primary issues were, because they don’t present themselves as black and white and they were probably a messy tangle of different factors.

At this stage, many parents face the challenges raised by adolescent children simultaneously with ageing parents, all wanting attention, time and love, albeit often in incompatible ways.  Being part of the ‘sandwich generation’ is bound to be difficult, quite apart from the demands of the job. Elder care probably needs to be talked about more than it is. Particularly when parents live a long way away, the stresses can be huge. For women, the menopause may cause significant challenges. In my day, that wasn’t much talked about, except in dark comments about some woman who was regarded as being ‘difficult’. This difficulty was attributed, in my hearing, to it being ‘that time of life’. Unhelpful. For all I know the same was said of me but if so, they had the grace not to say it in front of me.

But it is exactly this issue of how one’s colleagues approach a woman in mid-life that interests me. Having done a straw poll of around 25 women, it seems to me the population is split between those who say things got worse, to those who say it was a great improvement. I have absolutely no idea what determines which camp an individual falls into – is it their department, their discipline, their character, even how they choose to dress, or is it simply a question of luck? – but I know I certainly fell into the former grouping. As I moved up the ladder, I decided I must have become more threatening, moving from someone who could be patronised to someone who wanted their voice and views to be heard and therefore apparently had to be slapped down or ignored, even talked over. Maybe those who were doing this to me had no idea of how they came across. Conversations in more recent years suggests this is likely to be true. Indeed, in one case, it seemed they actually thought my success was in part attributed to their leadership. Hmmm, is all I can say.

Of course, I must add ‘not all men’ (and let’s face it, in my case, there were no women involved as their numbers were so low). Other key individuals were massively helpful, supportive and understanding, but there were a number of years when those around me who set strategic direction and had the power did not want to accept that, as a professor and an FRS, maybe I had a right to be listened to and treated as ‘one of the boys’. I find this a difficult topic to talk about, because I have no desire to identify individuals publicly. Perhaps they may just not have known how to cope with a professional woman, when their interactions with women were largely limited to either girlfriends or mothers. I didn’t fit in to either heading so how were they supposed to deal with me? These days, I would like to think that men are more accustomed to female scientists being quite good at their jobs, as good as the men around them, and therefore they have more practice at being professional with them. However, in the straw poll of mid-career women I conducted, there were undoubtedly a number who identified with the idea that men were non-plussed and awkward when dealing with a woman in a leadership role, or who commented how it appeared they had become a threat as they became more senior, in ways that had not been so at earlier career stages.

On the other hand, there were other women who commented how nice it was to become more senior because they were no longer subjected to the same levels of harassment. What a damning statement about the world in which we live. I am glad to hear they had a better environment as they progressed, but the reality is a number of women will have been completely lost to the system by the toxicity they encountered. If they were lucky, maybe these women suddenly found themselves with power and kudos, and that all the academics around them listened to their wise words. Sadly, it may mean no more than that their situations were better than they had been, and they felt able at least to voice their opinions. I cannot tell.

The trouble is, there remain systemic problems for women. If they are bad enough, an individual may choose to walk away, never realising their dreams or their potential. If they get through the early stages, with or without actual harassment, then they will hit the mid-career problems faced by all researchers and identified in the podcasts, as well as those specifically related to the fact they are a woman. The recent article by Julie Jebsen et al in Nature Chemistry spells out where systemic problems lie in our current system of research funding, together with some recommendations for what can be done about them. It highlights many challenges that readers of this blog are likely to recognize. Funding is just one part of the problem, a very important part, but individual actions by those around remain a potent obstacle. Women in academia have been limping on for far too long, with slow improvements visible on a number of fronts. Yet too many obstacles remain. When I set out, and when I was mid-career, I kept thinking that the next generation and the next, would find themselves in an equitable environment. We are far from there yet.



Posted in equity, harassment, obstacles, patronising, Science Culture, Women in science | Comments Off on Does Life Get Better at Mid-Career?

Camp Catastrophic

Back in the early days of the present unpleasantness I was engaged to take part in a literary festival in Hay-on-Wye (no, not that one, a different one). Cognisant that Offspring2 is a keen bibliophile, I thought I could take her along — while I was giving talks and taking part in panels, she could browse the more than thirty bookstores in that remarkable Welsh border town.

