Oral history of British science

Palmer, Tim (Part 1 of 6)

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  • Type

    sound

  • Duration

    02:46:26

  • Shelf mark

    C1379/94

  • Subjects

    Meteorology

  • Recording date

    2013-02-21

  • Recording locations

    Department of Physics, University of Oxford

  • Interviewees

    Palmer, Tim, 1952- (speaker, male)

  • Interviewers

    Merchant, Paul (speaker, male)

  • Abstract

    Part 1 [2:46:26] [Session one: 21st February 2013] Tim Palmer born Kingston, Surrey, 31st December, 1952. Story of father life, including World War Two [WWT] service, employment in Kodak Company [KC], with related story of paternal grandfather’s friendship with George Eastman. Comments on father’s role in marketing X-ray film before WW2, involving visits to hospitals with related story of parents’ meeting. Mentions parents’ marriage 1930; family home Oxshott [OX], Surrey. [2:35] Comments on father’s early life, including influence of relations with Church of England vicar. [3:49] Story of mother’s life, (with digression concerning own employment at UK Meteorological Office [MO]), including mother’s occupation as radiologist. Mentions much older brother; own status as third sibling. [7:10] Comments on early life of mother, including maternal grandfather’s creamery business; own interest in whether any ancestors were scientists or scientific. [8:49] Story of tea with parish priest in 1950s, at which father raised questions about Creation inspired by television programme on cosmology. Comments on these television programmes, featuring Hermann Bondi, Fred Hoyle [FH] and others talking to camera. [11:54] Comments on enjoyment as child of Patrick Moore’s [PM] ‘Sky at Night’ television programme. Story of use of telescope made at father’s workplace, KC, including fascination with scale of universe. Comments on development of own interest in science. [13:24] Comments on time spent with mother as young child; time spent with father as young child, including shared interest in playing of rugby, swimming. Story of walks in local (to OX) wood with father, including counting of steps, naming of capital cities. [19:00] Comments on reading habits as a child, including science fiction stories (mentions those of PM, FH, Isaac Asimov). Mentions teaching self to play guitar; indoor play with Meccano and Horby train set; use of telescope and microscope. Detailed comments on use of telescope. [22:52] Mentions mother’s enthusiasm for reading, especially biography/autobiography. Comments on visits to local library in Esher, including significance of borrowed book on astronomy/cosmology, including origin of awareness of Albert Einstein’s [AE] contribution to physics/understanding of the universe. [25:28] Comments on Catholic churchgoing in childhood, including role as altar boy. Mentions Jesuit schools attended. Comments on perception of self as a well-behaved child; difference between characters of self and brother, especially tendency for self to be undemonstrative and less likely to commit to one side of an argument. [32:07] Comments on parents’ political outlook, including effect of brother in changing mother’s political views. Story of development of brother’s left-wing political views. [36:43] Comments on childhood experience of father’s work, including visits to office in Kingsway, London. [37:56] Description/stories of Jesuit preparatory school [JPS], Wimbledon, London, including comments on ‘old-fashioned’ curriculum and teaching and corporal punishment. Detailed comments on lack of interest in science or mathematics as presented at school. [43:05] Positive comments on effect on self of JPS. Story of being taught ‘proof’ of God’s existence at Jesuit secondary school [JSS], Wimbledon. [46:30] Story of decision to pursue science and mathematics beyond O-Levels based on interest in science developed not by school but by television programmes and books (on astronomy/cosmology) discovered independently. Mentions music classes. [50:31] Further comments on lack of interest in ‘SMP’ mathematics, worked through at JSS. [51:28] Story of first finding school mathematics interesting in A-Level classes introducing calculations with Taylor and Maclaurin Series [TMS]. Comments on lack of interest in O-Level physics. Story of conducting ‘two slit experiment’ [TSE] in after-school physics club at JSS. [55:09] Mentions lack of biology teaching at any level, JSS; A-Levels chosen: double mathematics and physics. [56:33] Comments on friends made outside school in Oxshott. [1:00:11] Detailed comments on reasons for finding TMS interesting, involving realisation