Once a physicist: John Hemming

John Hemming is the Member of Parliament for Birmingham Yardley, UK

What sparked your interest in physics?
I have always been interested understanding how things work. I prefer maths and physics as academic subjects because they have more of an objective truth or falsity about them, whereas the humanities are more about agreeing with a consensus. Philosophically, I prefer the idea that there is such a thing as objective reality that we attempt to measure, and it is not something that varies depending on the opinion of senior members of society.

Did you enjoy studying it at university?
Yes, although admittedly there was one term I went to more PPE (politics, philosophy and economics) lectures than physics lectures. I was also someone who did not do enough practical work during the term and I therefore had to do a practical exam both in my first year and in my final year. This did, however, make physics more time-efficient as a subject, allowing me more time to do other things. Luckily, in the early 1980s one could get an honours degree in physics without doing lots of practicals – unlike chemistry, which required more practical work. I am someone who is happy doing practical things, but I tended to spend more time repairing bicycles, playing croquet and punting than doing physics practicals.

Why did you go into the software business?
After I left Oxford University in 1981, finding work was a challenge. My first job was to clear up the rubbish at Edgbaston Cricket Ground. That did not really have attractive career possibilities. I tried various things, including offering to teach physics and introduce croquet at a school in the Black Country, but I was told they wanted a postgraduate teaching certificate first. Then I managed to get employed as a computer programmer by offering to learn from the manuals. After a few changes of employer, I started my own business in late 1983 – the same year I fought my first general election, standing as the Liberal Party candidate in Birmingham Hall Green.

How did you become interested in politics?
I joined the Liberal Party in 1976 at the age of 16 because I wanted to see a fairer world where proper attention is given to environmental issues and people are treated justly as individuals. I was also interested in constitutional improvements, including electoral reform. Initially, I was agent for various elections, but I felt unhappy at the calibre of one early candidate and after that I concluded I should offer to be the candidate myself. I fought every general election between 1983 and 2001, and also served on Birmingham City Council before winning the Yardley parliamentary seat in 2005, and retaining it in 2010.

The Liberal Democrat Party is opposed to nuclear power. As someone with a physics background, what is your view on this?
The view of the [Conservative–Liberal Democrat] coalition government is that fission should not be subsidized. We do have fission-based electricity generation in the UK, but there is a medium-term issue with the availability of easily refined uranium-235. Hence, in the long term fission can only really be relied upon if a breeder technology can be made to work. However, I take the view that we should be aiming for sustainable energy sources. I am quite happy to rely on nuclear fusion as long as the power plant is kept on average some 93 million miles away. I do not have a problem with research on operating fusion at a closer distance; however, that project has generally been one that is constantly 40 years away from completion. If you were to forecast the true completion date by calculating the velocity at which it tends towards the value of "now", you would conclude that the fusion project will never be completed.

What do you think is the greatest challenge that the UK faces in terms of science policy?
A culture based on subjectivity and the celebration of celebrity.

Do you have any advice for the physics students of today?
Remember that it is normally a cock-up rather than a conspiracy, and yes, people really don't understand. Don't be surprised.

This article originally appeared in the April 2010 issue of Physics World.

last edited: January 05, 2015

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