Oral history of British science

Parkinson, Bob (Part 1 of 15). An Oral History of British Science.

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  • Subjects

    Aeronautical Engineering; Space Science and Engineering

  • Recording date


  • Recording locations

    The British Library

  • Interviewees

    Parkinson, Bob, 1941- (speaker, male)

  • Interviewers

    Lean, Thomas (speaker, male)

  • Abstract

    Part 1: Bob Parkinson [BP], born London, 1941; mother a nurse from Sheffield, father civil servant; lived in Sheffield until age 13 when family moved to Cheltenham; importance of Sheffield on him becoming a scientist. Remarks on: Father, excise officer, left school at 15 to join civil service; influence on BP of engineer maternal grandfather, who specialised in steel wire at Sheffield; going through a childhood phase when he wanted to know everything, writing things down in notebooks, not being good as sport, winning a book about science as a primary school prize. [04:40] Remarks on: reading 'Eagle' magazine and science fiction, including Arthur C. Clarke; being good at physics at school, but not biology and subjects where he had to remember things; choosing engineering at university due to maternal grandfather's influence and reaction against school friends choosing physics and maths at Oxbridge; moving into new house in Sheffield aged around 3; father waking up early to go to work and mother teaching him the alphabet by firelight; home in Sheffield; being lower middle class, living near grandparents, not having a car; [10:05] father being a keen cyclist, cycling holidays around 1946-47; telephone installed aged about 9 or 10; imagining living in the past whilst writing the history of the British Interplanetary Society; new technology arriving in the home. [14:45] Short anecdote about using the phone to do his homework. Remarks on being lower middle class: father technically white collar worker, Sheffield pollution, family finances; only getting a television when his grandmother moved. Comments on going to university because he had a county major scholarship, differences between system then and now, father's accountant attitude to money, university finances whilst BP was a student compared to for his son. [20:05] Remarks on father: eldest of three, left school at 15, joined customs and excise, career progression, methodical nature, transfer from Sheffield to Cheltenham, liked order and dealing with figures. Anecdote about BP being bad at mental arithmetic until he became a section head. Further remarks on father: liked country, cycling, photography, quiet, read, wide interests, discussions over dinner. [25:55] Remarks on: mother, musical, extroverted, trained as a singer, ran choirs at Cheltenham; BP only playing an instrument for his own pleasure; BP autistic daughter inheriting BP's mother's ear for music; artistic hobbies and painting; growing up in a happy household; being bullied, and not liking sport; favourite subjects at school: physics, chemistry, maths.[29:30]Remarks on sixth form: small group, brightest member, John Westwater; BP performance at maths; teachers; orbital mechanics technique, using radio R-theta co-ordinates, taught to him at school, which he still uses; performance in maths and physics; competitive in other fields to compensate for being bad at sport, for which he was bullied; British scientists all being oddballs. [35:50] Remarks on: being interested in learning about things; secure home life with family who valued education; preparation for the 11 plus; education important to families who had lived through 1930s depression; grandparent's generation's experience, grandfather moving north to find work, family split for a time; [40:55] anecdote about budget more important than politics to parents due to father's job potentially moving from Cheltenham depending on workload; father reading 'The Guardian'. Comments on religion: always being a member of a Church of England church, except for attending Methodist church in Sheffield; attending church on Sundays; parent's involvement with church; still recalling obscure parts of bible from his Sunday school teaching; anecdote about recognising Melchizedek in a Byzantine mosaic of Abraham at Ravenna; BP church attendance and scientist's religious outlook means he needs to understand things for himself; parents' religious outlook. Remarks on mother: very musical, outgoing, set up choirs, took up painting; BP taking up painting as a teenager, as something he could do with his hands. [52:20] Remarks on: childhood entertainments, chemistry experiments, Airfix models of planes and spaceships; practical activities being typical of engineers, not something obtained from computer games; being bad at art at school; building models; holidays at friend's farm and building things with Meccano; thinking in an engineers mindset long before university, deciding to do engineering at sixth form, grandfather's role in convincing him that engineering was a respectable thing to do; being ahead of the average engineering