Physics and me

I was always interested in science growing up in the 70s. This was the era of space flight. I was too young to remember the moon landings but I must have watched them with my mother and two older brothers. I used to drive my mother crazy by doing experiments on mouldy bread. The colours of the different species of mould fascinated me. I also grew bacterial cultures in water and looked at them under my microscope. My interests also pointed heavenwards as I was given a pair of binoculars by my step-father. I was always looking at the stars and knew the names of the planets from an early age,

I used to ask my older brothers about what they were learning at school. It always seemed that we never did anything interesting at my primary school in Burgess Hill, a rapidly growing town in mid-Sussex. I really think that the teachers were very mediocre. For example, I never remember doing any experiments or learning much science. I was ahead on the maths programme so I was given a more advanced book to work through to keep me occupied. But I was bored at school where we seemed to always work at the pace of the slowest learner.

I remember receiving a big book from my father and step-mother on science for Christmas in 1978. It had one page which described the scale of the atom by describing the nucleus as a doorbell. The town was the atom. Things like that grabbed my attention.

When I was twelve and began at Lewes Grammar School, we had a pretty useless physics teacher so I was quite disappointed that he did not make the effort to explain anything to us. He just sat behind his desk and expected us to do worksheets. He hardly wrote anything on the board and was pretty lazy really. But these uninspiring lessons did not dampen my interest in science or physics. I did well in tests and exams despite the hopeless physics teaching. However, at the end of the third year, I only achieved 59% in the end of year test so I was not allowed to go into the top set physics class for my O-level.

I had a very intuitive understanding of how things worked so even though the teaching in most subjects was inadequate, I managed to do well and get an A-grade in my physics O-level. I was the only one in my class to do so. This was in 1983. I chose mathematics, physics and chemistry as my A-levels.

I breezed through my maths and physics A-levels. Chemistry was a different matter. We had a young ex-Rhodesian teacher who taught us this subject and she was not very good and was unable to get ideas across. I remember long tedious triple lessons on a Wednesday afternoon where she talked for two hours non-stop. They were very painful. My friend and I found ways to amuse ourselves by imitating her accent. We were so rude. We used to mimic her voice saying “2-4-dinitrophenyl hydrazine” and squirt ethanol through the Bunsen burners when she left the classroom to alleviate the chronic boredom. She mentioned it to my mother at parents’ evening and my mother was mortified.

There were two of us in my A-level year who were very good at physics. In 1984, I attended a three day summer school at the University of Sussex and it interested me in taking the subject at university. In the end though, I was offered BCD grades at A-level as entrance requirements for Warwick University I think because I must have been so nervous in the interview. I was deeply concerned that I would not achieve the D in Chemistry. I was struggling and failing to do much of the homework because I did not understand it. For the first time at this school in my experience, there were no consequences when I did not do it. I don’t know how, but I pulled a B out of the bag in chemistry. Mathematics and physics were no problem – I achieved A’s in both of these. These were in the days before grade inflation and the ridiculous A* and A^ grades offered at A-level now.

In 1984, I had applied to go to Oxford University. I had been called to interview at Magdalen College but I was so out of my element that it was clear to anyone with any sense that I would not be offered a place. I was chronically shy and handicapped by a severe stutter. I had been attending weekly free physics tutorials given by the husband of my physics teacher. He was a researcher at the University of Sussex. Those lessons were attended by me and my good friend Richard. I recall understanding very little indeed as Peter Dawber went through question after question from the sets of past papers published by Oxford for their entrance exams. They were beyond anything that I could cope with.

When I failed to get a place, I was so disappointed that I threw all the revision material that I had purchased in the bin. I was in a depression for a long time after that. It made me realise how little I knew.

I was offered a place at Warwick University to study physics and started in 1985. Warwick is one of the new ‘red brick’ universities built in the 60s to accommodate the growing number of students resulting from the population boom. It was built just outside Coventry, an unattractive city in the West Midlands that was heavily bombed during the war. I used to comment that perhaps the Germans should come back and finish the job. In the first year, I was staying on campus. I had been looking forward to starting university, but it had not turned out as I had hoped and I was not feeling happy.

I found that I was struggling to understand much of what was going on, especially in mathematics. A long lecture course was presented in the first term of the first year on electronics of which I understood almost nothing. I also performed poorly in the weekly laboratory sessions which were marked by physics PhD students. They were exceptionally unhelpful and I began to see my dream drift away from me. I was like a fish out of water and anyway, I was depressed and socially inept. I did not know how to make friends and was very lonely and missed home. I did make one friend soon after I started and we used to keep ourself amused and cheer ourselves up in the face of dire teaching by memorising and reciting catch-phrases that lecturers used to come up with such as “but does a real device behave like that” and “pi-be-two”.