of relations between geometry and calculus. [1:04:37] Comments on development of aspiration to understand and even build on AE’s contribution to understanding of the universe, through relativity theory [RT]; time spent outside of school as older child/young adult, including motorcycling, playing of guitar. Mentions reading of ‘New Scientist’ at this age. Detailed comments on childhood reading of books on cosmology and RT by George McVittie. Mentions books of PM. [1:10:33] Story of visit (later, as adult) to AE Museum in Bern, Switzerland. Comments on emotional effect of this visit, with related story of visit to lecture theory in Copenhagen at which pioneers in quantum mechanics [QM] had delivered papers. Mentions reading of biographies of Paul Dirac and Robert Oppenheimer. [1:14:29] Story of completion of O-Levels, A-Levels, Cambridge entrance examination; interview at Christ’s College, University of Cambridge [UOC]; acceptance by Department of Physics, University of Bristol [UOB]. Comments on reasons for choosing to read joint honours degree in mathematics and physics [JMP], [1971-1974]; teaching of RT by Michael Berry [DP] [Department of Physics] and Ruth Williams [RW] [Department of Mathematics]. Detailed comments on contribution of Roger Penrose [RP] to RT and astrophysics, including development of conception of space-time singularities (including the Big Bang and stars) as points where mass is concentrated. [1:22:10] Comments on effect of studying RT and other areas of physics in both the Department of Physics and of Mathematics, UOB; examples of teaching of RT including relative/observer-dependent time and space in Special Relativity [SP], expansion of the universe, mathematical technique of differential geometry [DG]. [1:26:14] Description of differences between Newton’s laws of motion and General Relativity, in which gravity is not a force but effect of curvature of space-time, the latter involving calculations of ‘geodesics’. [1:29:14] Comments on character of scientific revolutions, involving completely new theory which explains minor weaknesses in existing theory. [1:31:12] Comments on MB’s teaching, including course on dynamical systems, use of drawings. [1:34:16] Comments on discussion of physics with fellow JMP student, tutor and RW. Story of invitation from RW to attend 1st Oxford Quantum Gravity Conference, 1974, at which Stephen Hawking [SH] presented his argument that black holes radiate particles, uniting QM, RT and thermodynamics in one calculation. Mentions response to SH’s paper of physicist. Comments on other physicists present at this conference. [1:43:46] Story of playing in folk and blues duo while an undergraduate, UOB. Comments on liking of folk/blues. Story of buying a ‘Beatles Guitar’; father’s gift of superior guitar; learning to play guitar. Mentions current band. Comments on writing of songs, including ‘The Greenhouse Blues’. [1:50:53] Brief comments on girlfriends during degree. [1:52:01] Comments on RP’s work on ‘twister theory’ in Mathematics Institute, University of Oxford [UO] in 1980s. Story of successful application to Dennis Sharma’s [DS] research group, Department of Physics, UO, for PhD in RT. Mentions DS’s previous research students, SH, Martin Rees. Comments on approach to supervision of DS. Story of development of focus of PhD on mathematical definition of energy/angular momentum of gravitational waves [GW], including use of particular formalism (a problem previously attempted by AE). [2:02:35] Story of overhearing discussion of ‘syntactic forms’ [SF] during summer school in Italy; use of SF to solve problem in PhD. [2:05:09] Description of process of working in theoretical physics, involving finding of patterns, writing formulae on the back of scrap computer paper, process of enlarging then reducing lines of equations. Mentions absence of computer calculations and experimental results from PhD thesis. [2:11:04] Comments on parents’ view of own developing academic career. Detailed comments on inability to discuss content of PhD with parents and others and loneliness of work itself, partly informing decision not to accept postdoctoral position in Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics [DAMTP], UOC. [2:15:17] Comments on character/varied research interests/lecturing ability of DS. Story of successful application to postdoctoral position in SH’s research group in DAMTP. Comments on SH’s paper on black holes radiating particles/having temperature. Story of DS’s interest in SH’s paper, in relation to theory of principle of maximum entropy production [PMEP]. Further detailed comments on reasons for not pursuing