Posted by Athene Donald on December 3, 2010
This week I have taken on a new role as Chair of the Royal Society’s Education Committee. School education (like so much in the UK) is an area of much flux and I can imagine an increasing role for this position talking to civil servants and possibly ministers. The Royal Society ‘s Education Section is a wonderful group of people, but there are times when wheeling out an FRS is probably advantageous, and I’m sure they will be judicious in their choice of when to play the Committee Chair card. Thinking about this, reminded me of comments one of my mentors, Professor Sir Sam Edwards, made about dealing with the Civil Service: you always had to approach someone at the same level as yourself if you wanted anything to happen. To paraphrase crudely, aim too high (they wouldn’t acknowledge your existence) or too low (it was more than their job’s worth to respond) and you would get nowhere. I will discover if this advice still applies – his experience dates back to when he was Chair of the EPSRC’s predecessor (the SRC) back in the 70’s.
And thinking about Sam, I thought I would continue on one of my previous themes of what it takes to inspire, tied in with this idea of hierarchy. As I say, Sam was a mentor of mine although I think I only ever published a single paper with him. A grammar school boy from Wales (a fact of which he was very proud) he had an extremely distinguished career as a theoretical physicist, working on topics such as spin glasses, granular matter (most recently) and, at the time I first knew him (when he was Cavendish Professor in Cambridge), polymer physics. One of his most enduring contributions was work he did with Masao Doi in the late 70’s, during a spell when Doi was a visitor in Cambridge, on the motion of polymer chains via a process known as reptation. The Doi-Edwards theory is still a key approach to understanding this field, although there have been some refinements to deal with additional detail.
The term reptation was actually introduced by (the late) Pierre-Gilles de Gennes, the Nobel Prize winner for Physics in 1991. De Gennes and Sir Sam were good friends, if probably also friendly competitors, and de Gennes frequently passed through Cambridge, both before and after the award of the Nobel Prize. It is not my intention here to give a thorough description of the science either of these gentlemen did – their works are amply accessible on the web. What I want to do is talk about their characters as exactly that, gentlemen. Both of them to my mind exactly illustrate what I understand by the word, and are just the kind of people I would have longed for as a mentor, if I hadn’t had the luck actually to have them in that role. (As a personal aside, I should remark that when I heard de Gennes had won the Nobel Prize, I was so excited that whilst standing at the school gate waiting for my children, I said breathlessly to a fellow mum that I was over the moon because a friend of mine had just won a Nobel; she looked at me very strangely, and with hindsight it was a bit presumptuous of me to describe him as my friend, or to expect anyone else to care much.)
One of the key qualities I identify with both these individuals is the fact that they absolutely did not adhere to the advice Sam gave about dealing with civil servants. They both were just as delighted to talk to a graduate student as to a visiting dignitary. Sam by now is very frail (de Gennes died several years ago), but right up to the time he stopped coming regularly into the department he would attend all our seminars, and always invite the postgraduate students to stop by and discuss their research. The problem was much more that some were too nervous to do so, rather than that he put them off. He used to complain that people didn’t come and talk to him as much as he would like.
De Gennes had a very similar character, as far as I could judge from his various visits to Cambridge. I had a number of opportunities to test this. On one occasion, when I barely knew him and was a very junior lecturer, I had been sent a paper of his to referee (this was back in the days when I worked on glassy polymers and the paper was a theoretical approach to the phenomenon of crazing, a mode of failure peculiar to glassy polymers and which I had extensively studied as a postdoc). I didn’t agree with him, not least because I had unpublished experimental data to contradict his conclusions, but I had written my referee’s report before I knew he was visiting. So when he turned up in my office wanting to discuss his ideas I had to make a quick decision. Did I admit I had just written a critical referee’s report or simply stall, cover up and not have to defend my position in conversation when dealing with this heavyweight. I chose the former strategy and he was generous and delightful as we thrashed it out. In reality, the fact that I had experimental data I could share with him was a clincher, as I should have known it would be in advance.
De Gennes spent a large part of the period following the award of the Nobel Prize visiting schools in France. He was a passionate advocate for science, and used the additional clout the Nobel Prize afforded him to push his views on the importance of science on policy-makers within France. His influence was immense and his legacy lives on. He cared passionately about education, and also about the need for academic scientists to engage with industry. Although that is not so unusual in the UK, or indeed the US, within France – with its (as far as I can judge) rather élitist academic attitude, it was not the norm. As Director of ESPCI – which as I have written about before does have a strong industrial tie-in – he was able to be a vocal proponent for this, but because of his status in France he was able to push this concept out much further into the community.
Both Sir Sam and de Gennes had charisma and charm, both were very approachable – and wanted to be seen as such – though both could equally be formidable if crossed or when trying to push an argument. They were gentle with juniors, but ferocious when needed to be with more senior scientists, civil servants and the like. I always found both of them immensely encouraging as I moved into more interdisciplinary areas (such as starch and food physics more generally), areas which some members of my department had trouble getting their head around. Sam’s phrase was ‘physics is what physicists do’ – in other words quit worrying and get on with it. They were not interested in setting out to prove they were better than those around them (though quite obviously as scientists they towered over most) or scoring points. They were not, if I can put it this way, interested in demonstrating they were alpha males, although quite clearly they were. An amazing pair to have known, and people whom it was impossible not to look up to. As role models and mentors one could not look for better (and that they were male and I am not is, in my view, irrelevant). They were truly inspirational and, in my book, true gentlemen.