Tag Archive: autobiography

Nov 03 2011

Going Home

For the half-term holiday, The Inelegant Gardener and I went on a road-trip to visit my parents in the deep south… of England via Malvern where The Inelegant Gardener’s father lives.

The first stop on the tour is Wool, where I grew up. It’s the furthest I’ve ever lived from a motorway: about an hour and a half from the M5 in Somerset. On the way we pass the outskirts of Dorchester where Prince Charles’ model village, Poundbury, is plonked down incongruously on top of hill, it’s pretty pricey. I experience a navigation fail since the bypass is largely new since I left 20 or so years ago and my mental map is slow to update.

Signposts near Wool are decorated with a graphic of a tank (for The Tank Museum) and a monkey (for Monkey World).

The Inelegant Gardener is always amused by the signpost at the edge of the village for “New Buildings”, it’s been there since I was a child. Funnily enough there are new buildings close to the sign in the form of Purbeck Gates, a new development of 160 houses just approaching completion.

Even for a middle-aged atheist like me, it seems the church is the best image of the village, this is the Anglican church where Father Smedley dropped me on my back whilst demonstrating the christening ceremony to the religious education class.

Church of England, Wool

Whilst staying in Wool we went off for a morning in Weymouth, there’s much road building going on since Weymouth will host part of the 2012 Olympics: the sailing part. There is also controversy since upgrading the roads approaching Weymouth will simply dump traffic faster into a small town that can’t handle it, furthermore the council appears to be thinking about charging people to access public land to view the sporting events.

Weymouth Bay

Weymouth has some rather fine Georgian and Regency Buildings.

Fine Georgian buildings on the Esplande, WeymouthIt was an early seaside resort, visited by George III. This is commemorated by a chalk horse on the road out of the town. There is also a statue celebrating his 50th year on the throne.

Statue of George III, 50th anniversary 1809/10

This is the house where my maternal grandmother started her working life in service at the age of 16, in around 1935:

109, The Statue House, Weymouth where Granny Hart started in service 1935

I’ve always rather liked Weymouth but we rarely visited when I was a child, it turns out this is because my mum went to school in Weymouth and this has put her off the town ever since!

We saw a lot of beach huts on our trip, these are some rather smart examples from Weymouth.

Beach huts on Weymouth Bay

We also visited Lulworth Cove, familiar to many as a geology field trip destination. This is Stair Hole:

Stair Hole (1/3)

I tend to take my home coast for granted, it is now branded “The Jurassic Coast”, and it’s spectacular!

Next stop Southbourne where my dad now lives with my stepmother, this is outside my home territory but not that far away.

Here you can see the lie of the land, with Hengistbury Head directly ahead and the Isle of Wight featuring the “Polar Bear” in the distance to the right.

Isle of Wight from Southbourne Beach

We went off to Mudeford, where Highcliffe Castle sits on the top of the cliff as you can see – glorious blue skies.

Highcliffe Castle

And to finish the trip we went up to the New Forest, Britain’s most recently created National Park. This is a woodland glade close to where dad wants his ashes scattering:

Woodland Glade

And here’s a mushroom…


There was quite a lot of rainfall during the week!

Oct 06 2011

Ada Lovelace Day

The 7th October is Ada Lovelace Day, Finding Ada has encouraged me to write a timely post about women in science, technology engineering or mathematics (STEM), specifically it says:

Create content about a woman in STEM that you admire

Ada Lovelace lived 1815-1852, and is sometimes credited as the world’s first programmer for the notes she wrote on Charles Babbages’ analytical engine – a mechanical computing device which was never constructed. She is commemorated in the Ada programming language, developed for the US Department of Defence with reliability in mind.

To be honest I’ve never found scientific inspiration in long dead “heroic” individual scientists. Lately I’ve been reading rather more of the history of science; institutionally the position of women in science until at least the middle of the 20th century was pretty dire: the Royal Society, proud of its internationalism, religious and political intolerance did not admit its first female members until 1945. The first women were admitted to study at Oxford and Cambridge universities in the later half of the 19th century and they did not gain equal formal status with men until the middle of the 20th century. It’s always somewhat bemusing to hear criticisms of other country’s poor record on female education when we weren’t doing so well within living memory.