But COVID intervened, the festival went online, and Offspring2 didn’t get her promised trip. So, when the Gees acquired a camper van, we pencilled in a trip, and booked a campsite just a few steps away from Hay. Now, this happened a few weeks ago: I’ve only now been able to bring myself to write about the ensuing disaster.

So, Offspring2 and I set off from Cromer, full of joy and anticipation, and listening to the BBC’s hoary old adaptation of The Lord of the Rings on cassette (did I say that the camper is so retro it has a cassette player?)

Well, the clouds gathered just over halfway, on the M42 near Birmingham, when the coolant warning light went on and stayed on, accompanied by a horrible constant buzzing noise. We pulled over and called the AA (no, not that one, a different one). Eventually a tow truck arrived and towed us to a safe place. The driver checked our coolant and topped it up. We decided not to wait for an AA patrolman (this proved to be a mistake) and  pressed on … but it wasn’t long before warning lights flashed; the engine temperature indicator went up and down like the Assyrian Empire; but we were nearly there, so just after dark we pulled in to the campsite. It was called Black Mountain View and was a wonderful place, and would have made for a pleasant holiday under different circumstances. Offspring2 settled down to sleep in the van while I pitched the awning, unfolded the camp bed and snuggled down to sleep. Or, at least, I tried. It was a cold and damp night.

What with the worries about the van (the whole interior smelled of burning rubber) and the damp night we decided to abandon our holiday and try to get home. With the help of the campsite owner (a skilled mechanic) we topped up the coolant again and set off.

Ten miles out, not far from Hereford, we finally broke down. Steam was pouring from the engine. We called the AA again. This time the patrolman had a better idea of the problem – we had probably blown the head gasket. Big, big problem, and the van was no longer safe to drive.

Screenshot 2022-10-27 at 08.59.10There followed a succession of tow trucks that took us from Hereford in easy stages to the Barton Mills service area on the A11, some 68 miles from home. By that time the Sun had set and the Moon had risen — I took this picture from the tow truck of the Moon and Jupiter. But by then, the AA had run out of tow trucks, and they had to get a taxi. We eventually got home 15 hours after our breakdown. I had to leave the keys to the van at the service station. The van was towed home next day; a couple of days later my garage came to take it to their workshop … and that’s where it is now.

If and when the van gets back to us we might have second thoughts about camping, or at least, anywhere far away. However, the night sky in Wales was so lovely that I can imagine my taking the van to dark hilltops for stargazing with my new telescope. So perhaps, even when I am lying in the gutter (and smelling of burning rubber), I can still look up at the stars.


Posted in Apparitions, automobile association, camper van, Hay-on-Wye, How The Light Gets In, travel | Comments Off on Camp Catastrophic

Part-time talking

Things have come to a pretty pass when the UK can churn out Prime Ministers more frequently that I post to my blog. It might be taken as a sign of the times if the times weren’t so damned confusing.

The dance of light at Barcelona airport

Black and white shot of people reflecting off the gleaming surfaces inside Barcelona airport

Whatever. The itch to keep writing is still there, even if it remains distracted by the demands of work. But those are lessening these days because I have shed my teaching responsibilities for the year and moved to a part-time contract working four days a week. I am lucky to be able to do so.

I suspect it may be one of the best decisions I’ve made in a long time. I’m only three weeks into the new regime but am already feeling the benefit of having a long weekend every weekend. Work, including some of my extra-curricular commitments (such as DORA and my involvement in revisiting the Metric Tide) – might still intrude on the weekend, but so far only rarely on Fridays and it now feels more like a conscious, controlled choice. Let’s see if I can stick to the programme.

Anyway, to business. This week I have given three talks on three different but interlinked areas that have consumed my attention over the past decade or more. We are in the midst of open access week and on Monday I was able to participate online in a panel organised by Aberdeen University to discuss the latest moves towards open science. I confess I have not kept as well abreast of developments as I used to – I have still to catch up with all the hoo-haa over eLife’s recent shift in publication practice (though it strikes me immediately as a bold and worthy experiment – but I have a strong sense that the centre of gravity is shifting in this debate: openness is clearly the way to go, even if some of the paths are tangled by the commercial interests of some publishers and unresolved issues of research assessment in the academic community.

