downtrodden science

Journal entry, 18 Feb 2016

In 1982 I set off to study Chemistry at Leicester Poly, and soon discovered I was out of my depth. Organised study and note-taking were hard work. To console myself, I purchased a paperback copy of ‘Writers at Work’, a series of interviews conducted with prominent authors – T S Eliot, Aldous Huxley, Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell etc. And Ezra Pound, of whom I knew very little apart from the selected Cantos which appeared in the Faber Book of Modern Verse. During his interview, Pound says: “Only a musical form would take the material, and the Confucian universe as I see it is a universe of interacting strains and tensions.”
Is this a reference to the yet-to-be directly-observed Gravitational Waves which make the entire cosmos throb faintly in the aftermath of a black hole collision?

It is Thursday afternoon, and I am sitting alone at a table in a pub in Manchester; the same pub I sat in many years ago, when I was out of work. On that occasion I ate fish and chips with a glass of red wine before going to the Cornerhouse Cinema to watch a strange, dislocated movie called ‘Ka-Boom’.
But today I am eating chicken salad and drinking a limited edition stout flavoured with cherries and chocolate; a luxurious delight, coming in at a hefty 6 per cent alcohol. I will not be going to the Cornerhouse again; the cinema closed down a few years ago. What became of those seats with brass commemorative panels, I wonder? I recall sitting down and reading one in front of me, which said ‘From Tom who loves Helen, to Helen who loves films’.
No movies for me anymore; instead, I am reading a library book: the collected music criticism of Ezra Pound, edited by R M Schafer. An intriguing tome; imagine that the text of the book had been lost, but somebody had managed to rescue the index. Would a committee of intelligent readers be able to reconstruct the body of the text using just this catalogue of subject headings and page numbers? Rather like forensic pathologists, who – given fingerprints and a few scrapings of automotive paint – are expected to identify the persons and events involved in a murder or robbery.
And, if we had some isolated chunks of the essays written by Mr Pound, would we be able to guess which performers or pieces he was discussing? His writing style is so oblique at times that one would struggle to guess what he was discussing, even when given the name and composer of the piece. Here is an imaginary review, written by the ghost of Ezra Pound, describing a contemporary gem:

“Monsieur Bowie has, by his own admission, spend many years in the pursuit of pleasure, dedicated to the consumption and corruption of an entire galaxy of narcotic poisons. He has lived famously in both America and Germany, but these sojourns merely enhanced the distinctive Anglaiserie of his creative output. Keen to seduce at every turn a new audience of teenagers, he brings forth musical recordings each of which is as different from its fellows as is Oscar Chilesotti from Virgilio Mortari. But the latest opus from Bowie, a bleak song entitled ‘Blackstar’, is a brooding meditation filled with allusion, ambiguity and anxiety. The musical landscape of this work harks back to the instrumental pieces on side two of the album “Heroes”; a set of four short tone-poems which sound variously like Panufnik, Hindemith, or Webern, but where the music floats and shifts like pools of coloured oil on the surface of a lake. Especially evocative is the use of multitracked saxophones, noodling to generate an alien ambiance through which our protagonist makes his uncertain way towards the resolution of the final chord; for it was announced, just two days after the release of this record that David Bowie had died following a lengthy illness. The critics had all listened to the song and admired its bleak, cosmic undulations; but none of them had been prepared for the news that it was to be his last.”

And here is a section of work by the real Ezra Pound, taken from a 1924 article, ‘George Antheil, Retrospect’, and bashed into a sort of blank verse by myself:

‘The Vorticist manifestos of
1913-14 left a blank space for music; there was in
Contemporary music at that date, nothing
Corresponding to the works of Wyndham Lewis,
Pablo Picasso, or Gaudier-Brzeska. Stravinsky arrived
As a comfort; but one could not say definitely
That his composition was
the new music; he had a
Refreshing robustness; he was a
Relief from Debussy; but this might have
Been merely the heritage of Polish Folk music manifest

In the work of an instinctive genius.

New vorticist music would come
From a new computation of
The mathematics of harmony – not
From mimetic representation
Of dead cats in a fog horn. This was part of
The general vorticist stand against
The accelerated impressionism of our active
And meritorious friend Marinetti
To grasp the modus of Antheil’s procedure.