Shell illustrations by Merian Maria Sibylla

This is not to say there are no women in the history of science, just that they fitted into the social accepted roles of their times. For example, Marie-Anne Pierette Paulze, the wife of Antoine Lavoisier was clearly heavily and expertly involved in the conduct of his scientific experiments in the late 18th century. William’s sister, Caroline Herschel spent many evenings observing the heavens with him (and by herself), discovering several comets and being formally recognised for her work in her later years with medals from the Royal Astronomical Society (1828) and the king of Prussia (1846). In the late 17th century naturalist and artist Maria Sybilla Merian published several books based around her observations, particularly on the metamorphosis of butterflies, and drawings of flowers and insects both in Europe. Later in her life she spent two years in Surinam where she made a study of South American flora and fauna. I’m rather impressed with Merian, travelling and living in South America in the 17th century was pretty challenging stuff regardless of gender.

Sadly I had not got into the habit of posting on my book reading when I read a biography of Marie Curie: with Nobel Prizes in both physics and chemistry, she is outstanding even ignoring the challenges of doing science as a woman at the beginning of the 20th century.

Practically speaking I have been taught science along with many other subjects by women; Ms Pitman who taught me physics (and was sarcastic about the PE teachers), and Mrs Haas who taught me biology. This is not to ignore those whose names I can’t recall, my recall of anything dating back 25 years or so is vague these days! Looking back it seems women made their first impact in science in communication and teaching, see for example Mary Somerville and Émilie du Châtelet.

For me my education, my wonder, was as much to do with my family as my teachers.

Ultimately the woman in STEM who has most influenced me is my mum. She learnt to program on an Elliot 503 in the early sixties: 400 square feet of computer with substantially less processor power than the most lowly of today’s devices. She was later to work for the UK Atomic Energy Authority where she worked on PACE analogue computers, and mechanical calculators. All this is somewhat vague on my part because it is only now I have started to pay an interest in the day to day work she did before I was born.

Forty-one years ago my mum gave up her career when she became pregnant with me and even a few years later, when my brother and I had both started at school, a local employer refused to give her a job application form on the grounds that she was a mother.

As The Inelegant Gardener and I await our first child things are very different.

Sep 14 2011

Get Organised!

This is a post about how I record my research, I write it in the hope that others will reveal some of themselves and perhaps gain something from the writing. I write it because how exactly people work is something of a mystery.

This seems like something I’ve picked up slowly over many years rather than being taught it all in one big bang as an undergraduate. I suspect there may have been attempts to teach me this, but sometimes it takes getting it horribly wrong for you to learn stuff, like the importance of backing up your files.

Clearly scientific literature (including company internal reports) has always been important to my work. I wrote a little bit about scientific publication a while back (here). Generation 1 of my filing system was Windows 3.1’s Cardfile program which I used at the start of my PhD, for each paper I photocopied I typed the details onto an index card. I wrote a sequence number on the corner of each printed paper along with a couple of keywords which I also enter into whatever indexing system I’m using and filed it away in a filing cabinet, ordered by the sequence number. These days most papers are available as PDF and I file this in a directory with the sequence as the first part of the filename.

After Cardfile I moved on to Endnote, and currently I use Reference Manager which are more specialist pieces of software specifically designed for storing the details of publications and also formatting bibliographies in popular wordprocessing packages. Notes on the contents of a paper still get scribbled onto the paper copy in red ink…

These days Zotero and Mendeley both look like good free options for reference management. I haven’t switched to Zotero because it’s currently tied to the Firefox browser and I haven’t switched to Mendeley because I’m not absolutely certain what it is syncing to the Cloud and what other people can see of it there, exposing even the titles of internal company reports to outsiders is a Very Bad Thing. I also had some minor problems importing my legacy collection into Mendeley. Unlike previous iterations of such software Zotero and Mendeley both make reasonable attempts at extracting paper details from PDF files or webpages.

Stray bits of paper scribbled on at meetings I still haven’t really cracked, I try to write the date and a sequence number on any bit of paper I use, and some link to the project it relates too but this is unsatisfying. For many years I’ve considered scanning in bits of paper; our company photocopiers will e-mail scans of paper to you in PDF format and with harddisk space being so cheap now* it seems odd not to do this. All this means I still have a folder per project where bits of paper end up. And, truth be told, I still find it easier to comment on a bit of work by scribbling on a bit of paper.

