A Make-Believe Museum: Creating an Online Exhibition

As you may have seen in my previous post on the Laidlaw Scholars Network (or linked in, and twitter if you happen to follow me there), I have recently launched an online exhibition using the social media image sharing platform Instagram. Although the subject of this exhibition—Sickness & Saints: An Exploration of HIV/AIDS and Christian Iconography—is not directly related to the Laidlaw research I am currently undertaking, an Instagram exhibition is a new and exciting way for myself and others to disseminate our research, both Laidlaw projects and otherwise, to a very large audience. So, in this blog post I’m going to talk a little bit about coming up with the idea of an Instagram exhibition, the process of creating/curating the exhibition, and why I think this is an exciting and worthwhile pursuit.

First, I’ll give you a bit of background. I’m going into my final year of studying a joint honours degree in Art History and Philosophy, and after I graduate, I’m hoping to do a postgraduate degree in Museum and Curatorial Studies. I love art from all historical periods, and other archaeological finds; museums and galleries are my happy place, and if I could, I would spend all my time in them. For obvious reasons, that’s impossible at the moment. I had hoped to spend some of my summer working as an intern in an art gallery, but a global pandemic made that (and many other, much more important things) impossible.

 

Screenshot of my Sickness & Saints Instagram art exhibition, June 19, 2020. All images used in the exhibition are credited in their individual post. 

My best friend is a Fine Art student at a university in Sussex. Because of our shared interest in all things arty, we often send each other articles, documentaries, or book recommendations, and occasionally essays or other university coursework. Last semester I took a module on the Art and Visual Culture of the HIV/AIDS Epidemic, for which one of the coursework assignments was an exhibition proposal. This involved coming up with an exhibition theme, choosing five artworks which exemplified the theme and issues surrounding the theme, and then explaining why this exhibition would be interesting, and what it would offer to the current discourse. After handing in the assignment, I sent my friend a copy. She thought the proposed exhibition was really exciting, and after I expressed a desire to actually curate the exhibition in a real-life gallery space, she suggested I do so online.

 

The idea of an online exhibition is not a new one; museums and galleries have been posting video tours of their exhibitions online since technology allowed them to do so, and recent advancements in virtual reality have seen museums all over the world create realistic replicas of their gallery spaces online. These online tours allow people who are unable to travel, due to access requirements, the cost of flights, or the current global situation, the opportunity to see thousands of incredible artworks from the comfort of their own home. Now I’m not a technophobe, but I definitely lack the skills required to create a 360 degrees interactive virtual gallery space, and it would likely be very time consuming for me to do so. So, I found a way to share images of artworks, with captions containing all of the details you would see on a gallery wall, that I was familiar with: Instagram. I’ve been active on the platform for several years now, and often spend hours at a time scrolling through my feed, looking at images of art, cats, food, and selfies. I follow several art related accounts, and have heard of Instagram exhibitions before, but had never actually seen or been able to find one myself.

 

Once I had the idea to use Instagram as a platform for the exhibition, the rest of the process was fairly simple. I had already done most of the research for the coursework assignment, so just had to create an Instagram account, choose a few more artworks to include, get all of the posts drafted, and then post them all at once and in the right order so that the page looked aesthetically pleasing. Although a fairly simple task, it was actually pretty time consuming, and ended up demonstrating some of those core Laidlaw values—ambitious, brave, curious and determined—and developing other related qualities, such as self-confidence and time management.

 

While Instagram exhibitions might not be an ideal way of presenting everyone’s research, I would recommend trying it out if your research is based upon art, historical objects, archaeological finds, or any other visual material. Not only does finding a new use for social media and a new way to disseminate research help to develop skills and values essential for both research and leadership, but it has the potential to be beneficial to the wider community. Instagram is easily accessible, requiring internet access and a device on which to access the app, and currently has over 1 billion monthly users. That’s a really large audience who may not have access to academic journals or be aware of blogs like this. While it’s unlikely any online exhibition I post will reach that many people, there’s the potential for a lot of people to see my research and my ideas.

