Tom McLeish is a Professor of Physics and former Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research at Durham University. In addition to that, he has won several awards including the Weissenberg Medal and the Bingham Medal for his work on molecular rheology of polymers. Furthermore, in 2012 he was made Vice-President of Science by the Institute of Physics (IoP). In this interview, we have touched on a wide range of subjects from music to his favourite books, spoiler alert – one of them is Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. It has been a pleasure to interview Tom and we hope you enjoy reading it.
Q: What is your dinner party monologue for when someone says “and what do you do?”
A: I’m a professor of physics – but have more or less spent my career studying the science of slimy stuff, so might not be quite what you think physics to be! I do research in history and theology now as well, after I spent 6 years supporting the research at my university across all its disciplines as ‘pro-vice-chancellor’ for research (it’s the university equivalent of a research director in a company) and am writing about art and science now too – so I’m very flakey. Now where did they go – they were talking with me just now?
Q: Could you tell us about where you grew up; were you a rural or city dweller?
A: South-east London suburbs – not very exciting commuter-belt area so totally dominated by the overwhelming presence of the vastness of London. But I went to high school by train in the other direction – in a Kent country town called Sevenoaks.
Q: What subject(s) did you excel at in school, and which did you find most challenging?
A: To be honest I loved all the academic subjects across the board. Although I wanted to do physics at university (that was also my best subject) so at that time (late 70s) in England I really had to specialise in the sciences we were lucky enough to have a French teacher who was committed to finding ways for scientists who loved languages to continue French to a high level, so I did an ‘A-level’ in that too, together with a dissertation on Albert Camus and existentialism so I guess my interdisciplinary passion started back then at Sevenoaks. In sport it was a rather different matter – I was never good enough to be in a team for anything. Hopeless!
Q: Can you recall any reoccurring comments from your school reports?
A: Not recurring ones, but I do recall a comment from my chemistry (probably my weakest science) teacher in my final year – ‘McLeish is competent, but his answers lack the polish of the true scholar’. That HURT! Probably in a good way – so that I was determined to explore the angles, go deeper, think critically in future.
Q: Did you ever have a eureka moment where you thought, “this is the subject I want to study”?
A: Yes I do recall realising, not so much that I ‘wanted to study physics’ but more like finding out that the science that I most enjoyed and felt most satisfying and fundamental happened to be called ‘physics’.
Life is too short not to include physics.
Q: Can you remember the point at which you fell in love with your subject?
A: We were on an underground (subway) train in London – a small party of my physics set with our teacher. I’m not sure why – probably on the way to a lecture at the Royal Institution or somesuch. He just mentioned that magnetism could be explained by combining electrostatics with relativity, rather than being just an extra additive phenomenon. Because we had done a little relativity by then I could see how that worked, and immediately thought that this intellectual perception into the workings of nature to be the most wonderful thing anyone could think of exploring. Another defining moment was discovering the Feynman Lectures on Physics in our school library – that nailed it. Life is too short not to include physics.
Regarding your undergraduate studies:
Q: Which University did you study at, and was it your first choice?
A: Cambridge – at the famous Cavendish Laboratory where Thompson discovered the electron and Rutherford the nucleus. I admit that I put down no other choices on the form – sounds awful but I knew that was where I wanted to go (actually it wasn’t as risky as it sounds because I was taking a gap year working in industrial research and I knew that I could always reapply to other places in the light of my results a year later if the Cambridge punt didn’t work).
Q: What undergraduate degree did you study for at University, and in hindsight would you select the same subject again?
A: Physics and Theoretical Physics – but I started with a year on the Mathematics course (really as a way of avoiding any more chemistry – at Cambridge you have to do several sciences in the first year if you follow the usual ‘natural sciences’ route but I knew I wanted to study theoretical physics so as much maths as I could get would help – in the end I really loved that year of mathematics and nearly stayed with it).
Q: Can you remember a University lecturer who really inspired you?