Research assessment, or more particularly the reform of research assessment, was the subject of an invitation-only roundtable run by Science Business on Tuesday morning. I think this was in Brussels but I’m not sure; I was an online participant. I’m not at liberty to divulge details but was struck by the divergence of opinion and the imprecision of language. Some talked about the need for ‘objective’ metrics or for ‘concrete’ metrics systems without pausing to analyse how such objectivity or concreteness is achieved in a system that depends critically on individual judgement and social interaction (I have finally got around to reading Ziman). Those of use who wish to see quantitative data about research contributions tensioned and contextualised by qualitative analyses need to make a stronger case.

And finally today I was at the Building Bridges 2022 conference organised by the Academia Europaea, at a session on diversity and inclusion run by the Young Academy of Europe. This was bracketed by intriguing sessions on science policy and on innovation, both social and technological. I hope I gave a good account of the work that we are doing at Imperial to advance EDI (very much unfinished) and was glad to find myself in agreement with my co-panellist, Yvonne Galligan(Professor of Comparative Politics a the Technological University of Dublin), the real expert in this area.

Our discussion was a bit rushed and abbreviated because the previous session on science policy had overrun but once again I noticed a problematic imprecision in the use of language. Throughout the session, chaired by Robert-Jan Smits (an erstwhile director-general of research and innovation at the European Commission), the need to protect and valorise excellence was emphasised. No one is against excellence, right? But no one stopped to define what it means although at one point it was implicitly taken to mean performance in the Nature Index, which is a very narrow and contested measure of research output. I’m increasingly of the view that the term needs to be retired, not least because the scholarly critique of excellence has laid bare its weaknesses, deformities and gender biases. What a pity that the scholarly system, with its fixation on metricised performance, has yet to properly absorb this critique.

Posted in science | Comments Off on Part-time talking

Investing in People

We have all got used to the wonders of Zoom (or Teams if you prefer) over the last couple of years. It may have made academic life as we were used to it viable during the pandemic, but it has its downsides, as I discovered this week. Firstly, much though I feel committed to reducing my carbon footprint, there are times when meeting in person makes an enormous difference. Eighteen months ago I wrote about what I felt we, as academics, lost when we could not meet. That was of course while Omicron was still rampaging and in person felt a distant dream for most. For local meetings I am totally in favour of sticking with in person unless Covid intervenes, as it did for me a couple of weeks ago (finally).

And it was due to being laid low by Covid that I did not go to London to present evidence in person to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee last week, but relied on Zoom. Sadly, this went awry. My laptop audio decided to pack up at the crucial moment and I missed the first fifteen minutes or so of the hour-long session. Hence, if you listen to the recording of the evidence, my first words are an apology. Not how I would have wanted to come across, particularly as I was left somewhat disconcerted by the hiccough and, since I was using someone else’s laptop, disorganised with regard to my notes.

This was a sessionfor their enquiry on People and Skills in UK STEM. A topic of great importance, and covering a wide swathe of issues. The session I was in was focussed on skills in the workforce; the following session more on university researchers, including issues of precarity. I don’t want to rehearse all the arguments I made there, including the importance of those who don’t follow a linear trajectory through GCSE, A Levels and hence to university, the need for FE Colleges to be well-funded, and the issues about women being discouraged from entering the STEM disciplines by societal expectations. You can listen to me on Parliament.TV and read my written submission to the enquiry if you want to know more. But I would like to highlight one point I made about the importance of employers investing in their own to upskill them.

Churchill College occupies a large site in Cambridge (45 acres I believe, the largest single site of any of the Cambridge colleges) and houses a large number of students on site. It is therefore incumbent on us to have appropriately large Estates and Maintenance teams. We also have many ‘60’s buildings, concrete and bricks in a brutalist style, with flat roofs. Flat roofs are excellent for installing solar panels on and, in our case much to our advantage, we also have copper parapets which rise slightly above the roofline. All this means, as we work around the College refurbishing the various courts, we are well-placed to install solar panels (plus plenty of a modern standard of insulation) to reduce our dependence on gas (the parapet’s advantage is it largely makes these invisible from the ground, making planning permission easier).