Drawing of the Kuntillet Ajrud inscription. Image taken from: Olyan, Saul M. Asherah and the Cult of Yahweh in Israel. Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1988

In the coming weeks, I plan on my Instagram account to showcase an online exhibition based upon my Laidlaw research, which is focused on goddess worship in the Ancient Near East. This research is not focused on art, but I can use images of the archaeological findings—such as Pithos A, c.800 BCE, from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, which I discussed in my blog post last year—and use the captions to explain the significance of the objects and inscriptions, in order to present my argument.

 

My account (@makebelievemuseum) currently only has around 50 followers, and only one small exhibition has been posted, but I will continue to use this platform to display my findings, and hopefully eventually reach a larger audience. I hope that this has provoked some thoughts about new ways of presenting research, particularly in relation to social media, and that any researchers will continue to find new ways to make their research more accessible to large audiences of the general public.

 

I would like to take this opportunity to thank Lord Laidlaw and all of the Laidlaw team for giving me the opportunity to undertake my research into ancient goddess worship, and for providing me with the opportunity to develop the skills and qualities which I have applied to other areas of my academic study and research.

‘The Curse of Living in Interesting Times’, Historical Materialism, and the Synod of Brefi

The story goes that there is a Chinese curse, wishing the recipient to live through interesting, or exciting, times. Like many oft-quoted nuggets of ‘wisdom’, the attribution has proved impossible to confirm, and likely false.[1] Whilst this pseudo-authority is probably largely based on early-twentieth century ideas about ‘the Orient’ (a backward belief in curses, and purls of ancient wisdom), that its use emerged in the years leading up to the Second World War,[2] and seems particularly pertinent to describe the first half of 2020, demonstrates something about how we perceive crises. That interesting times place extraordinary pressure on leaders seems so obvious it hardly needs repeating: normal ways of doing things are no longer possible or satisfactory, and decisions are required swiftly and with rapid execution. This stress, of constantly needing to adapt and find new ways of doing things, is something I have definitely felt taking on the position of School of History president.

‘Interesting times’ certainly have also affected us all as researchers. Superficially we have faced challenges, some certainly more than others. We have had to go without libraries, with their books, and labs, with their equipment. We all miss the comradery that both contain. We have learnt to go without the usual rhythm of university life, the ability to knock on a friend or supervisor’s door and have a quick chat. Social gatherings for ‘Friday Cake’ which once happened in the library collaborative space are now reduced to zoom calls. This is all on top of the personal burdens, of (mental and physical) health and family, that we have all struggled to carry over the last few months. A challenge is never a one-way street. These struggles, even if as as insignificant as being unable to get hold of journal article or bag of flour have shaped our perspective to different extents.

For the historian, who makes it their business to try to understand how people in the past acted in their own ‘interesting times’, a moment such as this for methodological reflection shouldn’t be overlooked. Historical materialism,  which at least indirectly informs a good deal of social history, is based in the idea that ‘it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness’.[3] Often this principal is applied to justify the study of economic conditions, and linking them causally to social structures and ideology. However, we must also be mindful of what implications it has for us as scholars. Our social existence has certainly been shifted. Our movements, locally and further afield, have been restricted. Many of us have lost family members without being able to say fare-well. Some of us face financial uncertainty. These shifts in consciousness have indeed been mapped onto pre-existing differences in social existence. Restrictions on movement are more tolerable when pleasant surroundings are close on hand, working from home is more feasible in ‘professional’ roles, and the morbidities of Coronavirus map onto pre-existing health inequalities of class and race. Our consciousness has been shifted, and therefore so has our perspective.

View down a colonnade of arches. It is only from one particular viewpoint that this view is seen

Shifting our perspective shifts our viewpoint, and what we see.