postdoctoral work in RT, including perception of its limited social usefulness and impression (influenced by RP) that attempts to unify QM and RT by resolving problems with understanding of gravity in QM, tended to assume that QM was correct. [2:31:59] Story of visit to MO to discuss possibility of meteorological research with Raymond Hide [RM], at suggestion of mathematician Geoffrey Stephenson, involving second reference to PMEP; successful application to MO, including details of interview. Mentions MO Director General John Mason’s keenness to recruit physicists/mathematicians. Comments on decision to accept post at MO (starting autumn 1977), rather than postdoctoral position in SH’s group at UOC, including reaction of parents/friends and own doubts. Story of DAMTP not receiving own letter explaining decision to withdraw from postdoctoral position. [2:40:23] Comments on perception that SH’s group at DAMTP were assuming correctness of QM in researches on ‘supergravity’. Track 1 [cont. from 1:50:53] Brief comments on girlfriends during degree. [1:52:01] Comments on RP’s work on ‘twister theory’ in Mathematics Institute, University of Oxford [UO] in 1980s. Story of successful application to Dennis Sharma’s [DS] research group, Department of Physics, UO, for PhD in RT. Mentions DS’s previous research students, SH, Martin Rees. Comments on approach to supervision of DS. Story of development of focus of PhD on mathematical definition of energy/angular momentum of gravitational waves [GW], including use of particular formalism (a problem previously attempted by AE). [2:02:35] Story of overhearing discussion of ‘syntactic forms’ [SF] during summer school in Italy; use of SF to solve problem in PhD. [2:05:09] Description of process of working in theoretical physics, involving finding of patterns, writing formulae on the back of scrap computer paper, process of enlarging then reducing lines of equations. Mentions absence of computer calculations and experimental results from PhD thesis. [2:11:04] Comments on parents’ view of own developing academic career. Detailed comments on inability to discuss content of PhD with parents and others and loneliness of work itself, partly informing decision not to accept postdoctoral position in Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics [DAMTP], UOC. [2:15:17] Comments on character/varied research interests/lecturing ability of DS. Story of successful application to postdoctoral position in SH’s research group in DAMTP. Comments on SH’s paper on black holes radiating particles/having temperature. Story of DS’s interest in SH’s paper, in relation to theory of principle of maximum entropy production [PMEP]. Further detailed comments on reasons for not pursuing postdoctoral work in RT, including perception of its limited social usefulness and impression (influenced by RP) that attempts to unify QM and RT by resolving problems with understanding of gravity in QM, tended to assume that QM was correct. [2:31:59] Story of visit to MO to discuss possibility of meteorological research with Raymond Hide [RM], at suggestion of mathematician Geoffrey Stephenson, involving second reference to PMEP; successful application to MO, including details of interview. Mentions MO Director General John Mason’s keenness to recruit physicists/mathematicians. Comments on decision to accept post at MO (starting autumn 1977), rather than postdoctoral position in SH’s group at UOC, including reaction of parents/friends and own doubts. Story of DAMTP not receiving own letter explaining decision to withdraw from postdoctoral position. [2:40:23] Comments on perception that SH’s group at DAMTP were assuming correctness of QM in researches on ‘supergravity’. Track 1 [cont. from 1:50:53] Brief comments on girlfriends during degree. [1:52:01] Comments on RP’s work on ‘twister theory’ in Mathematics Institute, University of Oxford [UO] in 1980s. Story of successful application to Dennis Sharma’s [DS] research group, Department of Physics, UO, for PhD in RT. Mentions DS’s previous research students, SH, Martin Rees. Comments on approach to supervision of DS. Story of development of focus of PhD on mathematical definition of energy/angular momentum of gravitational waves [GW], including use of particular formalism (a problem previously attempted by AE). [2:02:35] Story of overhearing discussion of ‘syntactic forms’ [SF] during summer school in Italy; use of SF to solve problem in PhD. [2:05:09] Description of process of working in theoretical physics, involving finding of patterns, writing formulae on the back of scrap computer paper, process of enlarging then reducing lines