Somehow, I got a high 2-1 in the first year exams. But my weakness in mathematics at university level was making coping with the work very difficult. There were weekly questions posted which we were supposed to tackle. I never did these and neither did most of my colleagues. However nothing was done about this. We had a weekly tutorial with a PhD student in the first year and also a weekly tutorial with our personal tutor whom I and a friend mockingly called our impersonal tutor since he was so distant. It was sink or swim.

I left Warwick University with a 2-1 Honours in Physics but felt that I had not deserved it. In our year, there was only one first and one upper second (me). All the others received lower second class or third class degrees. I had seen my dream of a career in physics drift away. I did not want to become a teacher or go into a technical or applied physics field. I did not have the interpersonal skills anyway.

I ended up getting a job as a “systems analyst programmer” at IMI Computing in Maidenhead, programming in COBOL, and hated it. I disliked programming and was not good at it. However, after about a year, I had an idea to call up my former personal tutor, a Professor Malcolm Cooper. My luck was in because a student from my physics class at Warwick had started a PhD a year previously but for personal reasons had had to drop out. I was offered a PhD studentship. It was that easy.

Professor Cooper worked in the field of Compton Scattering and was an expert in the field. His team used intense x-rays from an electron synchrotron to probe the electrons around atoms and find out about bonding. In this way, his team offered confirmation to theoretical models.

My first task was to build a device that could concentrate and intensify the available x-ray source to provide quicker data collection rates. It was called a focussing x-ray monochromator. I was seconded to the engineering department to cut slices from a large single crystal of silicon and attempt to machine it into a shape like protruding teeth attached to a base that can be bent into an arc. This would focus a broader beam of x-rays into a much more intense one.

I had no experience of machining silicon, which is naturally brittle anyway, and as soon as it was bent, it broke into several pieces. So that idea was going nowhere.

At the beginning of my second year, an opportunity arose to work with a researcher at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory’s Neutron Spallation Source called ISIS. RAL is based about 18 miles south of Oxford. The research being done was to develop a similar experimental technique that would work with neutrons instead of electrons. As neutrons interact strongly with the nucleus and not the electron shell, this would provide a way to measure the distributions of velocities of nuclei in a sample and hence be able to test models of bonding.

I began my secondment to the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in 1990 and worked under Dr Jerry Mayers. The facility uses a proton synchrotron to fire protons at a metal target. This strips neutrons from the target in a process called spallation.

The instrument was called eVS, standing for electron-volt spectrometer. The neutron beam came in at one end, scattered from the sample in a large evacuated chamber, and the scattered beam was picked up by detectors arranged around the outside. The machine operated in what is called time-of-flight. Neutrons, having mass, have an energy which depends on their speed therefore by measuring the total time of flight of a neutron from arrival, scattering and to detection allows the energy transfer to be determined. The clever bit was how individual neutrons could be picked out. Metal foils were placed around the outside of the sample chamber just before the detectors. These were either gold or uranium foils which absorb neutrons strongly at so-called resonances. By taking the difference between a ‘foil in’ and a ‘foil out’ run, the difference gave those neutrons arriving with a specific energy. As the neutrons arrive in a pulse, the arrival time is known precisely so energy transfer can be calculated.

The computing side was complex for me and I relied on Jerry Mayers to do most of this though he was disappointed that I could not take this on. By 1993, I had sufficient data to write up my thesis on the development of eVS as a valuable experimental technique in condensed matter physics. However, I battled with the computing and data analysis side and it showed. I feel that I was lucky to be awarded my PhD. During my viva, I was questioned at length about who did most of the data analysis. I found these questions very stressful.

I remained seconded to RAL as a postdoc until the end of 1996. I lacked motivation and had personal problems which got in the way of my work. Because I found it so hard, I felt that I was not highly regarded by colleagues. So it was in 1995 that I was recruited by Voluntary Service Overseas to teach mathematics and physics in Zimbabwe.


I am one of the few people on this world who actually enjoys mathematics. I like its abstraction and self-contained nature. I’m reasonably good at it up to a point. It is satisfying to ponder a question and to have insight into how to approach it. And however good you think you are, there is always going to be something that leaves you floundering.

Mathematics has a great deal of relevance in the ‘real’ world, whatever that means. Most people don’t realise it, but there is a great deal of mathematics involved in how for example mobile phones encode your voice into a stream of 1s and 0s in an efficient manner. In decoding the signal at the other end, many factors need to be taken into account. The signal being transmitted may be from a moving object and therefore there are Doppler shifts to take into account. The signal may be received as one strong signal and smaller delayed signals corresponding to the reflection of the transmitted signal from buildings. All of this needs to be done in real time and is actually transmitted by your phone at multiple frequencies in packets and not continuously.

Telecommunication is just one area where mathematics plays a vital part in our lives. The encoding/decoding problem occurs in situations such as writing/reading a DVD, encrypting and sending data over a public network, to name just two others.