Bin the Past

My last post talked about binning a word, ‘boffin’, but currently I’m literally binning my past. As my former home of the Cavendish Laboratory prepares to move into its shiny new buildings, the Dolby Centre, I need to clear out my office. Clear it out of decades of my working life. It’s not the first time I’ve had to do such a clear-out when I move office: I believe, since I returned to the Cavendish as one of the very first generation of URFs (Royal Society University Research Fellow, if the acronym is unfamiliar), I’ve occupied a total of four offices. On each occasion, I would like to think I threw out many bin bags worth of rubbish, or at least outdated paperwork. My last move, which must have been not long before I took up the Mastership of Churchill College, permitted me not simply to throw stuff out, but pass it on, since the College Archives were interested in ‘archiving’ my past. Sadly, I only worked that out part way through the clear out and maybe ‘treasures’ they might have wanted had already been tossed away.

But this move is, I guess, my final one. I’m retired from the Cavendish and so, if I get assigned any space at all in the new building, it will only be in a shared office and as a place to hold professional meetings if needed. My research career is, sadly, over. Hence, the research papers, carefully xeroxed long ago or more recently printed from the web, are no longer of any use. They reflect the different stages of my research career, although I know the very earliest years when I worked on metals got chucked out at that last office move. So, instead, there’s my earliest polymer work on crazing, which was what really set my career alight, through liquid crystalline polymers, to starch, to Environmental Scanning Electron Microscopy, protein aggregation and finally cellular adhesion. Not to mention some dead ends that didn’t progress far: chocolate, cell wall polysaccharides and using a quartz crystal microbalance to study protein adhesion, to name but three. Based on all of which PhD students successfully got their degrees, but which clearly were either not my intellectual forte or best suited to the equipment at my disposal.

Throwing out the papers will have been the easy part of my move and I’m about to move on to tougher challenges of decisions and disposal. I know, if I suddenly wanted to reread one of those old papers, I could most likely find it on the web. There were an awful lot of them, to the extent I essentially filled two whole recycling bins. The ones that gave me most of a pang were, interestingly, not the most recent ones that contained the clues to my lattermost projects, those that faded out as I moved on to other things (such as being Master, but also – and before that – being the University’s Gender Equality Champion, sitting on University Council and many dependent committees, and chairing the Royal Society’s Education Committee). There were questions I would have loved to pursue, but there came a point when I realised that I simply didn’t have the time left over from my other roles to dig down sufficiently into the literature and to mull over what I saw as the key issues and questions, in order to formulate a sensible, well-thought through research proposal. So, I had to walk away, however frustrating.

No, it wasn’t throwing those papers away that I had carefully gathered for the time that never came, that I found most upsetting. It was the papers on which I really cut my research teeth back as a young postdoc. Those that date to the time I worked with Ed Kramer when I was at Cornell. I hadn’t seen that coming. Elderly though so many of those papers were (1970s primarily, but some even earlier; my research on polymers started in 1979), those were the ones I felt most inclined, in a silly, sentimental sort of way, to keep. But I didn’t. I tossed them out with all the others.

Of course, no one works with piles of paper like this anymore. There is less excuse to accumulate the same amount of stuff in an office. I’d already thrown out, probably at the last move, many of the boxes of printed micrographs my early years had produced and the original negatives from which the prints had been made. Few research students will now have to spend hour after hour in a dark room surrounded by smelly chemicals, trying to print out images that reveal just what key feature had been spotted in the long shifts spent staring into an electron microscope (also in the dark). How quaint and out-dated that must seem to recent generations of students, who only know digital recording which can be brought up in an instant on a computer screen. Certainly, dark room work was a skill I wish I’d never had to learn, and I can instantly conjure up the somewhat unpleasant smell of the solutions that needed to be used back then.

However, there is still an enormous amount of stuff left in the office for me to dispose of in the weeks ahead. Reports from many bodies, notably around gender or from the Royal Society, that maybe I always intended to read but never got around to. They will need to go, just as much as those that I carefully studied or perhaps even contributed to. Papers, including minutes, from many committees I sat on or sometimes chaired. Not grant-giving commitees. For those, it always seemed wise to leave the papers behind in the room once the decisions had been made, not least because the weight of paper that had to be transported was ridiculous (I once damaged the forks on my bicycle when I loaded a day or two’s worth of committee work into my basket), but also of course due to the confidentiality.

Preparations for conferences; notes of student progress and all their reports as they moved through their PhDs; teaching preparation, including for the practicals I taught, notes evolving over the years; and goodness knows what other clutter I can no longer recall because it really should have been chucked out years ago. It’s a bit wrenching to chuck out what represents so much of my life, time and energy, but out it all has to go.

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One Response to Bin the Past

  1. Jeremy Sanders says:

    Athene, I’m going through exactly the same agonies in Lensfield Road as I move (8 years after my formal retirement) from the big office that you will remember that I have had for over 20 years into the shared retired staff office.
    It’s the 50 years’ of forgotten individual letters, cards, photos that are the hardest

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