of equations. Mentions absence of computer calculations and experimental results from PhD thesis. [2:11:04] Comments on parents’ view of own developing academic career. Detailed comments on inability to discuss content of PhD with parents and others and loneliness of work itself, partly informing decision not to accept postdoctoral position in Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics [DAMTP], UOC. [2:15:17] Comments on character/varied research interests/lecturing ability of DS. Story of successful application to postdoctoral position in SH’s research group in DAMTP. Comments on SH’s paper on black holes radiating particles/having temperature. Story of DS’s interest in SH’s paper, in relation to theory of principle of maximum entropy production [PMEP]. Further detailed comments on reasons for not pursuing postdoctoral work in RT, including perception of its limited social usefulness and impression (influenced by RP) that attempts to unify QM and RT by resolving problems with understanding of gravity in QM, tended to assume that QM was correct. [2:31:59] Story of visit to MO to discuss possibility of meteorological research with Raymond Hide [RM], at suggestion of mathematician Geoffrey Stephenson, involving second reference to PMEP; successful application to MO, including details of interview. Mentions MO Director General John Mason’s keenness to recruit physicists/mathematicians. Comments on decision to accept post at MO (starting autumn 1977), rather than postdoctoral position in SH’s group at UOC, including reaction of parents/friends and own doubts. Story of DAMTP not receiving own letter explaining decision to withdraw from postdoctoral position. [2:40:23] Comments on perception that SH’s group at DAMTP were assuming correctness of QM in researches on ‘supergravity’. Brief comments on girlfriends during degree. [1:52:01] Comments on RP’s work on ‘twister theory’ in Mathematics Institute, University of Oxford [UO] in 1980s. Story of successful application to Dennis Sharma’s [DS] research group, Department of Physics, UO, for PhD in RT. Mentions DS’s previous research students, SH, Martin Rees. Comments on approach to supervision of DS. Story of development of focus of PhD on mathematical definition of energy/angular momentum of gravitational waves [GW], including use of particular formalism (a problem previously attempted by AE). [2:02:35] Story of overhearing discussion of ‘syntactic forms’ [SF] during summer school in Italy; use of SF to solve problem in PhD. [2:05:09] Description of process of working in theoretical physics, involving finding of patterns, writing formulae on the back of scrap computer paper, process of enlarging then reducing lines of equations. Mentions absence of computer calculations and experimental results from PhD thesis. [2:11:04] Comments on parents’ view of own developing academic career. Detailed comments on inability to discuss content of PhD with parents and others and loneliness of work itself, partly informing decision not to accept postdoctoral position in Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics [DAMTP], UOC. [2:15:17] Comments on character/varied research interests/lecturing ability of DS. Story of successful application to postdoctoral position in SH’s research group in DAMTP. Comments on SH’s paper on black holes radiating particles/having temperature. Story of DS’s interest in SH’s paper, in relation to theory of principle of maximum entropy production [PMEP]. Further detailed comments on reasons for not pursuing postdoctoral work in RT, including perception of its limited social usefulness and impression (influenced by RP) that attempts to unify QM and RT by resolving problems with understanding of gravity in QM, tended to assume that QM was correct. [2:31:59] Story of visit to MO to discuss possibility of meteorological research with Raymond Hide [RM], at suggestion of mathematician Geoffrey Stephenson, involving second reference to PMEP; successful application to MO, including details of interview. Mentions MO Director General John Mason’s keenness to recruit physicists/mathematicians. Comments on decision to accept post at MO (starting autumn 1977), rather than postdoctoral position in SH’s group at UOC, including reaction of parents/friends and own doubts. Story of DAMTP not receiving own letter explaining decision to withdraw from postdoctoral position. [2:40:23] Comments on perception that SH’s group at DAMTP were assuming correctness of QM in researches on ‘supergravity’.

  • Description

    Interview with climate physicist, Tim Palmer

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