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Working in physics: Scientists in the melting pot

Each year the NESTA Crucible programme brings 30 scientists from all fields together for three weekends of thinking "outside the box". David Jenkins explains what he took from the experience.

Encouraging interaction

It is rare to go away for a weekend with almost no idea of what to expect when you get there, but that was very much the case when I arrived in Edinburgh in April last year. I had just flown in from running an experiment at the Argonne National Laboratory in the US, and had five minutes to introduce myself to 30 strangers. With my brain still somewhere halfway across the Atlantic, I fell back on a humorous account of my efforts to promote an Einstein Year event at the University of York where I work. The photographers from the local press had decided to take pictures of me lying face down looking up at some water rockets as they were launched. By the time they got the perfect shot, I was completely soaked and all dignity was lost. The picture looked so dramatic, or ridiculous, that it appeared in several Yorkshire papers. As the assembled group fell about laughing, I knew I was in good company.

I was attending the first of three weekends that made up the 2006 NESTA Crucible programme for early-career researchers. NESTA (the National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts) has a £300m endowment from the National Lottery to support talent, innovation and creativity in the UK. Being financially and politically independent, NESTA can take some risks in choosing its activities, and Crucible, which aims to enhance the creativity of early-career scientists, is a key part of its mission. The 30 Crucible "fellows" were mostly young scientists drawn from all branches of academia, with a few from industry and government labs. We had applied and been selected largely on the basis of our being receptive to new ways of thinking, and most of us shared a passion for transmitting our enthusiasm for our subjects to the wider public.

Free thinking
It is hard to explain exactly what the objectives of the Crucible programme were. Indeed, the organizers asked us several times what we as participants wanted to get out of it and some of us in the group wondered whether the NESTA representatives actually knew what they wanted to achieve themselves! From my own perspective, the free-form nature of the programme was one of its more enjoyable aspects, but not knowing what was coming next did not always seem to suit some of the more rational scientists in our group.

Our first weekend in Edinburgh passed at breakneck speed, led by the colourful science writer and broadcaster Vivienne Parry. First, we found ourselves up on the crags of Arthur's Seat, as an expert explained how James Hutton, the father of modern geology, had examined these very rocks and shown that the Earth must be very old. We were later taken to the Botanic Gardens, where we were encouraged to assemble models of well-known molecules from plastic sticks and balls. A NESTA fellow had designed this event and was delivering it as part of the Edinburgh Science Festival. He gamely presented the same introductory talk he would have given to 10 year olds, perhaps not the most advisable approach given the large number of research chemists in the group.

After dinner, we returned to the Botanic Gardens for the privilege of a nocturnal tour, where we were forced to fall back on our night vision and sense of smell to experience the same plants and flowers that we had enjoyed earlier in the day. As well as learning about science communication through participation and discussion, we were given time to reflect on our own career paths with advice from "careers doctor" Sara Shinton.

The second weekend saw us begin in a Cambridge college and finish in Westminster. On the way, we learned how science policy is developed in the UK, through talks by MPs who are interested in science and presentations by organizations such as the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. Easily the most restful weekend of the three was the final one held in the beautiful surroundings of Dartington College in Devon. We had asked for – and were given – more space in the programme, being encouraged to dream and look at different ways of working. One of the more popular ideas we came up with was establishing a retreat for young scientists where they could meet likeminded people and spend time on problems away from the daily grind.

Sharing ideas
In our everyday lives, we are constantly pushed for results, yet it would be hard for me to point to concrete outcomes from my participation in the Crucible programme. In a broader sense, however, the benefits are too many, subtle and varied to list. The Crucible programme was put together with care and imagination, and pushed us to think in new ways. It was an amazing opportunity to meet very active young scientists from a wide range of different backgrounds and disciplines.

In academic life, it is a rare treat to be able to spend so much time sharing ideas with people from different areas of the sciences. Indeed, we enjoyed the experience so much that we decided to organize a fourth weekend ourselves, after applying to NESTA for additional funding. I acted as the host for the event, held in March this year at the University of York, which nearly all of the other fellows were able to attend. The weekend focused on issues that we were passionate about, such as public engagement, science education and career paths for young researchers. To keep our identity going, we styled ourselves "The Invisible College" and we are now working on projects including collaborations between scientists and artists, and a leaflet that gives advice about organizing outreach events.

It has been a great privilege to participate in the Crucible programme and I would greatly encourage any young scientists who want to broaden their horizons to apply.

Crucible programme
The NESTA Crucible programme aims to encourage innovation by bringing together bright thinkers from a broad range of scientific disciplines. Each year 30 early-career researchers are selected as "fellows", spending three weekends together participating in seminars, skill sessions, guest lectures and discussions designed to help them see their work in the broader context of society, politics and the media. Applications for the 2007 NESTA Crucible programme have now closed, but more details of the scheme are available at www.nesta.org.uk/programmes/crucible.

About the author
David Jenkins is an experimental nuclear physicist at the University of York, UK. He is actively involved in public engagement with science and organizes an evening lecture programme in York for the local branch of the Institute of Physics.


This article originally appeared in the July 2007 issue of Physics World

Image credit: Paul D Andrews

last edited: November 05, 2014



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