Sisyphus at rest

I’ve rolled my rock to the top of the mountain and sat down for a rest. Tonight I will allow myself a brief respite from my labours. I’ve been working very hard of late but the job is now done and I feel a great sense of relief.

Having been made a professor about a year ago, on Wednesday night I finally got around to delivering my inaugural lecture to an audience of family, friends and colleagues. This was my chance to explain myself – to give some account of what I’ve done in my career in science, and perhaps some suggestion of what is to come.

I have never in my life sweated so much over a lecture. The breadth of the audience made it very difficult to judge how to pitch the content so that as many people as possible could follow what I had to say. There is no set format to these things, but that freedom seemed only to magnify the problem of preparing the talk.

The lecture had been on my mind, with slowly increasing intensity, for the past several months. A few weeks ago I finally started shaping my scattered notes and making slides. I had a reasonably finished draft come last weekend but didn’t get around to having a run-through until Tuesday—at about 11.30 pm. I was a bit shocked to discover that it was way too long—1 hour and 13 minutes—and rather disjointed. I spent the next few hours trying to trim the fat, but when I hit the sack at 3.20 am, it was still not right.

I was in my office early on Wednesday morning, my guts in knots, and spent most of the day trying to streamline the presentation and re-work the connections between some slides. It was all a bit intense but I did manage to have a couple more run-throughs and things were finally taking a shape that seemed to be hanging together. I managed to smile and chat to a few people who arrived to have tea before the lecture. The sight of so many friendly faces appeased my nerves. But only slightly.

As I rose to speak, and fiddled with the clip on the microphone—sending out loud booms and scrapes into the theatre—I knew that if I made a decent start, things would probably be OK.

I managed not to fluff my lines for the first few slides and settled to the task. And then started to enjoy myself. Beginning with my recollection of a unusual announcement heard on the platform at Tooting Bec tube station—‘If your destiny is not shown on the board, please take the first train and change at Kennington’—I tried to describe the path that had taken me from a childhood in Northern Ireland to a professorship in structural biology at Imperial College. Much of it seemed to be something of a random walk but the journey, though extremely arduous (positively Sisyphean!) at times, was never less than interesting.

I’m too tired to rehearse the content here in any detail tonight (though some of it may well be re-cycled for use in future posts!). But the weight of the task has finally slipped from my shoulders—I have been released from my bond. And tired though I am, I also I feel strangely re-energised for the work that lies ahead.

Let’s roll that rock some more!

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15 Responses to Sisyphus at rest

  1. steffi suhr says:

    Stephen, any chance the lecture was filmed? Would you mind posting it? It would be very, very interesting for a wide audience to be able to follow someone (you) through the stages of their career and see it all developing. Regardless, we’ll take the posts on it, too!
    Explaining what you do to those closest to you, why you spend so much time on it and why you feel passionate about it, is probably one of the hardest things!

  2. Mike Fowler says:

    Sounds like a great effort!
    It’s also reassuring (or perhaps slightly worrying) that even Professors leave creating and finalising presentations to the last possible moment. I still labour under the idea that a talk will only be really fresh and interesting if it contains results that are less than 24 hours old. But that’s probably easier for a theoretician than a lab scientist.

  3. Stephen Curry says:

    @Steffi – I’m afraid it wasn’t recorded. I didn’t have the time to get that organised. But I will very likely re-visit some of the themes that I touched on in future posts. It certainly was hard work to try to fashion a story that would appeal to a broad audience but I am really, really glad to have had the opportunity to tell the story to family and friends, who often have only the vaguest idea of what we do. And to thank them for their very important part in helping me on my way.
    @Mike – yes I’m afraid I’m a bit of a deadline demon. It’s not good for my health or sanity but I don’t seem to be able to operate in any other way. And I find that the preparation of talks (and papers) is sometime the first time I think really deeply about our results and start to see connections that weren’t evident before. Which sometimes demands a return to the lab for some more experiments. I wish I could learn the discipline of full and proper analysis as soon as the results come in…!