However, installation of solar panels does not come cheap and pay-back time tends to be well over a decade. In the College’s case, though, a decision was taken to upskill members of the maintenance team to be able to carry out the installation themselves and this is what they were able to do over the summer over an extensive area of roof. We are now able to generate 200,000kWh per annum from these installations, and are aiming for 750,000kWh of solar power on site per year by 2026. By using our own team, the pay-back time is cut right back to 4-5 years.  This is obviously great from the point of view of our carbon footprint and energy bills, but the pride our team take in this work is equally great. It demonstrates the importance in investing in employees, offering them the opportunity to upskill. You can read more about this and other in-house work to improve sustainability in our operations here.

Of course, not every employer is in a position to act in an equivalent way, but as a nation we do really badly on this front. A recent IFS report highlighted a 38% reduction in spending on adult education and apprenticeships over the last decade. There is an even greater drop (50%) in spending on classroom-based adult education.  We have a new PM about to take over, so we will have to wait to see if the phrase ‘levelling up’ re-enters the political lexicon, or whether we are now simply talking about ‘growth’, but whatever jargon is attached to this problem, if we are to drive innovation and improve our productivity, we need to make sure that we invest, not just in those heading for high-powered research jobs, but those others who make so much difference to operations at different levels in all kinds of organisations.

The trouble is that skills is a word that encompasses so much (the same might be said of levelling up), and it is a heterogeneous landscape. Robert West from the CBI, with whom I was paired in the evidence session, pointed out that apprenticeships are only one route of acquiring new skills (and very often actually these may be at a degree level or even masters anyhow) and in the Lords enquiry he wanted to stress that the solution cannot simply sit with adjusting the apprenticeship levy scheme. It is clear to me that further education colleges have a key role to play – and more particularly if they were properly resourced – to ensure that those who aren’t suited to the degree (i.e. Level 6) route have alternatives that will still equip them with vital skills.

In England, a 2018 Government report showed that only 4 per cent of 25-year-olds hold a Level 4 or Level 5 qualification as their highest level. Much higher numbers either don’t get beyond Level 3 or go on to achieve a Level 6 qualification, with figures for around 30% for both.  In contrast, in Germany, Level 4 and 5 makes up 20 per cent of all higher education enrolments. These people with intermediate skills are often crucial for technical roles – in universities or in factories or SMEs driving innovative processes – and there is a shortage of such people. This was highlighted in the 2021 Royal Society report on the research and technical workforce in the UK, as also in earlier work for the Gatsby Foundation by Paul Lewis.

I will look forward to seeing the final report from the Lords Committee, and also how investment in education and skills plays out under the new PM.  Meanwhile Churchill College will continue to invest in its workforce, employing apprentices (as we always have) and helping to upskill others in ways that work for them.



Posted in apprenticeships, careers, education, House of Lords, Science Funding, skills, solar panels | Comments Off on Investing in People

The Rings of Power: Impressions of the First Series

You’ll both be aware that I offered a few impressions of the first two episodes of The Rings of Power, the multi-squillion-dollar televisual emission from Amazon Prime. Now that all eight episodes of the first series (or ‘season’, as we are now obliged to call such things) have been aired, I thought I’d note down a few thoughts, more for my own edification than anything else, as it seems that everyone has their own deeply entrenched opinions, and, anyway, nobody cares what I think.

As before THERE ARE SPIDERS SPOILERS, so if you haven’t yet seen all the episodes, you may look away now.

Overall — I found it most satisfying. I have watched almost all episodes twice. I know in my earlier post I said I didn’t care if the story did violence to Tolkien’s original, but that was perhaps disingenuous of me. I do care. Of course I do. The story was consistent with Tolkien’s (admittedly sketchy) narratives of the Second Age of Middle-earth (after the ‘Elder Days’ of the Silmarillion, but thousands of years before the events in The Lord of the Rings), and such liberties as it took actually, in the end, generally enhanced the story rather than detracted from it.

