Once a physicist: Andy Love
Andy Love is the Member of Parliament for Edmonton, UK.
What was it that first sparked your interest in physics?
I suppose it was partly just a natural curiosity about the world, but there were some glamorous figures in physics around at that time – in particular, when I was a very small child, Albert Einstein seemed to pop up everywhere – and I suspect that this sparked my interest too. I was more inclined towards the sciences and maths than I was towards the arts or English, simply because I was naturally better at those subjects, and that led me in the direction of physics as well.
Did you enjoy studying the subject at university?
I did, yes. When I first went to Strathclyde, I was very enthusiastic – I got really into the lectures and the practicals as well. But I went to university in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which was a time of great ferment in university life. Students were questioning everything, and as time went on I got involved in a small way and was sort of swept up in the protests. That was the beginning of my interest in politics, but I suppose it also somewhat undermined my commitment to physics towards the end of my university course.
What did you do after graduation?
I came south to London almost immediately, both to look for work and to see a bit more of the world. Although I joined the Labour Party in 1974, it was several years before I became involved in the local community, got elected as a councillor and did all the things that people do as their interest in politics becomes more dominant. I did at one stage go for science-related jobs, but I was deeply into my Marxist–Maoist phase (you could call this a "youthful indiscretion") and the idea of working to support capitalism was abhorrent to me. Then, once I got seriously into community politics, I wanted to focus my attention on that, and you cannot really go to an employer and say, "I'd love to have this job, but can I have x hours a week off so I can go be on the local council?" So I sort of suspended my ambitions in science and focused on politics.
What do you think is the greatest scientific challenge facing the UK?
The greatest scientific challenge we face – not as individual countries, but collectively, since it is a collective problem – is global warming and what we do about it. At the moment, we do not seem to have the political will to take this as seriously as we should, and I am always surprised at how many normally "sensible" people fail to grasp the urgency or the overwhelming scientific evidence that global warming is occurring and it is humans who are causing it. Generally speaking, though, the consensus is building, and I think action will be taken. However, one of the great difficulties of parliamentary politics is that you are always faced with the here and now. People always say we should take a longer-term perspective, but that is almost impossible for politicians, because we have to deal with the problems of today and of the immediate future. Asking us to look further than the next general election or even two or three years away is quite difficult, especially given that we have a huge economic problem at the moment. This makes it hard to raise our eyes to the longer-term challenges.
Do you have any advice for today's physics students?
I suspect I am the wrong person to give advice, because I did not follow a linear path in my career. But the one thing I certainly agree with is that a good-quality scientific education, particularly in physics, gives you the ability to go out and really sell yourself as being able to tackle some of the issues that you face in a job. Anybody studying physics can be very proud, since if you do well in your course, then that shows you have the intellect to rise to any challenge you are likely to face in whichever field of endeavour you undertake.
How has your background in physics helped you in your career?
I think it has given me a strong sense that an evidence base is critically important, because much of what we do in politics is based on perceptions and prejudices, and would not stand up to any proper evidence-based research. So, for example, if the government says we ought to cut people's housing benefit by 10% to give them an incentive to work, my reaction is to say, well, where is the evidence base to justify that statement? I also think the concept of peer review is very important in politics. If you are barking up the wrong tree, you need someone to slap you across the head and say you are going in the wrong direction or that there is a fallacy in your argument. It is very, very important to discuss and debate with others, to argue your way to the right answer.
This article appears in the May 2011 issue of Physics World.
last edited: January 30, 2014