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A PHYSICIST WRITES . . .

(July 2015)

I feel that I am in a double time-warp, possibly even a triple one. Yesterday (as I write) I returned to the University of Warwick to help celebrate the 50th birthday of its Physics Department, where I arrived as a postgraduate student in the autumn of 1965. In fact the whole university is celebrating its half-century during this year, but yesterday was the turn of physics.

People of all ages converged on a building much bigger than the one I first knew. Some, of my age or more, had altered in appearance themselves, since I last saw them. Yet others had changed hardly at all Ė how was this possible?

We were shown and told about equipment and facilities unimaginable 50 years ago! Front-line research is being done in the department on everything from sub-atomic particles to the remotest galaxies in the universe. The undergraduates, even, can examine the atomic structure of crystals by X-ray diffraction using a box of tricks that fits on the laboratory bench.

Or they can link their laptops to a radio-telescope on the roof, and use its signals to study the spiral-arm layout and the speed of rotation of our Milky Way galaxy (even though this is flat and thin, and we are looking at it from the inside). What marks out a university as being successful is mostly the effective education of its students.

My memories of Warwick (as it was) are bound up with those of my first car, a Morris Minor, which I acquired soon after starting there. It came with a starting-handle, essential in that cold winter of 1965/66! Just behind the large steering wheel was, I think, a stalk with a button on the end which was the horn-press. The direction-indicators were the semaphore-style trafficators: what a lovely clattering noise they made! There was no synchromesh on first gear, so if you were struggling up a steepening hill, you had either to cleverly double-declutch, matching the engine revs to the road speed, or else stop and get going again in first, with much slipping of the clutch...

But why do I say a double time-warp? Perhaps time-reversal would be more appropriate, because next weekend Iím going back to Bristol University which I left just over 50 years ago. Also, what was then its Physics Department is now called the School of Physics Ė whereas at Warwick they recently changed the name in the reverse direction! (Both rebrandings were rather pointless, I would say.) And that is why I feel Iím almost in a triple time-confusion.

Anyway, the excitement at Bristol will have a different focus from that at Warwick, because I am organizing a reunion of those who did all (or some) of the three-year physics course with me. There were about 90 such students, and I have managed to get in touch with more than 70: nearly half of these will be returning to Bristol (with 20 of their partners) and will not have seen each other, in many cases, for 50 years. Also joining us will be four of our lecturers from long ago: now they really are getting on a bit!

My mode of transport in Bristol was a fixed-gear bicycle, which I remember cost me £7. If you are familiar with the city, you will know Park Street, rising by 35 m at a gradient of 1 in 10 from College Green to the main university building. You may be less acquainted with University Road, which lifts you up a further 25 m at the same gradient to the Royal Fort, home of the Physics Department (sorry, School). Once, late for a lecture, I managed to climb the whole distance from College Green on my unwieldy machine. Could I do it now? Yes, according to one of my erstwhile colleagues who, instead of retiring, has become a purveyor of electric bicycles! Indeed, he tells me that as part of Bristol Green Week every June, the World Electric Bike Championship takes place up Park Street...

I have to confess I remember little of the physics that we were taught at Bristol. But I am certain that the experience of learning and understanding physics, whether just at school or also at university, trains your mind to think in ways that will be useful in many different careers.

The evidence of this can be seen in a booklet in which Iíve assembled the half-century life-stories of 66 of us students: we ended up in aviation, company management, electronics design, financial services, industrial and information technology, lecturing and teaching, management consultancy, preparation of patents, probation work, personnel management, publishing and writing, university research, and (last but not least) volunteering. If you study physics, the world is your oyster!

For next weekend in Bristol I shall be taking my senior bus-pass, something that I could hardly have imagined I would acquire, half a century ago. I donít recall ever travelling on a bus in my student days, nor much since then, until I qualified for a pass a few years back. I am of course still quite capable of walking up Park Street (as I intend to demonstrate). But generally I am torn between walking because itís good for me, and catching the bus as it is effectively free for me! My Ďresearch projectí right now, however, is to see if by increase of exercise (and change of diet) I can reduce my cholesterol level sufficiently to satisfy my GP that I donít need to start ingesting statins. Watch this space...

As for my own progress through life, perhaps I was not the brightest of students long ago, or of researchers later on, but at each stage (of the whole 50 years) I learned things that would serve me well in the next stage. And all the while, I kept a grasp of more basic physics which, apart from anything else, has been the basis of many of these columns. Itís hard to believe that I have been facing (and enjoying) the task of writing them now for 13 years!

Peter Soul

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