Revisiting Imperial College London

June 13, 2019

The main entrance to Imperial College London

Recently I went to Imperial College to hear an Athena lecture by Margaret Heffernan on Scientific Leadership. This lecture is given annually by a prominent female scientist or entrepreneur to celebrate the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and medicine. It should be on YouTube soon and I’ll put a link up and make some comments about it then.

This year I became an Alumnus of Imperial College (having got my doctorate there many years ago). I’m keen to get involved in one way or another so attending the lecture was a good start as it allowed me to have a look around to see how the College has changed. Here’s some photos that give a flavour, showing the modernisations, two famous physicists I knew and the delightful and surprising mews area nearby.

The impressive Faculty Building

The Bessemer Building (Engineering)

I decided to go to the Physics Department where I spent 3 years of my life carrying out research for a doctorate in theoretical high energy physics. The head of the theory group at that time was Tom Kibble (who ‘almost’ got the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2013). Abdus Salam, who was co-awarded the Nobel Prize in 1979, was also there as he held positions at the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy (which he helped set up) and Imperial. It was an especially exciting time to be doing research as a lot of breakthroughs were made in understanding the fundamental particles and their interactions (quarks, the Higgs boson etc).

I’ve previously written about an interesting conversation I had with Salam that sparked my interest in giving advice and following different paths in life. The point being that when someone makes a suggestion that’s not in your current plans, it’s quite hard to really appreciate it or take advantage of it. However not doing so might be the loss of a major if unconventional opportunity (more details here).

Professor Abdus Salam (Nobel Prize for Physics 1979)

Professor Tom Kibble

Not far from the hustle and bustle of the university are a number of delightful mews. I have a memory of a small pub which we used to drink in in this area. I tried to track it down but to no avail. Perhaps it had been changed into a house or perhaps my memory was mistaken.

A delightful mews very near to imperial College

Another nearby mews

In hindsight, it was quite a privilege to be at Imperial at this time, great people and a wonderful location.


Carving Out Personal Time

April 5, 2019

Portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche by Edvard Munch, 1906

“Today as always, men fall into two groups: slaves and free men. Whoever does not have two-thirds of his day for himself, is a slave, whatever he may be: a statesman, a businessman, an official, or a scholar.” – Nietzsche

Quite a provocative quote and I’ve been mulling about it ever since I read it a couple of weeks ago. It’s always good to have contrarian views to get you thinking!


The Sleep Business

April 5, 2019

I suffer from insomnia so am always interested to read the latest thinking on the subject plus (hopefully) some new ideas or approaches. It’s now become apparent, with the flood of articles, books and courses on the subject, that it is also now a booming business niche. It may be that all this attention is in some ways counter-productive.

There’s a thought-provoking piece by Darian Leader in the Guardian on this topic. Here’s a couple of extracts:

Just as we are both evaluated and pushed to self-evaluate in so many other areas of life, so now sleep itself becomes the first point of our daily review. We wake up not simply to worry about the tasks of the day but, first of all, to assess whether we have had our required hours and then, inevitably, worry about the consequences of our failure. A few decades ago, variety shows on Saturday night would showcase performers singing and dancing, but today we also get a panel of judges evaluating. How long would it be, indeed, before this merciless culture of evaluation came to colonise other aspects of our lives, including sleep?…

The sleep industry needs a reality check here. Although many of us have our own individual problems with sleeping, this should not act as an excuse to move attention away from our political landscape. In a world of massive job insecurity, long commutes, economic precarity and the pressure to maintain a positive image, how well can we really be expected to sleep? Should we be blaming ourselves and our mattresses, allowing ourselves to be duped in this latest chapter of marketing the human condition?


The Two-Device Solution

April 5, 2019

Interesting observation from Seth Godin (whilst talking about productivity and distractions):

“One reason for this confusion is that we’re often using precisely the same device to do our work as we are to distract ourselves from our work. The distractions come along with the productivity.”

This leads him to this possible solution:

“Simple but bold: Only use your computer for work. Real work. The work of making something.

Have a second device, perhaps an iPad, and use it for games, web commenting, online shopping, networking… anything that doesn’t directly create valued output (no need to have an argument here about which is which, which is work and which is not… draw a line, any line, and separate the two of them. If you don’t like the results from that line, draw a new line).

Now, when you pick up the iPad, you can say to yourself, “break time.” And if you find yourself taking a lot of that break time, you’ve just learned something important.”

I’m about to upgrade my aging iPad to the alluring 2019 iPad Air so this is the perfect opportunity to give it a try. Simple solutions have a chance of working….