And then: Geeks-Should-Be-More-Like-Gays (New Statesman)

I spotted this article on the New Statesman website (alas, I was unable to track down the original item issued by the British Science Association) and thought I’d share it, since I fall into both camps. Aggressive, unrepentant sodomite with facial hair and an unhealthy interest in organic and polymer chemistry? Yes, siree!

Are scientists an oppressed minority? Not really, not in terms of being placed under house arrest like Galileo when he suggested that the earth went round the sun. But it is customary to dismiss science as being synthetic and inhuman. Evolution is just a theory which all right-thinking schoolchildren (Christian, Jewish and Muslim) are entitled (nay, obliged) to challenge whenever a teacher tries to discuss it in class. Anthropogenic climate change is another theory, which cannot be covered in a news bulletin without an equal amount of airtime being given to opponents of the idea. Contraception and IVF are wicked and sinful and try to thwart the will of God; but devout Catholics Kate and Gerry McCann were happy to use this evil corrupt man-made technique to bring their beloved daughter Madelaine into the world.

There is a growing trend to have UK kids educated using some hardcore Christian methods, where the entire syllabus is built around literal biblical doctrine. To do this, you need to carefully reject things like evolution and comparative religion – not merely dismiss them as incorrect, but pronounce them to be deliberate falsehood used by wicked, sinful unbelievers.

I actually like religion – the carefully-assembled doctrines and articles of faith, the rituals, the costumes, the incense, the elevated sense of belonging. The architecture in the Vatican is marvellous; the marble statues of Saint Michael Overcoming Satan are sublime; Rubens’ paintings of Saint Christopher are breathtaking; and my own record collection includes settings of the Mass by Bach, Mozart, Poulenc, Bruckner, and Haydn – as well as The Creation, and the Quincy Jones reworking of ‘Messiah’. The greatest musical work never written is probably a version of the Mass produced, arranged and performed by Prince.

But there may be another problem – do some scientists believe themselves to be members of a secret clan, keepers of the flame of wisdom, the Chosen Elite? And do they suspect that making science accessible to a wider audience will weaken their career premium, forcing them to compete for jobs and research funding, instead of being able to rely on a cosy network of supporters from the same cloistered realm?



A trip to Surfex 2008

States of Mind I: The Farewells

Jennifer stands in the kitchen, bare feet against
Cold grey tiles. Boiled water pours into an empty cup, she
Watches the languid streaks of light take shape
Then melt away in drifting circles
Anchored to the white ceramic base.

She doesn’t know how old he was, the guy
Who came to stay last night but had to go
Before the stroke of twelve. He left behind a cold grey shirt
That she now wears; she spoons the coffee in to drown
The swaying fluid strands of light and shade.

After she’d gone, we moved the wardrobe; four years of dust,
A ballpoint pen, two paperclips
And an abstract postcard from some guy called Craig. The
Stamp cost twenty-seven pence, he’d written
Just a single word: ‘Sorry’. We’ll never know
What prompted this regret, or if they ever met again.

Journal Entry, June 2008:
Got train to Harrogate and walked down to the conference centre. Wandered round and saw Dave Williams with one of his ex-colleagues.
Peter Davys has arm in sling; he fell off a moped while on holiday. I went and chatted to various people – Sue from VIL, Rachel Evans, Roy Miller. Saw Brenda P and Barry on the ICorr stand. She wants me to apply for Chartered Scientist status from the Science Council.
Got train back to Leeds with Peter Munn – he commented that the Sci Council chap was ‘a nice boy’ and made an offensive limp-wrist gesture.

Meanwhile, today is Sun 8th June – had text from Vicky about the Girly Rally (Strong Survive).
In the news, Manchester is about to be given a guaranteed £3 billion (a loan, not a gift) to fund expansion of public transport. But: we must agree to impose congestion charge on drivers.

10 June 2008:
Today at work had an e-mail from Steve Smith. Apparently Dave Coney (who retired last year as chief technician in the QC dept) has been ringing up the lab, collecting technical info on our production issues. Without actually telling us that he now works for a rival firm…

30 June 2008:
Today at work had another meeting with Doctor Sir Lord Professor David Tench, all-knowing supreme being in the realm of paint. As usual he confused us all.
Meanwhile, in the news – some kid wandered in to his English exam and just wrote “f*** off” on his paper, which was awarded 7 percent.
Last night, Radiohead played the Old Trafford cricket ground so all the trains and buses were packed. One tram – with 300 on board – came off the rails and hit a lamp-post.

