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The domain of textbooks

(published 29 November 2010)

(Day Three) Lab meeting at 10 am in what feels like a subterranean room, despite the fact it is on the ground floor. The lighting in here is flat and artificial – the kind that sucks all the life out of you. I am the first to arrive, and so sit for a few minutes in the quiet (being gradually devitalised?) awaiting the arrival of who knows who. I am not sure where to sit at the table – is there a hierarchy of places? Does the boss always have the same position / chair? I chose what I hope will be an involved but inconspicuous seat and wait. The members of the group arrive in briefly interspersed dribs and drabs. I introduce myself and the names I am presented with in return stay with me for variable amounts of time. The boss breezes in, friendly and with an upbeat energy to him; it feels like he is often on the edge of laughter. After a few general words he introduces me and asks the members of the group to tell me who they are and what they are doing in the group, as they report on the status of their efforts. We work our way round the table and I make some (variously comprehensible) notes in my book (Fred: postdoc, optical modulators, encodes electrical signal to optics, integrating electronics and photonics. Rob: new PhD student, work following on from Renzo’s stuff, erascible gratings (runcible spoons?). Fuller’s is Graham’s favourite beer, etc.). When I am introduced to Ufang (postdoc, passive silicon photonic devices, multiplexing and demultiplexing, etc.), Graham mentions how excited they were when they found out that Dr Hu was coming to work in the group. I am again cheered by the humour. (I am also intrigued by Ufang’s lab book, open on the desk next to me, as it seems to be comprised almost exclusively of images and diagrams, with no visible text). The introductions continue; I know there are a Milosh and a Milan amongst the small throng, but am later confused as to which way round the names apply.

At one point a conversation evolves around the table concerned with the objectivity of experimentation, after one of the students has referred to following a certain course of testing as it looked like it was producing “better” results than others. Graham, who is evidently sharply aware of everything going on in this room, instantly picks up on and questions the comment. The profundity of the implications of this conversation do not appear to be lost on anyone, despite the relative subtlety with which it is approached. Education and learning are manifest.

I again meet Goran, who is a Royal Society Fellow, and senior member of the group. He had previously shown me around the department when I visited. He and I will, later today, speak at some length about the process of teaching, which he is evidently deeply interested in and concerned by, and learning, which I am also fascinated by. I am looking forward to attending some of his lectures in the coming weeks. After a little more general discussion of upcoming conferences, equipment failures, and with the date of the next meeting fixed, the meeting ends and we disperse. Back out of the manufactured lighting of the (apparent) ion beam underworld into the daylight; vitalities re-inflating; I blinking in response to another dose of intense exposure to unfamiliar words and names.

As I write I am conscious that I am intentionally trying to make myself unaccountable, unreliable - the chronology and order in which my missives are presented is nonlinear. Introducing deliberate paradox into my writings. Some words are presented as they were recorded at the time, from notes made in situ, while some are embellished with the flights of fancy that time and distance can convey. This is not a scientific document. I am not illustrating the world as the scientists are describing it – that is the domain of the textbooks. I am not working here as scientist, even thought that mind set is deeply embedded within me. I am here to explore and to understand, to misinterpret, to stimulate, to imagine. I wish to manipulate words to convey feelings, ideas, thoughts; to translate the science into another form; to embrace the freedom that my role as artist lends me.
Back home, Rosie is in the airing cupboard. We are all retreating to the proximity of sources of heat. Waking up this morning was, as the last few days, to feel the chill of exposed areas, and the knowledge that warmth will be regained (after the comfort of the bed had been left) only when the stove has been lit and got hot. Complaining would be churlish (I love this place, this beautiful place) and make me sound like a little old lady, ever obsessed by the weather and distracted by chilly bones. But it is cold here at the moment. (The toothpaste is extremely reluctant to come out of the tube when squeezed these last days, as it has gone solid - I believe it is a state referred to as being frozen. M + T expressed concern about the temperature of my bathroom while visiting last week – I fear these words will not reassure them). Maybe the intermittent bursts of central heating that the residence side of the residency are conveying will yet convince me that living in my rustic rural idyll could do with something of a more comforting coating of urban embellishment. Yet there is something of a basal excitement and aliveness associated with the pleasure of lighting a fire to get heat; an appreciation of the fundamental physicality of this world. And it is weirdly good to be bundled up in three t-shirts, three jumpers, a bodywarmer and a scarf as I write; my typing is a bit hampered as my arms are sticking out sideways as a result of all the padding.

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