On a related note, I came across this recent tweet from Dr Bendor Grosvenor

“About a year ago, our school made the decision to do all schoolwork and homework on iPads. It has been a disaster. Kids just can’t cope with the distraction of everything else iPads have to offer. Schools – stick to paper and pen!”


How to See Things Through

March 26, 2019

After prevaricating on a couple of personal projects, I fortunately came across a list of suggestions for seeing things through (see here for full details):

  1. Share less of your plans with those around you – doing it first and then sharing is a much better approach;
  2. Work on a long-term task regularly, dedicating a certain amount of time to it (daily for 20 minutes, weekly for 1 hour, monthly for half a day, etc.);
  3. Adjust your plans all the time – that way you will cross the finish line having wasted no time on the way;
  4. Don’t accumulate new tasks in the meantime – try not to start anything new until you’ve finished the current task;
  5. Hit the ground running – as soon as you’ve got a new task, do your best to handle all aspects of it without delaying, even if those may appear as little things;
  6. Get inspired all the time – inspiration makes you more active and positive, so look for potential sources in music, a hobby, being around your friends etc.;
  7. If you haven’t gotten around to the task in the first three days, you might as well forget about it, since 72 hours weren’t enough to get started;
  8. Don’t be afraid to dream – remember that thoughts are material, so if at least 50% of your wildest dreams realize, that’s great already.

The most relevant ones for me are the first two. I’ve tried telling people about achievements (even if small ones) rather than ideas and it’s certainly heightened interest. The second one, of regular determined effort towards a lengthy goal, is also delivering results. To increase motivation and focus, I’ve started doing ‘realistic’ weekly reviews to monitor progress. This has lead to me stopping doing quite a few things (the famous ‘not to do list’). It was quite a surprise to see how easy it is to fritter away time on all sorts of relatively unimportant tasks!


The Creative Medusa

March 21, 2019

I was at the Theatre Royal in Winchester last week to see a production of Medusa.

Brought to the stage by one of the world’s leading female choreographers, Jasmin Vardimon presents her new work, which reflects on the powerful feminine symbol of Medusa, the myth and its various connotations in our contemporary life.

This epic production examines the gendered historical significance of the Greek myth, the symbolism and the philosophical idea of ‘reflection’. Created on the coast of Barcelona and inspired by its marine life, the show not only deconstructs the myth but also explores Medusa’s aquatic symbolism in the environmental future of our seas.

Celebrating 20 years of her company, Vardimon brings together a remarkable international cast with the artistic team behind her previous creations for the piece.

After the performance audience members will be able to share in a post-show chat with the performers.

The post-show chat was really interesting and brought out themes that were not immediately apparent. Apart from the obvious Greek myth connection, the director also mentioned the scientific connection. The jellyfish (the informal name given to the medusa-phase of the marine animal) – is the only known (nearly) immortal creature:

The Earth’s only immortal species is a tiny transparent jellyfish that travels the world in the ballast tanks of cargo ships. It’s the only known animal capable of reverting completely to a sexually immature stage after having reached maturity…

Down through the ages, there have always been myths about immortality, that godlike ability to live forever. Well, sometimes myths can have a nugget of truth. Indeed, it was our scientists—more specifically, the marine biologists—who found a creature that comes closest to immortality: a tiny transparent jellyfish.

The aquatic theme also connected to the awful plastic pollution of the seas and this was reflected in some of the scenes where imaginative use of sheets of plastic were used (as can be seen in the video clip above).

It was interesting to see this amalgam of scientific and literary themes. This would not have come out, at least easily, were it not for the post-show discussion. Hopefully they have more of these in the future.


Risk versus Uncertainty

March 21, 2019

From the FT recently, on the difference between risk and uncertainty, and its implications:

“It (the distinction) was first made back in 1921 by the University of Chicago economist Frank Knight. Risk, he said, is something we can quantify, as when we say there’s a one-in-six risk of a die rolling a one. Uncertainty, however, cannot be quantified…

The biggest uncertainty is: technical change. Only one in eight of the US’s largest 500 companies in 1955 are still in the largest 500 today. And only two of the UK’s largest employers in 1907 are independent stock market-listed companies today: Prudential and WH Smith.

Herein lies a big difference between risk and uncertainty. Some risks diminish over time as losses are followed by gains…

Uncertainty, however, increases with time. We have a fairly good idea of the strengths, weaknesses, opportunuties and threats facing a particular company over the next 12 months. But if we’re honest, we haven’t a clue about them over the next 30 years.”

In this context it’s revealing how tricky it is to forecast long term change, say through research planning, see here.