I’ve started using OneNote a bit for odd note collecting, the OneNote metaphor is of a collection of notebooks, each notebook is divided into sections by tabs along the top of the page and each section is divided further into pages using tabs down the righthand side of the page. My main problem with OneNote is that it’s not possible to display your notes in date order, I seem to use it mainly for a jumping off point to other things.

My lab books have been the core of my research since I started my PhD., in my loft there’s a sequence of about 20 of them. Some of my colleagues have fantastically neat lab books with diagrams and graphs carefully sellotaped in and orderly paragraphs describing the experiments done, I never really got that well organised but I did a fair job of adding to an index at the front of each one.  I still use paper lab books today but at a reduced rate. I’ve switched to a system using Microsoft Word, for each month I have have a document which looks like the one below:

I can type things in, hyperlink to other documents and cut and paste graphs and pictures as well. I use the Document Map view and, by applying appropriate styling, I get quick links to each day with a view of the keywords for the day – in this instance, designing the Death Star in AutoCAD ;-) For each year I get 12 documents which I store in a folder for that year. The thing I haven’t got working in this system is nice keyword searching across multiple years.

I’ve worked on multiple projects throughout my career and I’ve come to the conclusion that trying to separate them for the purposes of lab books and references doesn’t work too well – you end up spending time working out which lab book / file you should be adding stuff to and with decent indexing it just isn’t necessary.

These days you can buy specialised electronic lab book software, it seems it is normally done at a large scale though rather than by individual which I can’t help thinking is not a good thing since we all have individual ways of working which will vary with both the work we do and our own personal ways of doing things.

Looking at my current electronic lab book it strikes me that WordPress could be used for the task. The thing that Word can’t do easily is to give me rapid links by category or date to any part of my labbook but it strikes me that WordPress does this pretty well if you put the appropriate widgets into the sidebar. I suspect any electronic lab book software is essentially a database with a front end, for WordPress the front-end is written in PHP. The benefit of WordPress is that it’s very widely used, with lots of plugins to provide new functionality and extending it is within the reach of most programmers.

Here endeth the world’s dullest blog post, comments on your own “ways of working” are most welcome!

*Except if you’re in a corporate environment, in which case the laws of every decreasing disk space cost seem to work differently.

Jun 14 2011

Choosing to die

Terry Pratchett was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and has made a programme, Choosing to die, about his enquiries into assisted suicide. It’s pretty difficult viewing: Pratchett visits the widow of a Belgian writer who, like him, had Alzheimer’s disease and had chosen to end his life. He visits a former taxidriver in a hospice with motor neuron disease, who had chosen not to die. The bulk of the programme is spent with two men who went to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland, where they were helped to die. Andrew, only a couple of years older than me, with multiple sclerosis and Peter, born in 1939, with motor neuron disease. The death of Peter is shown in full. It’s not this that is my abiding memory though, that will be of the courage and dignity of the wife and mother of these two dying men. Neither woman wants their loved one to go.

The striking thing for me was how both men appeared to be heading off to Switzerland before their time, for fear of not being able to go when they felt they had to. The current legislation seems to be wilfully sadistic, obliging early death for those that chose whilst holding out the threat of prosecution to the family.

The Swiss are allowed to be helped to die at home, whilst foreigners go to die in a small blue apartment in an industrial estate. Incongruously the shallow steps to the front door are protected by black and yellow safety tape: because if you’re going to die you don’t want to fall over and crack your head open. This seems a great pity since in the background you could see the snow clad Swiss Alps, a glorious place to die.

A number of members of my close family have died over the last ten years. I don’t think we’re an unusual family, we’ve discussed assisted dying, often in the aftermath of a death. My paternal grandparents both died in their nineties in retirement homes, very much reduced from their previous vigorous selves, moving gradually to death. My maternal grandparents both died at home, quite suddenly. My stepfather died at home in a hospital bed, cared for by my mum with the support of nurses. He’d known he was going to die since cancer stopped him eating a couple of months earlier. Mum is the bravest person I know.