This must serve as a reminder to the historian, that just as the past was material, so is scholarship. Whilst we might sometimes act like it, entering an institution of higher education does not grant us occupancy of an ivory tower on which to gaze upon our subject. Rather we are like the bishops at the Synod of Llanddewi-Brefi (itself called in response to the ‘interesting times’ of the Pelagian Heresy), pilling our garments together to form a mound, desperately trying to make ourselves heard. A few are like Saint David, who was able to miraculously act unaided by his material context: ‘the ground beneath him grew higher, rising to a hill’.[4] But most of us are not saints. Our viewpoints are shaped by the garments, our privileges and biases, which we carry with us and mound up. This cognitive baggage naturally weighs us down, and makes the desire of the good historian, to be able to look upon the face of the past upon its own terms, a lot easier to say than to do. However, having experienced probably the largest material crisis in the West in a generation (if not, since 1945), we must take stock of how the ‘interesting times’ through which we live influence our view of the ‘interesting times’ of the past.

~~~

I would like to thank Lord Laidlaw, and all those involved in the running of the program at St Andrews, for making this opportunity available. A particular ‘diolch yn fawr iawn’ goes to Dr Alex Woolf, my supervisor, whose advice and assistance has been invaluable in my Laidlaw work, and the preparation of an article I am preparing for submission to a journal. I also would like to thank the rest of the Laidlaw scholars, who have provided a stimulating and cogent network of discussion.

[1] Fred R. Shapiro (ed.), Yale Book of Quotations, (Newhaven, 2006), p. 669.

[2] Garson O’Toole, ‘May You Live In Interesting Times’, The Quote Investigatory, Blog, 18th of December 2015, accessed online https://quoteinvestigator.com/2015/12/18/live/ (accessed 3/07/2020)

[3] Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, (Moscow, 1977), accessed online https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1859/critique-pol-economy/preface.htm (accessed 3/07/2020)

[4] Rhigyfarch, Rhigyfarch’s Life of St David, J.W. James (ed. & trans.), §49, §52, pp. 44-5.

The photograph is my own work.

Undergraduate Research Amid COVID-19

Many people told me to ‘expect the unexpected’ when it comes to research, but I certainly was not expecting anything as extreme as a global pandemic!

I was very fortunate that my project did not have to change too much content-wise compared to those of my peers, since technically all I required was a pen, some paper, and a laptop to do the mathematical-related bits of my research project. However, I did encounter a few challenges which I thought I would share, since I think it is enlightening to see how other projects have been affected and the new challenges people have had to face as a result of COVID-19.

My project looks at twelve tone music from an abstract algebra perspective, so the main restriction I’ve had is the limited access to sheet music of the works I want to analyse and collect data from. With many of the composers relevant to my project being quite modern, their music is still copyrighted and therefore not in the public domain, so the only access I would have to it would be through the library, archives, or purchasing it online for a hefty price. Since I wanted to conduct data analysis, the more music I looked at, the more data I would have and the better picture I would build. However, with no access to the library or archives, and with purchasing sheet music to the many works I wanted to look at not being very economical at all, I have had to shift my focus solely to the earlier composers rather than a mix of the earlier and later composers, and I have not been able to look at as many works as I had hoped, which has probably affected the accuracy of my results to quite a large extent. Coming to terms with this mentally has definitely been a challenge, but I’ve been constantly reminding myself that research does not always go to plan, so it’s not always possible to get the results you want.

The joys of research involve having sheets of paper covering the whole of your desk

In addition to this, COVID-19 seemed to exacerbate all the problems I faced last summer, which made the majority of the solutions I had found to those issues largely ineffective this time round. For example, last summer I found research pretty lonely at times, but the way I dealt with this was by maximising time spent with other people, including other fellow Laidlaw scholars who understood the way I was feeling and with whom I could discuss my thoughts and worries. With restrictions to social interaction such as lockdown, and the other Laidlaw scholars being spread all over the world, it was even easier to get lonely, so it was even more vital that I kept in contact with other people over the phone or via social media.

North Street, St Andrews during lockdown

Last summer, I also felt the ‘Bubble’ nature of St Andrews affecting my ability to work for long periods of time, so instead of forcing myself to work constantly 9-5, I made sure I took short breaks and that I switched up study spots once in a while to keep myself mentally refreshed. However, not only was I stuck in St Andrews this summer, but I was also confined to a single room for the entirety of the research period. Additionally, a few of my neighbours seemed to be quite the avid gamer, so hearing a lot of excited and intense shouting through the walls during the day and night, and not being able to relocate to a new study space, really highlighted the fact that I was trapped in this not-so-ideal-for-working environment. It was a struggle to say the least, but I’m sure that going outside to get some fresh air each day certainly had a part to play in helping me get through it all!