5 May 2008:
Last Saturday we had a National Lottery draw; there were several winning tickets so each one got about 800 grand.
I had to bake some coated panels in the oven, and noticed that those on the upper shelf always ended up with a darker-coloured finish and slightly lower gloss than those on the lower shelf, despite them being held at the same temperature for the same time. The air is driven into the oven by a fan mounted in the side wall, so it is possible that one set of panels is exposed to air at a lower temperature and is thus subjected to  less severe thermal oxidation. To avoid this non-uniform heating, we could pass the incoming air through a metal coil fitted to the roof of the oven. Or replace the incoming air with nitrogen. Some commercial lab ovens even have the control panel mounted above the heating chamber, which means that the electrical units become damaged and fail to operate correctly.

Donnerstag 12 Aug:
I ask you! 12 August, and this morning was cold, wet and miserable. Heavy rain and thunder right now. Rang Tim to ask about SOS Rally site; he gave me directions and mentioned that he’d been to Vince’s wedding (Val’s son).
Meanwhile, am listening to Doves (TLB) and reading ‘The Master’. I rang LK and we wallowed in grief at the death of Isaac Hayes (Shaft – right on!) and talked about me moving house and jobs.

13 Aug:
Went to Ye Trafford Centre to buy a couple of birthday cards for Adrian. Credit crunch my arse – the place was PACKED! Swarms of happy shoppers with carrier bags. While browsing through the racks at WH Smiths I saw a greetings card with a picture of Mike O’Brien (the first streaker at Twickenham). Never ever seen that picture used on any form of merchandise before.

Sun 17 Aug:
Yesterday rode down to Hilton for the SOS Rally. Spotted the road signs and followed them, then noticed a bike behind me so I let him overtake & followed him to rally site; much further on than I had expected.
Met some new people: Andy & Kim from Lincoln (floppy red hat) and Bev and John from Stalybridge. Tim and them had gone out on run so I didn’t see him til late in evening.
Also met Denise and Froggy from Unwanted, and as soon as I arrived on site bumped into Tango and Ruth.
Bands: Sat afternoon some emo-type outfit who did a Metallica-esque (Metallique?) set, v good singer.

Then in evening Scorched Earth (?) a four-piece with a lead singer who resembled Amy Winehouse and a guitarist who looked like an accountant. They performed two sets –Teenage Kicks, In A Broken Dream, Because The Night, River Deep Mountain High.
The rally site had a splendid OAQ (outflung arms quotient): there were fields of cattle, hills, trees, a few squat farmhouses and huge skeins of Canada geese sailing overhead in search of warmth.

10 May 2008: A few years back I registered with an employment agency called Reed Scientific, and applied for a few jobs with them. Only now have they decided to send me a CPDS (candidate personal data statement) form to sign, without which they are unable to help me.
This form says ‘Reed may obtain, keep, use, produce and disclose records containing personal data about me, including trade union membership, religious or other beliefs, or alleged criminal offences.’

8 July 2020: Today I had a bundle of documents from Reed following my Subject Access Request for the personal data held about me. Oddly enough, this catalogue didn’t carry any details about my trade union membership, alleged criminal records, or political activities.

Covid-19 figures:
US: 3 million cases confirmed, 133,800 deaths
UK: 287,000 cases confirmed, 44,500 deaths

19 Dec 2018:
“The other man’s miniature but muscular hands fluttered skywards in simultaneous supplication and disavowal. ‘The idea came to me when I dropped an aspirin in the bathtub and couldn’t find it for the longest time. The idea, you know, of exploring how little contrast you could have and still have a photograph.’ “
John Updike, ‘Bech is Back’, 1982

The test panels for intumescent coatings are sturdy steel plates twelve inches square, and to determine their qualities we expose them to high humidity for several weeks before blasting them with extreme high temperature.
We photograph the coatings before and after exposure in order to see what changes have taken place, and if the material has deteriorated. But the finish is always a featureless pristine white, and if any small cracks or blisters have formed they will not appear in pictures. The camera is unable to latch onto the skin of the panel, unable to focus on the sterile Arctic wall of this mineral matrix mask.

To improve the image quality, it might be possible to add a pigment to the paint to render it darker and accentuate any defects on the surface. Or should that be in the surface? We can use carbon black, or perhaps micaceous iron oxide, that deep grey glitter than hovers on electric pylons like granulated moonlight.

