Physics veterans bring harmony to different universe

Reformed graduate rock band provokes reflections on how much has changed since the heyday of ‘Spontaneous Emissions’

May 10, 2013

Nigel Clarke has been making a lot of noise as the new head of Sheffield University’s physics department. Twenty years after he and three fellow physics PhD students last performed, the professor of condensed matter theory picked up his drumsticks again.

This year’s Sheffield annual physics ball witnessed the second coming of the band once embarrassingly called the Spontaneous Emissions. This was rock and roll history in the making - at least according to the lecturer who introduced the band and remembered us from his undergraduate years during our early 1990s heyday.

Two decades on, for me (rhythm guitar and harmonica) and Chris Hawkins (lead guitar and vocals) it was an unexpected return to the academic stage. For Nigel (drums) and John Cockburn, professor of physics at Sheffield (bass guitar and vocals), it was a chance to deliver sound waves of a different kind.

Our universal constant is not the speed of light but the love of music. Luckily for us our timeless set - Motown soul (think the Commitments without brass section) and early Rolling Stones and Beatles - still managed to get the undergraduates off their seats. But the experience also got me reflecting once again on two topics I have mulled over many times before.

The first is whether physics and music have a special link. Albert Einstein played the violin, Richard Feynman played the bongos and TV physicist Brian Cox plays the keyboards. Guitar god Brian May of Queen has a PhD in astronomy - and also bears an uncanny resemblance to Sir Isaac Newton. And it has frequently been observed that physics and music are both about creating order, seeing patterns and working with symbols, resonance, and strings. But, equally, it could be that these famous names are simply outliers, exceptions to the rule.

The other issue that I’ve been reflecting on is the momentous change that higher education has experienced since the Spontaneous Emissions last strutted their stuff. Current students inhabit a different universe to the one we rocked. We survived on a maintenance grant of around £2000 a year. Undergraduate fees still did not exist (and I do worry about the impact the recently raised fees will now have on future generations of PhD students) and the price of a pint in Sheffield was less than a pound.

The binary divide had just come down, as the former polytechnics joined the ranks of universities, and there was already talk of an academic transfer market emerging as star professors got snapped up in the race to maximise rankings in the Research Assessment Exercise. But “electronic mail” had only just been shortened to “email” and, like the internet, had yet to catch-on outside the university sector. And I am absolutely sure that the head of physics department would not have been seen dead playing in a band at the physics ball.

That this is now possible must be a good thing. We may be entering into the brave new world of the “student customer”, but the gaping social divide between academics and students no longer exists as it did in our day.

And, for the record, there is already talk of more band performances to come - and a possible university tour. As Brian May would say: “The show must go on!”

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