Here’s a brief run-down of the Second Age in Tolkien’s imagined world, inasmuch as it concerns the first TV series. The First Age, or ‘Elder Days’, ended with the defeat of Morgoth, the first Dark Lord. Sauron, Morgoth’s chief Hench Entity (he is the Dark Lord in The Lord of the Rings), escapes, and there is peace for a long while. The Men (that is, humans) who aided the Elves were given a large island, Elenna, to live on, in the middle of the ocean, where they founded the kingdom of Numenor. Although there was much commerce between Men and Elves, as the Age wore on, Men became suspicious of Elves and jealous of their immortality. The Men left behind in Middle earth – those who did not qualify for entry into Numenor — were a wretched bunch, haunted by their erstwhile service to Morgoth, and generally abandoned. As the age progressed they were aided by visits from Numenor, visits that became increasingly colonial and dominating. Meanwhile, those Elves who did not return to the Blessed Realm of Valinor in the far west founded a kingdom called Lindon on the far northwestern corner of Middle-earth, presided over by Gil-galad, the High King. The Dwarves, meanwhile, opened up their kingdom of Khazad-Dûm in the Misty Mountains. Some of the Elves who took delight in manufacture and smithwork founded a country called Eregion nearby, and there was much commerce between Elves and Dwarves. One result of this interaction was the forging of the Three Rings of Power, artefacts that helped preserve the culture of the Elves against the ageing of the world. Unbeknown to the Elves, they are aided in their effort by a mystery smith called Annatar, who turns out to be none other than Sauron. After that events take a nosedive, but that’s enough to be getting on with for now.

The TV series follows one main story, with another only tangentially related, and a third hardly at all.

The main story (which I discussed more in my earlier post) follows the young Elf Princess Galadriel, very much a warrior, in her obsessive search for Sauron. Gil-galad tries to dissuade her, saying that evil has been vanquished, but privately confesses to Elrond (his herald and speech writer) that evil might still lurk and that an effect of Galadriel’s quest will be to stir up what might have been best left slumbering. His remarks are, indeed, prescient. (Linguistic Note: The Elves speak standard, Received-Pronunciation English). After several adventures Galadriel finds herself castaway on a shipwreck with Halbrand, a Man of the ‘Southlands’ of Middle-earth who is escaping who-knows-what depredations by those Orcs still around after the First Age — for not all were destroyed. They are both rescued by Elendil, a Sea-Captain of Numenor. (Linguistic Note: Halbrand has a Yorkshire accent).

The story thus shifts to Numenor, where we meet the Queen Regent, Miriel; her chancellor, the charismatic Pharazon; and Numenorean society in general. (Linguistic Note: Numenoreans, like Elves, speak standard Received-Pronunciation English). Halbrand would like to remain in Numenor and become a smith, but Galadriel discovers that Halbrand is a scion of a lost kingdom in the Southlands and persuades the Numenoreans to launch an expeditionary force to aid the Southlands and restore him to his kingdom.

In the Southlands, we find a small village of people (with Yorkshire accents). A healer, Bronwyn, a single mother with a teenage son, Theo, is close to Arondir, an Elf who is part of a detachment charged with guarding the Southlands. When Gil-galad determines that peace has returned, the detachment is withdrawn… but not before falling foul of a band of Orcs. The Orcs, which hate sunlight, are tunnelling and undermining the entire area, slowly turning it into a kind of Western-Front hellscape. Which is a shame, as the Southlands look rather pleasant, except for the volcano that broods on the horizon. The Numenoreans land and help the Southlanders defeat the Orcs, or so it seems. Galadriel has a confrontation with the leader of the Orcs, who turns out to be a corrupted Elf, called Adar.  However, the Orcs use a sneaky contraption that floods the magma chamber of the volcano with water, prompting a violent eruption. The Numenoreans and Southlanders have to retreat from a land that is turning, very quickly, into Mordor. The volcano is of course Orodruin, or Mount Doom of The Lord of the Rings. Galadriel and Halbrand make their way to Eregion.

Meanwhile, Gil-galad sends Elrond to Eregion, where he is required to help Celebrimbor in a new project. There is some hurry, apparently, but Celebrimbor doesn’t have the manpower. Elrond goes to nearby Khazad-Dûm to enlist the help of a friend, Prince Durin, heir to the throne. This story — a personal one, of Elrond’s relationship with Durin, is the meat of the second story. (Linguistic Note: The Dwarves speak with Glaswegian accents). Together they discover a new ore called mithril which Elrond says will stop the Elves from fading, but Durin’s father, also Durin, forbids further work mining mithril, and with good reason — the mine workings disturb an ancient menace, slumbering far below the Dwarf mines (this is the balrog from The Lord of the Rings). Elrond is thrown out of Khazad-Dûm with a single nugget of mithril. Back in Eregion, Celebrimbor uses the mithril to forge the Three Rings, with helpful suggestions from Halbrand, which Galadriel finds suspicious. The dwarf storyline is only there to provide the mithril, and warn us of the oncoming Balrog.

