Liverpool Heroes

June 18, 2008

Six Thirty, Albert Dock, Liverpool. Woken up early, staring at the rain. Coldplay on the earphones. Somewhere within a few hundred metres of here there are several hundred more astronomers, scattered through space in other beds. In three hours those bodies will converge on one room. We are assembled together to produce a Roadmap for European Astronomy. It might seem interesting to crossmatch the STFC plan and the Astronet plan, especially because Mike Bode seems to be in charge of both. Hmm. Another time.

I lie still and try to visualise all those other organisms in three dimensional space. We are all clumps in the same matter field; moving knots in a process. Tat Tvam Asi. I am you and you are me and we are all together. They are the eggmen, I am the the walrus.

When I was a lad, you were a John person or a Paul person. Well, Paul may be a national treasure, but hey, you land at the John Lennon airport. Our conference packs have photographs of other Liverpool heroes, the heroes of science – Horrocks, Rotblat, Chadwick, Lassell, Barkla, and Lodge.

I have a link to Barkla. His desk is in my office.

C.G.Barkla's desk, 1917

Early in the twentieth century Barkla was the guy who proved that X-rays are transverse, because you can polarise them; and discovered the K and L series of X-ray lines, the key to the shell structure of the atom. For this he got the Nobel prize in 1917, and with the money he had himself made a rather splendid desk with his name carved on. This is now in the Head of School’s office in Edinburgh. My tea bags are behind a door at the front. I think of this as the C.G.Barkla Memorial Tea Cupboard.

Now … his famous work was done in Cambridge and Liverpool (not sure which bits where). He was then hired in Edinburgh as the Big Star. After this he spent the next twenty five years chasing a will-o-the-wisp. He was convinced there was another series of lines, which he called the J-series. I believe he talked various students intto working on this problem, but it all came to nothing.

There’s a lesson there. Maybe several.