The liquid crystal exhibit includes a bit of old and a bit of new, a bit of nature and a bit of technology, and a bit of science and a bit of art. We’re a multi-university group — there are maybe 20 universities in the country where liquid crystal work is being carried out. We’re also a multi-disciplinary group. I’m an applied mathematician at the University of Southampton, but my colleague David Dunmur is a physical chemist, my colleagues Helen Gleeson and Ingo Dierking are experimental physicists, Doug Cleaver at Sheffield Hallam is a computer modeller, while John Goodby and Verena Gortz at York are synthetic chemists. Our group also includes postgrads and postdocs from a number of other British universities. Over the course of the exhibition we’ll introduce you to the team, and also tell you something about the various gizmos in our exhibit.
What you’re seeing here is partly the fruits of our research (I’ll tell you what I do in a later post, and other members of the team will also tell you about what they do), and partly the fruits of the collective research effort of a generation of British liquid crystal scientists.
Well, only a few days to go before kick-off, and everyone is very busy. Because we’re a multi-university group, a lot of stuff is happening over email. We had our dress rehearsal (“dry run” in science-speak) last Monday in Manchester. Except that, things being the way they were, we realised that the stand needed a good bit of redesigning. When I was young and did theatre, we always said that “things will come right on the night”. I hope that’s the case here! This morning we’ve been finalising the posters and the handouts (but who knows exactly how many pieces of paper we’ll really need!).
We’ve got some postcards with some beautiful pictures of liquid crystals on them, each one containing a different liquid crystal key fact. Doug in Sheffield reports that they’ve arrived “9600 of the blighters in 6 boxes. It just took 2 of us to lug them up the stairs”. Just as well the Royal Society is allowing us to store stuff there during the course of the exhibition!
At the same time, the normal life of a university scientist-teacher continues. The student exams have just taken place, and over the last two weeks we’ve been frenetically marking scripts. Don’t believe it if the popular press (or the Government) says we have long holidays, cushy salaries, no duties and protected pensions. It’s a lie!
At the moment, I’m working 90 hour weeks. The whole of last weekend was taken up with marking my MATH2044 “Applications of Vector Calculus” paper. Then the marks have to be put into a spreadsheet (together with some coursework from over the year), all that downloading, pasting, repasting, checking that everything is in the right column, checking the averages. Why do we check the averages, dear reader? Well, if an individual student does badly, then it’s that student’s problem. But if they all do badly, it’s my problem, because the likelihood is that either I taught badly, or set an exam which was too difficult, so I have to take account of this. The popular press would call it “fiddling”, but actually lack of fiddling would be the less honest course of action. I glanced at the clock on my laptop on Sunday night when I finished for the night. It recorded 23.57. And then on Monday morning, starting at 7.30am, while there was a continuing flurry of emails from my exhibition colleagues, I lay low because I had to have my marks checked by a colleague. We always add up something wrong, or miss part of a question, because the students, darlings as they are, always think of the best way to separate parts of the same question so you don’t notice it all, and only mark part. So when the marks came back from my colleague who was “vetting” the papers, indeed it did turn out that I’d missed bits of questions here and there….
And while I’ve been writing this, there’s been a request for some vetting that I’m supposed to have done. And I’d forgotten. B*****! You can’t mark exam papers while you’re asleep. On the other hand, come to think of it, some of the most important scientific advances have been made by people having dreams.
Teaching is a part of our job. Administration is another. Helen Gleeson, another member of our team, has just finished being Head of School in Physics and Astronomy at Manchester. When we were just starting, she was still Head of School, and wasn’t able to do much for the exhibition. But her stint ended in March, and now she’s working fast and furious, producing film shows, and posters and handouts (you’ll see the results!) Nobody is sure whether being Head of School is a good thing or not! In normal jobs, being promoted is great. But for scientists, being promoted means being a people and paper person, rather than scientist. Which is not why we came into the job. We’re always suspicious of someone who actually wants to be a Head of School. And Vice-Chancellors – the University Chief Executives – they are the lowest of the low!
And research, well, that’s why most of us come into the job in the first place. It’s difficult to describe the opiate effect of scientific research (and still better, scientific breakthrough) to those who have never experienced it. And all of us have got research commitments which we have to juggle around preparing this exhibition. A week after the exhibition ends, there’s the International Liquid Crystal Conference in Poland, and a colleague from the Ukraine has just given a joint paper in the US and wants to know when we can finish the paper, and I have two papers to finish with colleagues in Milan….