  4. Brian Derby says:

    Luckily when I got my Chair at UMIST (as it was in those days) there was no tradition of inaugural lectures so I escaped. I went to a friend’d inaugural in Birmingham a few years back (she too is from Northern Ireland Steve) and I was amazed at ho well the lecture had been constructed. It was very enjoyable and fully understandable for one who new little about the true science of the subject (Motor Neurone Disease). I am sure your talk was just as good.
    Of course you could have used the trick of James Clerk Maxwell, who hid the location of his inaugural so that only interested students attended. The university thought that his first pulicised lecture was his inaugual and…
    “When, a few days later, Maxwell began his first course with a lecture on Heat, his students had the delight of seeing the lecture room packed with their tutors, lecturers, professors and all the important personages of the University. Thinking that this was his first public appearance they sat, in their formal academic dress, while Maxwell, “with a perceptible twinkle in his eye”, gravely expounded the difference between Fahrenheit and Centigrade, and the principle of the air thermometer.”

  5. Chris Surridge says:

    Congratulations Stephen.
    Seems like a long way since I was a callow postgrad and you the hyper sophisticated almost doc.

  6. Stephen Curry says:

    Thanks for that Brian – Maxwell sounds like a man after my own heart!
    And cheers Chris – that was a long time ago… but I don’t remember you being the least bit callow!

  7. Dorothy Clyde says:

    Congratulations Stephen – you must be very relieved that it’s all over! Coming from Broughshane, I wish I’d been there to hear all about your ‘escape’ from Ballymena. I’m always really inspired by people from ‘back home’ who’ve done well for themselves – but not in a creepy, stalker-type way I hasten to add (though maybe in the case of Jimmy Nesbitt….!?!).

  8. Stephen Curry says:

    Why thank you Dorothy – always nice to meet someone from home. I’m afraid I don’t think I can match Jimmy Nesbitt’s success, though I’m grateful to him for helping to make Northern Ireland seem a little bit cool…!

  9. Maxine Clarke says:

    I was lucky enough to attend Stephen’s lecture and can attest it was marvellous – a lovely mix of scientific information and informality. I learned a lot from it. And yes, it was long, but not boring for an instant – which is saying something as I find it quite hard usually to sit still for an hour and listen to someone talking. I particularly liked the personal elements, such as the photos you and Nick Franks had dug out. You are much more handsome now of course ;-). And the last slide, of your parents, literally bought tears to my eyes.
    What struck me most about your talk was how your informal, direct and personal approach aided the understanding of the technical information you were conveying – such as the contrast between your infertile 1996 scientifically speaking, and the birth of your beautiful third child that year.
    Anyway, enough rambling, it was a marvellous talk – I do not know if the animations will work on NN but I hope you do write some of the content as posts here.
    Thanks again for asking me, it was a very informative and moving talk.

  10. Heather Etchevers says:

    Stephen, I’m only sorry I missed it.
    I’ve just finished reading Randy Pausch’s book about his last lecture – which I would highly recommend for a number of reasons, not least of which is that he seemed to share your humor and lucidity. And it’s full of pleasant deliveries of a number of truisms.

  11. Stephen Curry says:

    @Maxine – I was very glad that you could come — very much appreciated — and that it didn’t turn out disastrously, which was a genuine concern in the wee small hours of Wednesday morning! That was a big relief and it’s great to be able to look back on it with pleasure – and to know that it’s in the past and not the future…
    @Heather – thanks for the book suggestion. I’ll definitely look that up. Might be able to mine it for material…!

  12. Ian Brooks says:

    No matter how many times I hear/read this sort of thing, I still can’t believe senior faculty get nervous! Us junior squibs yeah, but y’all? When my PI gave his tenure talk he was almost sweating blood even though there was n chance he could be caught out on a question or something. I guess it’s the need…desire and need, to impress. Your chance to shine and not look like a complete gimp fluke.
    I’d love to have gone too. If it’s anything like your music video science video thing…

  13. Stephen Curry says:

    Sorry to disappoint Ian but, yes, the nerves are sill there. Not with UG lectures any more but certainly when doing research seminars and conference presentations. I don’t really object to them, since they are a great motivator to be prepared! I just wish they had the power to make me get ready more in advance of the start of the talk than is usually the case!
    Once I get started, I’m usually fine and can enjoy the process.

  14. Ian Brooks says:

    I know what you mean there. I’m always a bit nervous right beforehand, but once I’m in and got a couple of slides under my belt the nerves go and it’s fun. I find it very similar to performing on stage (in bands, not acting). The nerves can be terrible, but within a few beats of the first song, or at worst, by the end of the first song I’m in heaven!

  15. Stephen Curry says:

    Now that I envy you Ian – the musical performance on stage, I mean. It must be a fantastic feeling. I’d love to be able to do that, but alas the complete absence of ability is something of an impediment!

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