A: Yes – actually from the pure mathematics in that first year rather than the physics later on. His name is Martin Hyland and he is very famous now but was just starting out then – I recall that one day he was bleary-eyed and explained that their new baby had kept them up all night. But he made this (for him trivial) stuff on analysis and calculus just leap into life. He worked it all out in real time with us on the board – no notes at all – but had every detail at his mental command. It was wonderful – I can still hear him saying, ‘by the mean-value theorem …’ with his eyes shining. He finished three lectures early and offered to talk about some current research topics. This was my first great moment of disillusionment with Cambridge – I assumed that every one of the students would leap at the offer – if he can be that inspiring with trivial textbook stuff just think what it would be like if he was given space to talk about stuff that actually interested him! But nearly everyone wanted him to go over past exam papers instead. Utterly demoralising and taught me that at even the best universities in the world and the best students there squats a terrible lack of courage and a squalid instrumentalism. But four of us wanted to hear about the research ideas so he gave a special lecture on space-filling curves. It was wonderful of course. Looking back on it this may have subconsciously influenced me in my later research choice.
Regarding your postgraduate studies:
Q: What motivated you to further pursue academia?
A: My gap year in industry – a company making fibres called Courtaulds – convinced me that we needed to understand the connection between molecular physics of plastics and their behaviour. I knew that industry needed that but would never be able to find it out on its own. I discovered that to learn to do the research you needed a PhD – so it was just the next step for me.
So I suggested that the company sponsor my PhD – and they bought it!
Q: What institution(s) did you study at in your pursuit of postgraduate education?
A: This was still (and unusually) Cambridge, partly because my wife (we married when we finished our first degrees) was starting out on her postgraduate medical course there, but mainly because Sir Sam Edwards, one of the great 20th century British theoretical physicists, had just worked out (with a Japanese scientist, Masao Doi) the very first version of the physics of how elastic and viscous flow properties arise when plastics are melted into fluids – exactly what I had independently realized was needed by industry from my gap year and summer work at Courtaulds! So I suggested that the company sponsor my PhD at Cambridge rather than working for them full time – and they bought it!
Q: What was the title of your PhD thesis, and how would you explain your findings to a novice?
A: ‘Molecular Models of Polymeric Flows’. Think of a bowl of spaghetti come alive so that every strand is jiggling about on its own and trying to writhe around the other strands it’s all tangled up with – no make it 10 million times smaller – that’s a polymer melt. I worked on mathematical models for a fluid made of strings that can’t cross each other – you get an emergent property: slime that bounces! And when you make the strong molecules into all sorts of ‘alphabetti-spaghetti’ shapes you get a different sort of fluid for every letter-shape of the molecules. I made a special study of the fluid made of H-shaped molecules.
Q: If you had your time as a student again, what would you do, if anything, differently?
A: Not really – I did loads of other things, mostly musical, singing in my college chapel choir, the university chorus and a barbershop group called the ‘OK Chorale’, and playing my French Horn badly. I did mean to go to more lectures from other subjects, and I would I hope do a little more of that if I had that time again. I did go to a series in the Music Department on the historical development of the symphony. I’m a huge fan of Robert Schumann’s music – especially his grossly underrated orchestral works, so that’s what got me along but I stayed for the rest. One of the most impressive moments was when that professor was 15 minutes late for the lecture on Mendelssohn – and explained that it was because he was worried sick that he just didn’t understand Mendelssohn at all! Such academic honesty – I thought it was wonderful. That was also when theoretical physicist John Polkinghorne had returned to Cambridge after re-training in theology and gave one of the first ‘science and theology’ courses in the UK. That was great to be in on early and has of course fascinated me ever since. Sometimes all this makes me think I ought to have focused on work more but I think I got the balance more or less right.
Q: Tell us about your current research focus?
A: Since doing the pro-vice-chancellor for research job (known elsewhere as ‘Provost for Research’ or ‘Vice-President for Research’ or some such) at Durham my research as really broadened out. Some of the very interdisciplinary projects that I supported from the central position in the university I ended up joining in with or co-leading. My core science research now focusses on the physics of proteins, especially their structural fluctuations, and in turn their role in function. But I am also co-leading a huge project on the re-evaluation of medieval scientific writings from the 13th century, which is absolutely fascinating. We call it the ‘Ordered Universe Project’ – you can look it up – and by working closely with a team of historians, Latinists, philosophers, theologians and scientists are discovering that all sorts of wonderful mathematical science were being done far earlier that most people realise. Three-dimensional spaces of colour perception and the idea of the universe starting with a big bang and expanding, are just two from the 1220s. Amazingly our experience is that not only do the scientists help the humanities scholars identify the intellectual progress being made in this remarkable century but through studying the treatises (on light, colour, sound, motion and more…) we have actually stimulated new science too which has been published in some top science journals.
I’m convinced that science is as deep a human instinctive activity as art or storytelling.