The third story concerns the Harfoots, a wandering tribe of proto-hobbits, living somewhere near Greenwood the Great (the later Mirkwood). One of them, a young woman called Elanor Brandyfoot, befriends a stranger (known as the Stranger, with a capital ‘S’) who falls from the sky in a meteorite. The Stranger is very confused but seems to have magical powers. (Linguistic Note: the Harfoots have Irish accents). Their story interacts with the others not at all, except that they notice that parts of their landscape have been burned by lava bombs from distant Orodruin.

The question the Tolkien Twitterverse asked throughout the series was — who is Sauron? I thought it might be the Stranger, and indeed, in Episode 8, the Stranger is approached by three magi who are convinced he is Sauron, only to find that he is, in fact, an Istar, or wizard. (I was reminded of the scene at the beginning of Monty Python’s Life of Brian when the magi come to worship the baby Brian, but realise they have come to the wrong house). It seems clear from some of the things he says to Elanor that he is in fact Gandalf. In Tolkien’s legendarium, Gandalf arrives in Middle-earth respectably by boat, thousands of years later, his task being to inspire the residents of Middle-earth to rise up against Sauron. However, thinking about it, his fiery televisual arrival is satisfying for a number of reasons. First, he is disadvantaged from the beginning — shocked, disoriented and naked, he has to make a start from nothing. Second, the fact that he is befriended by Harfoots explains Gandalf’s later fondness for hobbits (which Tolkien does not explain). Third, that the magi mistake him for Sauron. In Tolkien’s mythology, Gandalf and Sauron belong to the same order of angelic being, and, Tolkien notes, even Sauron was not evil in the beginning.

Is Adar, the corrupted Elf, then, Sauron? No — but his depiction lends a new poignancy to the stories of the origins of Orcs. This is a vexed question I discussed at length (even more length than here) in a book, but Tolkien was very clear that, in one respect, Orcs originated from Elves that were ensnared by Morgoth, twisted and ruined. Adar, then, although he looks like a battered Elf, is one of the first generation of Orcs. His fellow Orcs (his ‘children’, produced by some unknown means) are much more human-looking than many of the Orcs in the (much later) Lord of the Rings, as if Orcs become more degenerate with time.

Sauron turns out to be … Halbrand. In a key scene in the season finale, he wars in thought with Galadriel. He admits that ‘I have been awake since before the breaking of the first silence’: that is, he is a divine being. But he also, it seems, would like to make amends.

When Morgoth was defeated, it was as if a great clenched fist had released its grasp from my neck, and in the stillness of that first sunrise, felt — at last — the light of the One again. And I knew, that if ever I was to be forgiven, that I had to heal everything that I had helped ruin.

[Theological Note: The One is the High God, above the angelic Valar, and the lesser but still angelic Maiar, which include Gandalf and Sauron]. Halbrand/Sauron tempts Galadriel with the thought that she might be his Queen, using lines (‘stronger than the foundations of the Earth’) that we saw Galadriel utter in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings (she rejects this). At the end of this confrontation, Halbrand’s eyes turn slit-like, like that of the cat Sauron always was, and the single lidless cat’s eye he would eventually become (blink and you’d miss it). But before that, Sauron at all points seems to be the reasonable one in the argument. He knows that the best lies are 90% truth. At the end of the episode we see him journey to the Mordor that Adar and his Orcs have prepared for him.

[Further Linguistic Note: distinguished Tolkienist John Garth noted on Twitter that Sauron’s Yorkshire accent, might, after being in Mordor, become more like that of the Black Country].




Posted in amazon prime, durin, elrond, galadriel, gandalf, gil-galad, halbrand, john garth, Monty Python's Life of Brian, sauroin, Science-fiction, the lord of the rings, the rings of power, the science of middle earth, tolkien | Comments Off on The Rings of Power: Impressions of the First Series