Sunday 24 February 2013

“What Happened to the Corbetts” by Neville Shute

Far too often I finish a novel with a sigh of relief that an overlong plot-line has finally ground to a conclusion. Somewhat rarer is the novel where all the loose ends are tied up and where I can read the final page with a sense of satisfaction but also with a definite sense of closure. “What Happened to the Corbetts” by Neville Shute is one of those very rare novels that left me wanting to read more.

There are some marked similarities between this story and “On the Beach” by the same author - most noticeably in that it is a young married couple bearing the heavy responsibility for looking after their young children in the aftermath of a disaster who are the central characters.

Written in 1938, Shute accurately predicts the effects of air-raids on the civilian population. The speed with which normal living breaks down when water and electricity supplies are disrupted is frightening. Peter and Joan Corbett have to make the difficult decision to move away from Southampton after a series of air raids and the second half of the book is primarily concerned with how the family end up sailing to the French port of Brest.

The book ends with Peter Corbett volunteering for war service and the rest of his family having set sail on a Canada-bound liner. The reader never gets to know if Peter survives the war or what happens to Joan and the children. Lesser authors would probably have written at agonising length about their separate lives but Shute, wisely in my opinion, ends his story with these questions unanswered. 
Certainly worth 9/10. 

Wednesday 20 February 2013

The miracle of prediction

My last blog entry has generated more replies than anything else I have written in the last twelve months. Frankly I would never have predicted this because the theme – professional scientists exploiting the energy and enthusiasm of amateurs – is a topic I have raised many times over the years without generating too much interest.

Perhaps now we have finally reached the tipping point. The point at which so many amateur astronomers have been left feeling cheated by the ruthless antics of professional colleagues that they feel comfortable speaking out.  I certainly hope so.
“Never again” just about sums up the most widely held view. “They want us to do the boring and time-consuming grunt work but the instant some significant discovery is made the professionals elbow us aside and grab every scrap of recognition going.”

Of course, mug that I am, have been down this path more than once myself. My prediction regarding the response from the person who “stole” my results was almost paranormal in its accuracy. I received the briefest of brief replies from the culprit - followed by a sullen silence from their side of the Atlantic. Not the slightest indication of apology or regret. No offer to put things right. Just ill-concealed anger that they had been caught.
It will be interesting to see what tactics the professionals adopt the next time they have large quantities of data needing to be processed. My gut feeling is that pool of volunteers has just about dried up. Truly the professionals have killed the goose that laid the golden egg.

Thursday 14 February 2013

Is this plagiarism?

A few years ago I, mistakenly as it turned out, shared some astronomical discoveries with a professional colleague based in the USA.  At almost the same time I also emailed a copy of the article in which my discoveries were formally announced to a magazine co-edited by a different astronomer who just happened to work at the same observatory as the recipient of my, misplaced, generosity. The full significance of this geographical co-incidence was only to become clear some time later.

The months went by and I heard nothing from the magazine and, eventually, it dawned on me that the editor had not the slightest intention of publishing material that might, even slightly, be in conflict with the career interests of his pal.  They don’t call it “publish or perish” for nothing you know! I was pleased that I had put my results, but not the methodology underpinning them, into the public domain believing that not even the most ambitious or unprincipled professional astronomer would claim credit for another person’s work.
Fast forward to 2013. I have just discovered that most of my discoveries have now been published – which is the good news – but that they have been published under the name of the professional astronomer I shared them with 3+ years earlier without a single mention of me appearing anywhere in either the article or the standard catalogue in which discoveries of this type are recorded.

This isn’t the first time this has happened. Curiously, or perhaps not curiously, if you are a cynic, a very similar situation occurred a few years ago. A professional astronomer based in the USA was given credit for amateur discoveries that had already appeared in a peer reviewed journal a year before the professional astronomer’s claims were published. Even more curiously, or not, both problems had at least one paid employee in common!

Thursday 7 February 2013

Passing the Baton

Two things happened this week that made me realise that I’m getting older and perhaps moving towards the end of my time as a fully productive member of the community. 

I’ve been mentoring young adult care leavers for a few years now.  But this week two of my mentees were approached by Social Services to act as mentors themselves to an 18 year old who has just timed out of foster care. It is right and proper that E+E should be given this opportunity and I’m sure they will do the job with youthful energy and with the compassion born of their own experiences. Nevertheless it brought home to me that people I have supported – and even trained to a certain extent – are now in a position to take on posts of significant responsibility without any further help from me.
E+E have changed enormously during the time I have known them and I feel quite proud that I played some small part in this. But I would be lying if I denied that it has come a rather a shock to realise that perhaps I haven’t got much more to teach them.

It was much the same at a local school. One of the younger governors has done a superb job on a wide-ranging project of real importance. I realised that although at one time I could have done an equally good job that time has now passed. I’m not convinced that I still have the dynamism required to do jobs that I would have done without a second thought only a few years ago.

Friday 1 February 2013

Harpenden neighbours

It is back to the Harpenden years for this week’s entry.

Most of the people at our end of Dalkeith Road very much kept themselves to themselves and neither Mum nor Dad would have regarded any of their near neighbours as friends. There was never any sense of community spirit but neither was there ever any hostility between the different families.
Looking back one or two events did strike me as rather strange.  The lady at number 66, so our immediate neighbour, saw burglars climbing into our house through a back window in the late evening while Mum and Dad were away overseas.  What did she do about it?  Nothing is the answer, because as she said later, “I didn’t want to get involved.”   What made her behaviour even stranger was that she subsequently went to quite a lot of trouble to make sure that the window was replaced and the house left secure once the police had finished their investigation.

For many years there was an understanding that “For Sale” boards were not to be used by Harpenden estate agents. So when our neighbours at number 62 put their house on the market there was nothing to make us look at the, usually ignored, property section of the Harpenden Free Press  to make us realise that they were moving.  That said it was a great surprise when a removal van arrived and burly men started emptying the house.  Unsurprisingly Mum went round to see what was going on – to be told by our neighbours of at least 10 years standing that they were moving to St Albans.  I think Mum and Dad were rather hurt by the way the neighbours had kept their departure such a secret.
Number 64 was sold in 2005 not long after Dad died and when Mum had moved into a residential home for the elderly near Rugby and I have only been back to Harpenden a handful of times since then.