I could go on and on, but in retrospect, I appreciate that others have had it a lot worse than me. I’ve come out of the research period with one of the most enriching experiences ever, so I’m extremely grateful. More importantly, my heart goes out to everyone who has been severely affected by COVID-19.

I would like to express my gratitude to my supervisor, Professor Peter Cameron, for his help during these busy and chaotic times, the Laidlaw team for organising a valuable summer programme accessible from all over the world, and Lord Laidlaw for his generosity.

I wish I was Rocking All Over the World – Lockdown Research on Ancient Life in South Africa

In my blog post last summer, I recounted a series of adventures that my Laidlaw colleague, Lot Koopmans and I had in the game reserves and government facilities of South Africa. I talk about how I encountered challenges ranging from undertaking fieldwork in a different cultural setting, to gaining access to South Africa’s Council for Geoscience rock core shed. The latter proved particularly challenging as, even though I booked weeks in advance, I turned up to discover that nobody knew who I was or, rather surprisingly, why I was there. If you want exciting Indiana Jones-style tales of men with guns in government warehouses, wild animals around every corner, and hiking through the nearly-impenetrable forest to find signs of ancient life, then this is not the post for you. To avoid bitter disappointment, I direct you to my previous writings entitled “Rocking All Over the World – Ancient Life in South Africa” on the 23rd August 2019, which is a far more enjoyable read.

Sadly, this summer I am not writing my blog post from O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg after a two-week adventure across the Kaapvall, but instead from my conservatory on a rather dreich day in the Scottish Borders at the half-way point of my summer-at-home research project. Nevertheless, I am not going to be writing extensively today about how much coronavirus has impacted my life and how I had to change so many of my plans because you are probably quite tired of reading that sort of thing after 98 days of a global pandemic. What I will say is that my experiences in South Africa actually prepared me surprisingly well for dealing with the lack of certainty that the global health crisis has brought. As a self-confessed forward planner, lack of certainty can be very stressful for me. In South Africa, I experienced constant uncertainty, ranging from car hire, to access to the core shed and sampling, to finding and accessing field sites. To overcome this, I channelled some of my over-planning into preparing a series of contingency options, just to have some ideas in reserve. However, I also became a lot more chilled, accepting that actually by pushing myself far out of my comfort zone, I no longer had the luxury of certainty. Instead, by being open to opportunities and being proactive in both seeking them out and pouncing on them when they presented themselves, I achieved so much more than I would have if I had been restricted by a rigid plan in a very fluid environment. This is something that I think we have all experienced in the time of Covid-19, which has pushed us all out of our comfort zones. All certainty has vanished. This gives a change in the ways which we forward plan and personally has reminded me about some of the feelings I experienced in South Africa. I have found myself going back to my priorities and grounding myself in my values whilst keeping an open mind. This enables me to be flexible when opportunities do present themselves and enables me to achieve a different set of goals to the ones I originally envisioned for my second summer of Laidlaw Research. These have involved learning French, undertaking a fitness regime, and giving myself more time to relax and enjoy life, instead of working so hard at my research that I eventually just burn out. This has enabled me to gain a lot more life skills and experience out of my second summer of research, instead of the more academic-centric still set I originally envisioned.

My project has changed its scope too. I am still looking at early life and how it interacted with its environment, but instead at looking at the interactions with ocean chemistry 2.5 billion-year-ago, I am instead looking at life in rocks quite a bit older. This all came about because of the struggles in the core shed in South Africa. Ultimately, I really didn’t think that my project would work, and so I came up with a back-up plan, to collect samples in the field from a geological unit called the “Middle Marker”. At 3.47 billion-year-old, this unit has the second oldest generally accepted evidence of life on Earth, and so I was very very excited when I got the opportunity to collect some samples from it on the one day in the field that Lot and I allocated to my project. These samples were brought to Caltech in December 2019 by my advisor, Tim Raub, to have their magnetic properties investigated. What he found was really quite special. These rocks represent perhaps the earliest best-preserved record of rock magnetisation discovered on Earth. Furthermore, the data collected shows a strong potential for having evidence for the magnetotactic bacteria. These are single-celled organisms that biologically produce magnetic minerals like magnetite within their cells to navigate using Earth’s magnetic field. Finding evidence for these bacteria supports that argument that the last universal common ancestor was a magnetotactic organism, which has resounding implications for our understanding of the base of the tree of life and how early life evolved on Earth. Therefore, this summer I am reading extensively around the Middle Marker, performing a literature review upon this unit in the hopes of writing up a paper with my advisor in the coming months on our findings.

