What years were you at the Blue Coat School?
I was there from 1973 – 1980. I remember the first time I was in the Boardroom was my admission interview, with headmaster Peter Arnold-Craft and deputy head John Holt. I can’t possibly attempt to sum up what it was like just there just then to be at an all-boys school in a large city, but Jonathan Coe’s novel The Rotters’ Club brought me more than a few smiles of recognition.
How would you describe your time at the Blue Coat?
I remember Blue Coat as a friendly place, and enjoyed my time there immensely – of course, your impression alters as you develop and progress through the different year groups! I was a bright student who did well in exams, but the atmosphere and ethos there made that a smart, and comfortable thing to be. I think it’s customary when reminiscing to single out one or two teachers who had an inspirational influence, but in reality I had support and help from so many really good, dedicated teachers, too many to list here. Visiting the School recently was very exciting and brought back many many memories; I was delighted to see how much the school with all the new buildings and facilities had progressed while I’d been away, but in many important ways it felt like just the same place.
How did your experience at the Blue Coat prepare you for your career?
Clearly the high academic standards and values helped me secure a good university place, but more importantly probably directed me towards an academic career, even if I wasn’t conscious of that at the time – in many respects I’ve followed a pretty linear path ever since.
What has been your path since leaving The Blue Coat?
I studied physics, specialising in theoretical physics, at first Cambridge then Edinburgh Universities. At Edinburgh I was supervised by Peter Higgs, who was awarded the Physics Nobel Prize in 2013. After achieving a doctorate I exploited the opportunity to travel, holding research posts at the universities of Oxford, Illinois and Glasgow, then the Theory Division at CERN (the particle physics laboratory near Geneva), before taking a lecturing position at Swansea University in 1993. I’ve been there ever since, becoming Professor in 2003, and was elected a Fellow of the Learned Society of Wales in 2013. I’m currently Director of Research for the College of Science.
What do you do now?
An academic’s job description is simple: teaching, research and administration. Most of us enter because we’re motivated by the opportunity to research; my speciality is the study of tiny fundamental particles called quarks and gluons, and I use a technique called “lattice QCD” which employs the most powerful computers available – even working at 1013 operations per second a typical calculation takes months to complete! My introduction to programming was with the school’s first ever computer – the machine’s memory was so small we had to store our data on cassette tapes and had to be warned not to use the cassette player attached to the computer to play music once we’d finished!
As I’ve got older two things have happened; I enjoy my teaching a lot more, and I find myself doing considerably more administration and management. I find you go from initially wanting to show the students how much you know, to focussing far more on what you can help them learn – I wouldn’t want to compare my job with that of teachers, however – I think teaching in a school is far more challenging.
What would be your advice to students at the School today?
No time or effort you spend studying something well is wasted, even if you’re lucky enough to have a clear idea of what you want to do in life. I’m a pretty hardcore scientist, so maths and physics were always going to be important for me, but it’s a very competitive business, and being able to present your ideas clearly and persuasively, both in writing and though oral presentations, is a crucial skill.
One of the things I’m most proud of on a visit to a university in France was being able to give a presentation about Swansea University at short notice – in French! So don’t ignore the other subjects, because at some stage you’re bound to need something they have to offer. Later in life I returned to choral singing, very popular in Wales, having last sung in the school choir at Blue Coat. I’m also learning piano as an adult – but was already able at least to read music as a result of the time spent sitting at the back of the music class.