And these tiny flakes will form a sweep of grey clouds hidden in the coating, a gentle barrier to the incoming damp and degradation and a reinforcement that inhibits the formation of cracks. So we would have a darker coating on which defects would be much easier to photograph, but which would also have improved mechanical resistance; hence there would be no cracks there to see.


Warrington Woods and Heatherwicke

‘Saint Michael Overcoming Satan’
Warrington Art Gallery and Museum.

The sculpture by Woods
Deserves to be held in glorious esteem…

Consider the spines of the lesser-spotted Bang; we have
A cortinal number, ‘z’ depicting the layers of shells
Then a vastigal number, ‘Q’ which serves to explain
How many spines (each of length ‘p’)
The shell is able to accommodate
According to an equation that dare not speak its name.

Sometimes we just forget to be amazed; this statue
Occupies a corner by the stairs, distracted by the notice-board and
Bitterly ignored by the kids’ excited babble as their teachers herd them by.
Michael is caught forever poised to strike, a moment that
Waits in white marble to be seen anew.

The Bang was grand; it towered over every other item on the news
As if the iron rescued from the Orion’s belt had all condensed
Upon a spiny virus, somewhere in a forgotten petri dish
And grown to fill the sky like some black star. Impressive in
Its elegant corrosion, it straddles too many dimensions to be
Completely safe or stable. Like every other star, it sang out loud
Before it crept beneath an arch to die.

Perhaps one day the statue made by Woods will find its way
Into a bold rotunda, all alone, where high windows spill
Gentle cubes of cold grey light to make us think
That if we wait here long enough we’ll see the figures move.




This picture shows the plaster cast of Saint Michael overcoming Satan, 1819-24, by John Flaxman (1755 – 1826)

The statue is displayed in the Main Library of University College London

The image above was copied without permission from the website of UCL Museums and Collections:

Meanwhile, a modern sculpture hit the news for all the wrong reasons…

The ‘B of the Bang’ was for a time the tallest sculpture in Great Britain, and consisted of steel spines radiating from a central hub. The project was delivered in 2005, two years behind schedule and cost over £ 1.7 million, when the original budget was £750, 000. Some of the metal spikes became detached and fell off shortly before the official opening, and the entire sculpture was dismantled for scrap in 2009.
According to the BBC website: “New East Manchester commissioned B of the Bang to form a centrepiece for Sportcity and mark the success of the 2002 Commonwealth Games.
At 184 feet (56 metres) tall, B of the Bang will dwarf the Angel of the North (65 ft) and will be three feet short of Nelson’s column.”

Watching Paint Dry


Welcome to the Glamorous, Wicked, Doktor Vulexa of the Kozmik Koatingz Korporation!


In Jan 1992, I attended a job interview at Vulexa Paints in Nottingham. When I returned to Hayford the same day I found my housemates in a state of great excitement: “Where have you been! The agency keeps ringing to speak to you – they want to offer you the job!” Two weeks later I rang the agency to ask why no letter had arrived, only to be told that the firm had cancelled all their plans for recruitment.

In Feb 1992 I went for another interview at Vulexa, this time in a different department. While I was describing my research work, the interviewer cut me short, impatiently saying “Yes yes, all very interesting, but you’ve got no experience. We don’t really need anyone with your background, and we don’t think you’d fit in here.” I was eventually offered the job at Vulexa, and on my first day was taken to see the chief accountant. ‘Right, and where have you come from?’ he asked. I told him I had been living in Middlesbrough; ‘No, no’ he said, ‘I mean which paint firm were you at before?’ When I said that I had never worked in the paint industry, he stopped writing and turned a look of scorn on my boss.

Another odd incident occurred after I had been with the firm for two weeks; one of the staff from the other lab asked me in a friendly manner ‘Oh, by the way, how long are you with us for?’ When I said that I was thinking of twenty years or so, he looked concerned, and said ‘But I thought you were just here as a placement student.’

In 1994 I was transferred to the Plastics Laboratory (which carried out development work on paints for car dashboards and TV sets) and gave my new manager a summary of my research work including the application tests using primers on polypropylene. A few weeks later the manager called two of us into his office and said ‘Right, we’ve been asked to make a coating for polypropylene…here’s the base plastic, and here are some promoters for you to look at.’ There were four bottles of material in front of us – three ‘Lubrizol’ phosphate ester solutions designed to assist bonding to galvanised steel, and one bottle of ‘Eastman’ chlorinated polyolefin emulsion.