Sampling the Middle Marker Unit, South Africa. Credit: Lot Koopmans

A surprising feature of this summer of research that I have observed when comparing to last summer is that now I feel as if I am being treated interacted with by my advisor and other academics as an academic equal, instead of an undergraduate student. Whereas previously I would have been the one always asking advice and questions, now the conversation flows both ways. This is not to say that I have not felt respected by researches before, I have certainly always felt respected within my Laidlaw experience. However now it feels different. Now I feel as I am being treated as an academic equal, who can confidently lead aspects of the project, and propose and drive my own visions and ideas. This is a refreshing realisation, as I feel as if my academic journey involving leadership within the Laidlaw program has had a tangible impact on my academic experience.

Furthermore, I have discovered how much I enjoy sharing my research with others from a variety of backgrounds, even if they don’t ask in detail about it, a surprisingly common occurrence when talking about rocks. I was recently asked to give a brief presentation on my Laidlaw leadership journey so far at the Laidlaw Global Online Induction. After getting over the initial novelty of talking to over 200 people on Zoom, a very weird experience when you feel like you are just talking to a computer screen in your living room, I found that I really enjoyed sharing my experiences, stories, and advice. This is something that I will actively seek out in the future, an opportunity facilitated by the confidence in public speaking and presentation that the Laidlaw Scholarship has helped to develop in me.

Me with the Laidlaw team and the big man himself talking at the Laidlaw Global Induction via Zoom.


As a final point, I would like to take my final Laidlaw blog post as an opportunity to thank everyone in the Laidlaw team along with Lord Laidlaw himself for investing so much time and money in the future of every scholar. As you may have realised through reading this post, I got so much out of my experiences in South Africa and continue to talk about my adventure there and time with Laidlaw at every opportunity. I’m looking forward to continuing this summer of research, even if it was not quite as I had originally planned, and continuing my journey to become a more resilient, authentic, and active leader that the Laidlaw Scholarship has initiated.

I will leave you with one thank you for making it to the end of this blog post, and a final plea to read my one from last year if you want to be actually entertained.

The curious case of curves

In my blog a year ago I talked about my experience getting to grips with research and I related some of the discoveries I had made about the ideas behind curve plotting from James D. Forbes’ (professor of Natural Philosophy in Edinburgh 1833 – 1860) manuscripts. Picking up my work this year has amused me no end. I can look back and gawk at my naivete. To stride feels better than shuffling.

In my research this year I’m attempting to expand upon my previous work. While previously I honed in on a particular person’s work to see when and how their view of curves changed, this year I’m trying to understand how views changed across the Scientific community in Scotland and the UK more generally. I’m looking for networks of people who used curves and whether they were influenced by other important changes going on around them – such as the practices of engineers and whether the invention of certain recording instruments or squared paper impacted their views of experimental curves. Inspired by a note in Forbes’ papers I also want to find out more about who was teaching curves, to whom and how much those students then went on to avail themselves of the skill. A further question I’m interested in is whether people were cognisant of a difference between heuristic and experimental curves, if so why that might be and (as some of my findings have hinted at) whether views of heuristic versus experimental graphs differed between countries.

The note in Forbes’ manuscript regarding teaching curves was stark. He didn’t write any major textbooks and I didn’t find any such mention of the technique in his lecture notes

J. D. Forbes’ note. From St. Andrews archive special collections Ms Q113.F89.

to which the note was attached. I have to give a big thanks to my supervisor Isobel who transcribed it for me. It appears to be a list of suggestions as to how to start examining your observations once you’ve recorded them. If you have one quantity as a function of another you should try “projection by squared paper” which is a way of saying that you should plot a curve. Next written is “method of least squares” and “Graphical interpolation” (Forbes’ preferred name for drawing an experimental curve). So if Forbes was teaching his pupils the technique then the obvious question is: how much attention were they paying? Worth checking out. 

