Summer time, and the living is easy?

August 9, 1996

The long vacation seems to get shorter by the year for the five academics John Davies asked for their summer plans, what with the RAE, medieval farming and swimming with young Bengali men. Do you recognise your summer?

Paul Preston. Professor of international history at the LSE.

"Basically, I'm looking forward to some 70 hours a week on the research assessment panel this summer. That should keep me off the streets for a while.

"But my long-term project is a big biography of Mussolini. The idea is to match it in size to my Franco book. But I am still doing research on Spain. I'm just about to go off on a lecture tour of the country and I would have liked to have had the time to complete my other project: a book on the politics of the Spanish monarchy. I've done most of the research, it's just a matter of finding a run to write it.

"But my summer is shattered by the Research Assessment Exercise. It only takes three letters to write down, but it's a lifetime's work squeezed into five months. " Michael Aris. Research fellow in Tibetan studies at St Antony's College, Oxford, and husband of Aung San Suu Kyi, Burmese politician.

"I am deliberately not making plans for the summer. Since Easter, I have been denied a visa to enter Burma and join Suu. But who knows? Wherever I am I shall take may work with me. I am researching the life of Vanarathna, the last Indian Buddhist pundit to visit Tibet in the early 15th century, about whom I have discovered new sources in Tibetan. He's a very important figure who deserves to be known better. So whether I am in Rangoon or in Oxford or indeed anywhere, I shall have these sources with me and shall be working on them. But I hope to be with Suu, however turbulent it may be out there in Burma.

"I shall see the proofs and index of the big book on Peter Abelard that I recently completed, so that's the first big thing I'll have to do this summer. Second, I am the editor of the medieval volume in the Routledge History of Philosophy, and like many of these group things it is terribly late, almost everything is behind schedule. So I shall be putting the volume together and standardising things this summer, and perhaps writing a bit at the last minute myself where there are gaps.

"The third thing is that I shall be writing some entries for the new Dictionary of National Biography. The main one will be on John Scotus of Erigena, the ninth-century philosopher."

Valerie Noyes. Post-doctoral research fellow, Oxford University.

"This summer I will be travelling regularly to Hamburg where I work on a particle accelerator in a tunnel six kilometres in circumference under the streets of the city. In the accelerator, electrons and protons are made to collide head-on at the speed of light in designated experimental areas occupied by huge detectors, some three storeys high. These take an electronic "snapshot" of the particle debris produced in these violent collisions, and from this, we can piece together what happened in the original collision. Our experiment is akin to the largest electron microscope in the world, probing distances smaller than 1/1,000,000,000th the size of an atom.

"Particle physics experiments like this are big in every sense. Each experiment contains over 400 international scientists, and a huge amount of electricity is needed to operate the accelerator. For this reason, experiments like this can only run in the summer months when the power demands of the city are at a minimum. At any one time, small teams - I am leading one - are needed to operate the multi-physics analysis later in the year.

"Particle physicists are always looking ahead to the next project. A future upgrade of our accelerator is planned so that we will be able to take even more data. This will allow us not only to look for some of the rarer reactions that are known to occur but will increase our potential for discovering something completely new. I have been involved in a feasibility study to determine how well we will be able to make future measurements that are fundamental to our current best theory as to how subatomic particles behave. The early indication is that, in this particular field, our accelerator will be competitive with the accelerators in Geneva and Chicago. This summer will be an opportunity for me to complete the study and hopefully get a couple more publications under my belt.

"Being involved in a study which could shape the future physics programme at an accelerator is something which really excites me. Particle physics is about discovering the nature of nature: what is the universe (including ourselves) made from, and how do the physical forces which act on our world actually work."

Peter Fowler. Emeritus professor of archaeology, Newcastle University.

"I've just put back my departure to southwest France to get on with a fieldwork project. Before I start on that, I will be writing - or rather cutting down a quarter of a million words to 150,000 - an English Heritage publication, a long-term project on the Marlborough Downs that I've been involved with right through my life. It's the southwest corner of the Downs, immediately east of Avebury, but it does include part of the World Heritage Site. Later I'm hoping to do a popular version.

"I will also continue my work as chairman of the Bede's World project, which is recreating an early medieval farming landscape in Jarrow. It's reached a very interesting stage. There's so much to see on the ground now, and it's working much better as a farm. The Anglo-Saxon building is nearly finished. It's taken a longer time than we expected, using the methods of the time. The number of visitors has rocketed too. We had over 5,000 in May, the best yet. People seem to like it.

"I will be spending August on a fieldwork survey of Les Causses, the great limestone plateau dissected by gorges in the southwest corner of the Massif Central.

"The idea that academics have finished their year by early June no longer applies. Graduation day for our department was on July 12. In fact, the actual research time available in the summer is significantly truncated at both ends. There are all sorts of things to be done in September now.

"I gave up the chair in the archaeology department to get on with my research. I realised that life was slipping away in meetings and memo writing."

Claire Alexander. Sociologist at the Open University.

"I'm doing a post-doctoral research project, supported by the British Academy, on young Bengali men in south London. I've been doing the fieldwork for the past 18 months and will be completing it this summer. I go to a youth group and basically I'll be hanging around with them while they play Quasar, go ice-skating, swimming and so on. I will be doing interviews now that I've got their confidence - it's taken me a year but now they'll do anything for me.

"I'm looking at questions of identity and at the boys' friendship groups, and also I'm interested in the relationships between them and their older siblings. They don't really mix with girls at all at their age - they are all around 14 - and they don't have much to do with other groups, although the summer projects they are in tend to be quite mixed.

"Then I'll be writing up my findings, and I guess I'll be applying for more grants."

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