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Once a physicist: Anne Scowcroft Rodgers

Anne Scowcroft Rodgers is a potter who runs her own small firm, Alsager Pottery, from her home near Stoke-on-Trent, UK.

Anne Scowcroft Rodgers

Why did you decide to study physics?
I went to a girls' grammar school in Sheffield in the 1960s and we weren't held back from studying things like the physical sciences that might have been seen as boys' subjects. I was good at art, too, but my dad said it would be very hard to make a living as an artist, so he suggested I do it as a hobby instead. Also, he said The world is opening up for girls! Do sciences!

Did you enjoy studying it at university?
I studied chemical physics at the University of Kent at Canterbury, which was then quite a new university – I was part of their third ever intake of students. We did nuclear chemistry, solid-state physics, crystal structure, all that sort of thing. I thought it was absolutely fascinating. But I also partied rather a lot, and when we got to statistical mechanics I began to struggle. Maths was not a great strength of mine, and I did not really know how to work hard enough to get over this barrier. I have daughters of my own now and I think they were taught at school how to study and how to learn, but I never was, so I did not get as much out of physics as I imagined I would.

What did you do after you graduated?
I went to the University of Leeds to do a Master's in geophysics – I was an outdoorsy person and I thought that doing science outdoors would be good fun. But when I got there, I found I had been put on the list for geochemistry instead, because women didn't do geophysics. This was the very early 1970s and it was thought that women couldn't possibly be up to working outdoors and living in tents along with the men. After I finished my Master's, I got a research job at the British Ceramics Research Association (BCRA) in Stoke-on-Trent. But again, equal-opportunities legislation was in its infancy and I quickly found that women in the workplace were expected to be the ones who poured the tea or maybe did typing. This came as a big shock to me, because aside from the geophysics thing at Leeds I had not experienced any barriers at university. I was not very happy, so I began to focus more on the artistic side of my life.

What made you decide to start your own pottery business?
I did some work at the BCRA on the mechanical and thermal properties of ceramic-fibre insulation, which was a new material that had been invented as part of the space race. It was an excellent thermal insulator with very low mass, and I realized it would be a godsend to the pottery industry. My soon-to-be husband was working for a small firm that made kilns for hobbyist potters, and I told him that they could make a killing using ceramic-fibre insulation. Without it, a potter who wanted a kiln bigger than a six-inch cube would need a three-phase electricity supply – but with ceramic-fibre insulation, you could operate a kiln the size of a fridge with an ordinary domestic supply. When his firm wouldn't go for it, we left our jobs and set up our own limited company along with a partner who was an engineer. Unfortunately, we fell out with our partner, and the business did not work out. I suppose we could have looked for jobs again, but we'd had a taste of freedom and self-employment, and by then I was also pregnant, so I would not have been able to get a job anyway. But we had been making pots as a hobby, and people were buying them – even our awful beginner pots – so we thought, well, if we tightened our belts, we could please ourselves, be independent and just do pottery. And we did!

How has your scientific background helped you in your work?
My husband and I were both self-taught potters, and we would not have been able to carry on without our scientific knowledge. Knowing about physics and chemistry, and what happens to geological materials when they are heated is a marvellous help in being a potter. For example, silica undergoes a phase change into cristobalite at about 226 °C, and there is a volume change associated with that phase change, so if you let it make the transition too quickly, the pot will break.

Any advice for today's physics students?
Somebody – I wish I could remember who – said you should go to your work as to a lover. I spent eight years working at what I thought would be a wonderfully interesting research job, but it was like going to prison every day. You might think you are doing swanky stuff that brings you status and prestige and so on, but if you feel as if you are going to prison, that's a waste of your life. So make sure you're doing things you enjoy. The other thing I would say is that my husband has been dead for eight and a half years now, and I am past retiring age, but I don't want to give up. I feel like I am still beginning, still learning. To feel like that at 63 is a wonderful gift, and I think I received it because I took an unusual path.

This article appears in the June 2012 issue of Physics World

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