The cultural difference surrounding experimental curves and theoretical curves is well exemplified by Jean-Baptisite Biot. While he is not very relevant to my research I came across his work and got excited. Biot was a Mathematician and Physicist who had contributed to results in geometry amongst other topics. His papers are full of mathematical curves, so he most certainly had the technical knowledge to use experimental ones. I only have limited access to his manuscripts since I can only see what’s online so this is not a rigorous claim – however as far as I could find he never used or mentioned experimental curves nor have I seen his name mentioned in any secondary literature on the subject. Today this may seem strange since it’s easy to think that the step from theory to practice of curves would be simple. It’s a good example of how limited our ability to embrace original ways of thinking really is. Something that makes this project disconcerting and salient today.

To find out more about the networks of people and regional differences in developing ideas behind experimental curve plotting I have been conducting a comparison between papers from the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Societies of London and Edinburgh from 1831 to 1840.

Example of a curve on the topic of tides. From the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/pdf/10.1098/rstl.1836.0019

This time period has been identified as an important era for this culture change and has already thrown up some interesting findings. The investigations scientists were conducting happened to particularly favour the use of graphs (research on the tides or on daily pressure variations) and they often needed engineers or other non-scientists to collect the data for them and it appears that they favoured presenting their findings using curves. It looks like the convention rubbed off on them. A machine invented by an engineer would automatically record the tide’s effect on the Thames by drawing a curve onto a roll of paper and this could also have influenced the opinions of the scientists doing this sort of research.

Exciting progress. I hope to write an article about all that I have discovered over this summer. This project is full of character and depth – I want to give a huge thanks again to my supervisor Isobel Falconer for the suggestion of the topic and her lucid, incisive guidance throughout.

Researching Remotely

Well, when I wrote my blog last summer, this was not where I thought I’d end up – back in my bedroom.

In fact, I was supposed to be in Australia right now. My original plan was to spend the first summer of my research in St Andrews and Edinburgh, beginning my research on the female computers at the Royal Observatory. That worked out pretty perfectly. Then this summer, the plan was to spend two weeks or so in Perth and possibly Melbourne or Sydney, Australia, to continue the work and expand into the Australian observatories. Life, it seems, had other ideas.

Although coronavirus has put paid to my travel plans, I am still managing to research the Australian observatories from the comfort of my bedroom here in St Andrews. This is due in no small part to the help I have been afforded by researchers in Australia. Kerryn Davis, a volunteer at the Perth Observatory in Western Australia, was kind enough to send me a summary of her research in the archives there – with her permission, I will hopefully make good use of this when I begin writing up my research into an article next week. Toner Stevenson, who I have not been in direct contact with, has also been extremely useful – her PhD thesis has provided invaluable insight into the work of the women in the other Australian observatories, and will doubtless prove to be a main reference point for my work. Without the work of these two modern women, I would be entirely unable to research the women of the early 20th century who form the focus of my project.

I have spent the past two weeks largely reading and collecting my information together, and trying to familiarise myself with the work which I undertook last summer. The research itself has been incredibly rewarding, and although I am largely unable to do any new original research this summer, I am still able to continue my overall project remotely. I just started to write my article, and that will probably take up my next two weeks. After that, I have a poster to make and a video to film, and then my Laidlaw experience is over!

Despite the difficulties caused by the ongoing pandemic, I am extremely grateful to have been able to engage with the Laidlaw Programme and research such a rich topic. It is a credit to the programme that research continues in the face of everything that is happening in the world today, and I am glad to be a part of it. Above all, I have enjoyed uncovering the work of the truly incredible women, who, in my view, deserve a time in the spotlight of the history of astronomy.

I look forward to sharing the results of my research – from my bedroom to the other side of the world – soon.

Image is my own.
Source: R Sampson, Correspondence, Printing. Royal Observatory Edinburgh: A50.433

Re-thinking plans in the times of COVID-19

My project is on quantum mechanics and it involves coding with python, a programming langage, to investigate the dynamics of a particular class of phase transitions happening in the quantum realm. Specifically, I am looking at quantum systems that are open (i.e. interacting with another external quantum system, usually called environment or bath) characterised by quantum phase transitions that are dissipative (i.e. energy and/or information flows from the system to the environment irreversibly) and that have memory (i.e. there can be non immediate feedback effects from the environment to the system). The algorithm I have been working on during my research time last year, which should have been the focus of my project this year as well, computes the dynamics of the aforementioned quantum systems and explores their behaviour under different parameters.

One of the graphs that I produced last year