student; grandfather, quite Victorian but had lots of time for BP, and grandmother; grandfather's background in wire milling, changed his name to escape family, moved to Sheffield and worked for a cooperative, producing wire for needles. [1:00:30] Remarks on: grandfather's split from his family, change of name from Stevens to Jagger, cousins research of family tree; living near maternal grandparents and visiting regularly, but seeing paternal grandparents in London less; paternal grandfather fought in World War 1 and died c.1947, grandmother later; paternal aunt in London, who married a Lloyd's underwriter; short story about aunt taking him around London sights as a reward for passing 11 plus; cousins from father's brother, Cedric; cousin whose family tree research; Uncle Cedric's job as Colonial Office official in Tanganyika; [1:07:00] Cedric's children Anna, Barbara, Helen, Stella and David, either staying in Africa or going to live with relatives after death of mother, Stella staying with BP's family; family discussions over the dinner table and remarks on family life. [1:12:22] Discussion of school days: Abbey Lane Primary School, Sheffield; Puffin book on science by Sir Richard Gregory; only school trip being to the swimming baths; formal learning environment; BP poor writing until teacher taught him italic handwriting; passing 11 plus, going to grammar school up a steep hill, moving to Cheltenham Grammar School; [1:17:55] good maths teachers; finding geometry hard, being better at mechanics than his young teacher and being able to do problems on the spot, links between school days and later career; BP visual approach to mathematics, compared with Richard Feynman. [1:22:25] Remarks on: being a system engineer, linking ideas together, revising for exams by understanding how things work rather than learning facts; respecting science teachers' knowledge, unlike teachers in other subjects, such as English; BP intelligence from thinking fast rather than extensive knowledge; family's independent thinking, respecting people who knew more than he; losing respect for teachers who did not know their subject, an outlook that continued in his later career. [1:28:20] Short story about starting research on erosive burning at RPE Westcott after being unimpressed by another explanation of it. Anecdote about BP and Alan Bond [AB] being unimpressed with a talk on the Ariane 5 and Hermes shuttle combination, spotting similarities with cancelled American Dyna-Soar project, and leaving to conceive HOTOL. [1:31:20] Remarks on: linking childhood with adulthood; choosing research areas few other people have investigated and his competitive nature; childhood experiences, influence of grandparents, encouraged to think freely, working with hands, being interested in science fiction; living his whole life in the future differences to how future has worked out and 1950s impressions, mentions recent James May television series. [1:37:50] Remarks on the future when he was a teenager: Sputnik 1, BP not believing the Russians had beaten the Americans; positive image of the nuclear industry; positive view of science when he was growing up, doing science for idealistic reasons; differences with talking about science now; anecdote about children being surprised at what science actually is during his summer school teaching at Queen Mary University; colleague on Cassini imagery team's pushing on with possibility of no funding; long view of history of science over last 300 years and positive view of science in the past. [1:43:50] Remarks on impressions of Sputnik while BP was a child: reading books about American efforts; knowing American launch was expected as part of the International Geophysical Year; being shocked by Russian Sputnik success; seeing Sputnik 2 fly over. Comments on science fiction: Arthur C Clarke and [Wernher] Von Braun's view of space flight;' omissions and errors in 'Destination Moon' film, not obvious in 1950s but strange now that space flight is a reality. [1:51:20] Discussion about reading: avid reader in his teens; discovering science fiction aged around 14; factual books about science; favourite science fiction authors, some he knew personally in later years, including Arthur C Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, James Blish; attraction of science fiction being about the future, science fiction reinforcing his views on authority and alternatives; science fiction's similarities with travelling, being like visiting alien planets. Further remarks on science fiction: preferring optimistic science fiction, opinions on soft and hard science fiction; BP problems with people who aren't focused; BP's focused approach to problem solving; liking J.G. Ballard as much as Robert Heinlein.

  • Description

    Interview with aerospace engineer Dr Bob Parkinson.

  • Related transcripts

    Dr Bob Parkinson interviewed by Tom Lean: full transcript of the interview

  • Related links

    Visit this interviewee's page on the 'Voices of Science' web resource

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