The consensus in the family appears to be for assisted dying but I think we all know privately that as the law stands now it will not happen. We will be left to face what lingering or sudden deaths nature serves up to us, in the knowledge that modern medicine has got so much better at keeping us alive but not necessarily living.

This is one of the few places where my atheism collides with the established church: any time the right to die is discussed it appears to be a Christian or one of the Lords Spiritual who is called upon to make the case against: often citing the idea that my life is a gift from God, and that I have no right to dispose of it. Clearly for an atheist this is an argument discarded in a moment.

I may die in an accident tomorrow. I may hang on to the absolute end waiting to see what is over the the next ridge. Or maybe, when I am old and have had enough, I’ll want to go at a time and place of my choosing.

How I choose to die is none of your business – I won’t presume to choose for you.

Apr 03 2011


This is a short story about obsession: with a map, four books and some numbers.

My last blog post was on Ken Alder’s book “The Measure of All Things” on the surveying of the meridian across France, through Paris, in order to provide a definition for a new unit of measure, the metre, during the period of the French Revolution. Reading this book I noticed lots of place names being mentioned, and indeed the core of the whole process of surveying is turning up at places and measuring the angles to other places in a process of triangulation.

To me places imply maps, and whilst I was reading I popped a few of the places into Google Maps but this was unsatisfactory to me. Delambre and Mechain, the surveyors of the meridian, had been to many places. I wanted to see where they all were. Ken Alder has gone a little way towards this in providing a map: you can see it on his website but it’s an unsatisfying thing: very few of the places are named and you can’t zoom into it.

In my investigations for the last blog post, I discovered the full text of the report of the surveying mission, “Base du système métrique décimal”, was available online and flicking through it I found a table of all 115 triangles used in determining the meridian. So a plan is formed: enter the names of the stations forming the 115 triangles into a three column spreadsheet; determine the latitude and longitude of each of these stations using the Google Maps API; write these locations out into a KML file which can be viewed in Google Maps or Google Earth.

The problem is that place names are not unique and things have changed in the last 200 years. I have spent hours transcribing the tables and hunting down names of obscure places in rural France, hacking away with Python and loved every minute of it. Cassini’s earlier map of France is available online but the navigation is rather clumsy so I didn’t use it. Although now I come to writing this I see someone else has made a better job of it.

Beside three entries in the tables of triangles are the words: “Ce triangle est inutile” – “This triangle is useless”. Instantly I have a direct bond with Delambre, who wrote those words 200 years ago –  I know that feeling: in my loft is a sequence of about 20 lab books I used through my academic career and I know that besides an (unfortunately large) number of results the word “Bollocks!” is scrawled for very similar reasons.

The scheme with the the Google Maps API is that your program provides a place name “Chester, UK”, for example, and the API provides you with the latitude and longitude of the point requested. Sometimes this doesn’t work, either because there are several places with the same name or the placename is not in the database.

I did have a genuine Eureka moment: after several hours trying to find missing places on the map I had a bath and whilst there I had an idea: Google Earth supports overlay images on its maps. At the back of the “Base du système métrique décimal” there is a set of images showing where the stations are as a set of simple line diagrams. Surely I could overlay the images from Base onto Google Earth and find the missing stations? I didn’t leap straight from the bath, but I did stay up overlaying images onto maps deep into the night. It turns out the diagrams are not at all bad for finding missing stations. This manual fiddling to sort out errant stations is intellectually unsatisfying but some things it’s just quicker to do by hand!

You can see the results of my fiddling by loading this KML file into Google Earth, if you’re really keen this is a zip file containing the image overlays from “Base du système métrique décimal” – they match up pretty well given they are photocopies of diagrams subject to limitations in the original drawing and distortion by scanning.

What have I learned in this process?

  • I’ve learnt that although it’s possible to make dictionaries of dictionaries in Python it is not straightforward to pickle them.
  • I’ve enjoyed exploring the quiet corners of France on Google Maps
  • I’ve had a bit more practice using OneNote, Paint .Net, Python and Google Earth so when the next interesting thing comes along I’ll have a head start.
  • Handling French accents in Python is a bit beyond my wrangling skills.

You’ve hopefully learnt something of the immutable mind of a scientist!


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