I pointed out that this material would probably be very effective, while the other three would almost certainly have no effect. The boss said that he wasn’t interested in my opinions, and that I should just get on with the work as instructed. So I and my colleague went back to the lab, carried out a detailed programme of tests and confirmed that the Eastman material was successful while the other three gave no improvement, regardless of addition level.

We reported these results to the manager, who just sighed, and said ‘You would have to pick the most expensive one…now get back upstairs and carry on testing the others until you find one that works!’

In 1995, after I had been with the company for about three years, the production manager called everyone into a meeting. He had discovered the scurrilous graffiti in the mens’ toilets, and harangued us in furious Anglo-Saxon. The following day he arranged for the writing to be cleaned off, and had a Yale lock fitted to the toilets, so that all the lab staff had to approach the Lab Manager – like the quiz show Blockbusters – asking ‘Can I have a pee please, Bob?’

Then in 1996, having moved to our new site at Hayworth, we were regularly called upon to carry out cleaning duties as unpaid overtime; this would typically involve one hour twice a week. However, on one occasion we were ordered to report for cleaning duties on Saturday morning; this proved too much, and I decided to approach the MSF trade union for advice – a risky move, since union membership was banned at Vulexa.

Popular phrases commonly used at Vulexa included ‘Is there a problem with that?’, ‘You’re not here to think, you’re here to work’, and ‘To err is human; to forgive is not company policy’. The senior lab managers operated a confrontational approach, withholding all technical information from lab staff and having no career development programmes.

And then, in the year 2000, I noticed that my National Insurance number had been wrongly recorded on a wage slip, so I rang the NI office to check that my contributions were being made up. They told me that my payments were up to date; and asked if I was still resident in Oxford. ‘No’ said I, ‘I moved out of there years ago!’ So why had  my employers, the lovely vapid Vulexa Paints, neglected to notify the NI office that I had joined their payroll?

The following article shows a long-term strategic approach taken by Vulexa Paints Ltd, a small manufacturing firm in Birmingham (‘Business Credit News UK’, 15/06/97;


Company representatives attended meetings at a Birmingham hotel organised in the name of the Harland Golfing Society – but their real purpose was to agree not to undercut each other’s prices.

The court was told that the representatives reached an agreement to share information on prices charged to individual customers. Informal consultations took place between 1985 and 1993. The purpose was to prevent a competitor quoting to potential customers prices which would undercut the incumbent supplier.

A second agreement was reached by seven of the companies at a meeting which took place shortly after the devaluation of sterling against the D-Mark in September 1992. The devaluation substantially increased the prices of raw materials for UK manufacturers. The seven agreed to seek a multilateral price increase of 8.5% on their products.

(Apparently this was all connected with powder coatings, which used a different set of raw materials which were priced in Deutschmarks) Miss Pat Edwards, Legal Director at the Office of Fair Trading, said: The parties appear to have been aware that their conduct was unlawful, given that they used an assumed name to book hotel conference facilities. The nine companies who were party to the price notification and maintenance agreement are:

Akzo Powder Coatings Limited (Staffs), Vulexa Surface Coatings Limited [formerly Vulexa Paints Ltd] (Birmingham), Croda Polymers International Limited, Ferro (Great Britain) Limited (West Mids), Herberts Powder Coatings Limited (Co. Durham), Holden Surface Coatings Limited , Courtaulds Coatings (Holdings) Limited, Sonneborn & Rieck Limited (Essex) and Trimite Limited (Avon).

The collusive behaviour was categorised under two main headings:

1. Price-swapping (whereby the nine participants agreed to exchange information on prices currently being charged to individual clients) and

2. Price-fixing (whereby the seven participants agreed at a meeting in October 1992 to impose a multilateral price increase of 8.5% on their powder coatings.) Any breach of an Order made by the Court, or of an undertaking which it has accepted in lieu of an Order, may give rise to proceedings for contempt of court. The Office of Fair Trading operates a task force dedicated to identifying secret price fixing and market sharing cartels, which can be contacted on a 24-hour telephone/fax hot-line number: 0171-269 8888”