This is all part of a larger research programme I now have on reintegrating the university into an academic unit communicating much more intensively in interdisciplinary research – finding our common bedrock if you will. This also motivated my rather fresh-thinking (you could call it free-thinking!) approach to theology that went into the Faith and Wisdom in Science book. I’m convinced that science is as deep a human instinctive activity as art or storytelling or music, and am working now on a follow-up book about creativity and imagination in the arts and sciences.
Q: What do you believe is your single most important piece of research?
A: I think probably the most important breakthrough was one that I and an American colleague Ron Larson from the Chemical Engineering world made together (he from the phenomenological, I from the molecular physics viewpoint) on understanding the strange flow behaviour of melted polymers whose molecules are branched (remember those H-shaped polymers?). I am very pleased with it because it spins off both new fundamental understanding in molecular polymer physics and really useful tools for industry. We needed to work on the consequences for over 10 years in a huge project I led with 6 universities and 6 industries around the world to cash all that out – but it was a wonderful experience. It represents most of the FRS citation so it looks as though others would say that was important too.
Q: Within your area of study, what breakthroughs are on the horizon?
A: I hope that my current research in biological physics will make some big breakthroughs soon. We have uncovered a really interesting effect by which proteins can signal through their thermal fluctuations rather than in spite of them, and we are trying to see how widespread that is. That work might lead to whole new families of drugs too.
Q: Let your imagination take over for a minute and tell us what you hope your successors will be researching in 2116?
A: I think that the focus will be on the soft active matter that computes, thinks and evolves, but in ways different from ‘life as we know it’. I also feel deep down that statistical mechanics, very much the poor sister of 20th-century physics, when quantum mechanics and relativity had much more prominence, will combine with them to solve some of the core questions of origins, coherence and compatibility in theoretical physics in the very very early universe.
Q: What do you feel your professional legacy will be?
A: I would hope dearly that, as well as the particular contributions to polymer and biological physics such as the branched polymers in flow and the fluctuating proteins, I would have been able to help scholars in the sciences and the humanities appreciate each other more, and to see what enormous strides can be made by working together – putting the ‘uni’ back in ‘university if you will.
Q: Are you working on any extra-curricular projects at the moment, such as: books, podcasts, websites, or speaking?
A: Yes loads! I mentioned the follow-up book to Faith and Wisdom in Science provisionally entitled The Poetry and Music of Science – really about the creative leap in science (which scientists are very coy about) and the great experimental periods of work in the arts (which artists are equally private about).
The medieval science (Ordered Universe) project has a great website with stuff uploaded for the general public as well as academic audiences, but our big output will be a series of 7 volumes of editions, translations and commentaries on the scientific works of the great 13th century English polymath Robert Grosseteste. He was a genius and conceived many fresh ways of thinking mathematically about physics.
I’ve also got a lot of speaking lined up on the Faith and Wisdom stuff – coming up is a week-long lecture tour to universities and colleges in Vancouver this October and a visit to Harvard after that. I’ll be talking about interdisciplinary science and theology stuff there, and also the current science work.
Other media work is related to a project I am running at Durham with the Principal of St John’s College there, David Wilkinson. David has two PhDs – one in astronomy and one in theology, so we get on ok!
Advice and Tips
Q: If you could give your 18-year-old self one piece of advice, what would it be?
A: Take that Sunday afternoon off revision and go play the Schumann Konzertstuck for 4 horns with those amazing guys who invited you. You won’t get another chance.
Q: What advice would you give someone looking to start, or progress his or her career in your field?
A: Get to know your own research problem really well, but also spend time just reading or better talking with others about theirs, and if you are a theoretician – get in the lab regularly!
Q: Which book would you say has had the biggest impact on your life?
A: Apart from the Bible and Shakespeare? Probably Douglas Hofstadter’s classic ‘Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid’ – another multidisciplinary symphony of thought that I read into the wee small hours when I was 18.
Q: If you could recommend one book to a novice in your field, what would it be?
A: The Theory of Polymer Dynamics by Masao Doi and Sam Edwards – another timeless classic.
Q: And finally, we are back at the dinner party. Someone offers you a drink, what do you ask for?
A: A glass of the Margaux ’76 please! (assuming it’s that kind of party) – so much in life is miraculous (in the true etymology of the word – ‘to wonder at’) and classic Bordeaux belongs in the class of the miraculous.
If you’d like to find out more about Professor Tom McLeish you can check out his academic profile, Wikipedia profile and Twitter page.