Something to put the wind back in your cerebral sails

July 28, 2000

Alain Gadian is spending a year researching wild winds on desolate islands. In the second of our series on sabbaticals, he explains why some academics switch jobs after taking a break from the routine.

Being on a year-long sabbatical feels like being a long-term prisoner set free. No more teaching and research quality assessment forms or endless soul-destroying meetings.

Eight years ago, I had a shorter, six-month sabbatical in the south of France. It was less successful than I had hoped. The research project did not gel and there were problems with sending my two young children to separate French schools, while also trying to live on a UK salary in affluent France.

This time, the location is less exotic; no heady red wines or sublime cassoulet on offer, but instead sustainable goals: the development of research investigating turbulent wind flow.

I am on the Isle of Arran, erecting and dismantling meteorological masts with a group from Leeds University, as well as another researcher from my own university. The weather is terrible, but progress is good. We have put up 50 meteorological masts, some 16 metres tall, on Tighvein, a mountain on the south of the island.

Staggering along, up to our knees in peat bog and heather, we carried the equipment up the mountain - masts, wind generators, solar panels and car batteries. Our lucky break was persuading a helicopter from air-sea rescue to help us. Despite the often gale-force winds, we have only had problems with one mast bending.

The days can be really long. Even once the masts are up, people have to go up the mountain every day to change the recording disks in the data loggers. With 50 sites, that is no easy task. I do perhaps four or five sites a day. They may be half a mile apart, but half a mile through heather and across peat bogs can take forever. I had ten miles to cover one day. At least the views are magnificent.

Now I am negotiating with the air-sea rescue service about getting the masts down. We need to arrange more help loading the dismantled equipment onto the helicopters. I may be roping my wife and daughter in.

But the real experiment will come in October in the Falklands. There, when the winds are too unsteady to land a plane, pilots have to set course for mainland South America - a two to six-hour flight - where landing depends on the state of Anglo-South American relations and General Pinochet.

We want to produce a model that will better predict turbulence at the airport, so if conditions are dubious, planes do not take off for a wasted trip. In the Falklands, there is snow, ice, hail, cold winds - the works. We are going to the Falklands in spring, but it will still be treacherous. We will again be erecting masts, but I hear the heather is not as thick.

In the second part of my sabbatical, I will be developing the "brand-new" forecasting model produced by the United Kingdom Meteorological Office. There are no UK atmospheric models that can be used to look at turbulent airflow over hills and include cloud microphysics - only American, French and German products.

As with any project there are problems, but working part time at the the Meteorological Office and at Reading University has revitalised me. Every fortnight, when not on Arran, I have been going from the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology to Reading to work there for a few days. What with the work on Arran and that in Reading, my weeks are full - mixing with senior scientists, software engineers, modelling experts and then jumping back in the car and heading up north. My wife complains that she never sees me anymore.

Why is a sabbatical year so productive? You choose to work alongside colleagues who understand your work and with whom you can push forward new science. The mutual support makes progress possible; there are no internal conflicts for the extra status or promotion. As a sabbatee and a visiting scientist, you value the research work of the host establishment and this respect is reciprocated.

However, the sabbatical should also come with a health warning. Why do so many staff leave after sabbaticals? Perhaps it is the chance to take an objective view of one's local position; the apparent contrast with other countries such as France and the US can be disturbing. Already my wife and family are pressuring me to move to a new job in a more positive environment.

They also complain that on sabbatical I am working even harder than normal. But at least I am enjoying myself.

Alan Gadian is a lecturer in atmospheric physics at Umist.

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