Redhill is a town in south-east Surrey. It has a fairly large railway station which sits at the intersection of two lines – the north-south London to Brighton line, and an east-west route which used to carry trains from Reading to Tonbridge, but in recent times has effectively been split into two separate routes.
Southern Railways have thought up a brilliant new excuse for delays and cancellations. It’s brilliant because it combines two old excuses in a new! improved! form. Because of major “improvement works”, large swathes of the railway have had no trains running on them all weekend and have thus got covered in snow and ice. See what I mean? Brilliant.
As part of the MSc in History of Science, Technology and Medicine that I am doing, there is an optional module on the Sociology of Science.
I had a go at it. I tried – I really did. But – well, first of all I had to try and overcome a certain degree of prejudice against the subject. You see, I grew up in the 1960s, and around that time (60s/70s) sociology occupied approximately the same position in the academic curriculum as “media studies” does today – in other words, it was seen as what people studied if they couldn’t get onto any other degree programme. It was fairly common in those days to find, written on the wall of a public toilet just above the toilet roll holder,
“Sociology Degrees – Please Take One”
I am a great believer in the public understanding of science (which is nowadays usually referred to as public engagement with science; see note below about this). I was a Café Scientifique organiser for five years, and know first-hand how much people who have not had the opportunity to learn much science in the conventional way appreciate such initiatives. I also believe the public have a right to a say in how money is spent on science, since it is their money, and is being invested in their names.
Nevertheless, I am aware that, with greater and greater specialisation, the gap between the scientist and the person-in-the-street is continually widening. So we face a dilemma: should the public understanding of science concentrate on more accessible science, such as Newton’s Laws, the Periodic Table, Darwin? Or are people more likely to want to know about the “cutting-edge” stuff, which may be difficult to explain – such things as the Higgs Boson or nanotechnology?
During the entire 26 years I worked on the railways, I puzzled over the fact that the tracks themselves – and also the department that looked after them – went under the curious title of “the Permanent Way” (usually shortened to P-way). Why not just “tracks” or “track maintenance”? Or why not use the correct quasi-legal term, “the Operational Railway”?
(I thought for a time that this might be an example of Naming by Subsidiary Attribute (NSA), which is a subject I’m going to have to blog about before long. It’s one of my little obsessions. To give you a clue, one example of this genre is the “floppy disc”. But that is for another day.)
As I may have mentioned before, I am currently doing an MSc in the History of Science, Technology and Medicine. The other day I attended the first lecture for an option course entitled “Sciences in the Age of Industry, 1750-1920”.
Now, although I have not studied History of Science before doing this course, I have studied science at various levels, and I have read popular science and popular history-of-science books, notably John Gribbin’s Science: A History; I have also done some fairly superficial research for a talk on the history of magnetism. So I know that, during that period, all sorts of exciting developments took place in science, and there follows a very incomplete and impressionistic list.
Recently I spent an agreeable evening in a London pub with ten of my old school friends; it is just over 50 years since we first met.
Well, to be honest, they were not actually old school friends; perhaps half had been acquaintances at school – people I would chat with between lessons or over lunch but did not socialise with; the rest could really only be described as contemporaries. My two best friends at school died well before their time; but apart from this I blame my relatively old-schoolfriend-free existence on my being such a wimp (when we were at school, I was actually quite scared of some of the people I met that evening; and besides, I have never been terribly gregarious) and also on the school, which was not exactly a friendly, welcoming place. The day I left – I can still remember it, the 29th of November 1968 – was the best day of my life. When I went to say goodbye to our somewhat socially-challenged headmaster, he had to look me up in his file to remind himself who I was. (And OK, you might not think that so surprising in a school of perhaps 600 pupils; but then I was, by his definition, one of the most important at that time because I was one of a small group who had applied to Oxbridge, and Oxbridge entry, together with sport and playing soldiers, seemed to be just about the only thing the school cared about. I was also one of perhaps only 7 or 8 actually leaving on that day).
A Train Departure Indicator at Clapham Junction Station
Herein lies a sad and sorry tale.
In the mid-1980s I was part of the project team for the Brighton Barrier Line Scheme (BBLS) which was charged with installing a large flap indicator on the concourse at Brighton Station, together with visual dispay units on the platforms and around the station, a new public address system, and a new building to house the control and equipment rooms for these systems, together with a new tenancy (the W H Smith shop). This was some years before ticket barrier machines were introduced so it was not a “barrier line” in that sense and you could actually get onto the platforms fairly easily, without having to negotiate the bottleneck that is there today.