I am not going to delve further into the details of how this is done, however the code requires a good amount of computational power to be run, which unfortunately my personal laptop lacks. This was not an issue last year as I could make use of the university resources: the department of physics provided me with a laptop meeting the criteria necessary for my coding work. Because of the closing of university departments caused by the coronavirus pandemic, this year the above was obviously not possible. Hence, I had to re-consider my aims and re-think the organisation of my plans in order to make the most out of the second part of my research project. After some careful consideration of the different possibilities and having discussed with my supervisor, we reached the conclusion that it would be best to split the five weeks of the project in two: two weeks at the beginning of summer done remotely and the remaining three weeks when the university resources become again available, either (hopefully) at the end of summer or during christmas break. I have right now almost finished the first research block: since I am unable to code, I have spent this time focusing on relevant papers. I deepened my understanding of the underlying theoretical framework of dissipative quantum phase transitions and I am in the process of writing a short review of what is the current state of research on the topic (specifically, the localisation transition in the sub-ohmic spin-boson model). The second block will (finally!) involve getting my hands back on coding and improving on my work of last year.

I would like to thank my supervisor, Dr Brendon Lovett, for the opportunity of researching this incredibly interesting phenomena of physics, and the Capod team and Lord Laidlaw who made the Laidlaw Scholarship program possible.

Goals, aspirations and the future

Becoming a Laidlaw Scholar has prompted me to give greater consideration to my post- university career. Whilst the programme has provided tangible benefits- the bespoke leadership training and practice of doing real research- it has also had an immense psychological effect, encouraging me to consider the full range of options available after university.

Prior to the programme, I had given limited thought to the idea of pursuing postgraduate study and I was largely under the impression that I would enter the world of work after graduation. However, my experience has made me consider the prospect of pursuing a career in academia and has led to me being more proactive in assessing the various options available to me. I feel this is one of the reasons the programme is truly great, it doesn’t merely increase academic development but also forces participants to consider their personal development and begin to address the difficult questions surrounding the F word- future. My blog post will link the Laidlaw Scholarship to this daunting word and discuss what I want to gain from the scholarship programme over the next 18 months and where I hope it will take me further down the line.

The autonomy to pursue a research topic of interest was what was initially enamouring about the Laidlaw Scholarship. My research into democratic backsliding in Hungary has been incredibly fulfilling and I am grateful for the opportunity to be able to devote time to such an important topic. As I dug deeper into my chosen field, I began to consider the possibility of publishing an academic paper- a mammoth task no doubt but one that has been heartily encouraged by my supervisor, Dr Mateja Peter. However, to do so, we are in agreement that my research cannot be restricted to the summer but must be given attention throughout the academic year also. Here, the autonomy and freedom associated with the scholarship programme is key- my initial plan to examine the EU’s responses to democratic backsliding in Hungary over two summers has evolved into a year-round examination of the demonization of Hungarian businessman George Soros with the potential for producing published academic research at the end. My research will undoubtedly change as I go through the gears which the freedom of the programme allows for and even encourages. The future looks bright with regards to my time as a Laidlaw Scholar- I may end up producing an academic paper (something that would have seemed ridiculous for me a few months ago) but even if I don’t achieve this the leadership skills and research experience provided by the programme are an end in themselves.

In the long-term, the Laidlaw Scholarship has led to me to genuinely consider the prospect of dedicated postgraduate study. I have developed a love for the process of research- the feeling of enlightenment when solving the miniature puzzles each and every researcher poses to themselves everyday is comparable to no other. I have also developed a greater understanding of the vocational aspect to research and how it shapes public policy and also changes lives. A massive part of the Laidlaw Programme is self-reflection and I feel it is the duty of each scholar to take time to reflect on their experience so far and consider how it may shape their future (the blog aspect provides a perfect opportunity to do this). Since finishing- up my research, I have begun the process of planning for my future, meeting with a career advisor to investigate the possibility of postgraduate study in the US. I have also reached out to friends who currently study in the US for advice and have earmarked certain programmes and schools that I feel are compatible with me. One of the big lessons I have taken from my time as a scholar thus far is that the future is right now and I have subsequently been more proactive with planning ahead for my desired path post-university. This directly links in with the leadership aspect of the programme- great leaders must know who they are and where they are going. Whilst I am not fully there yet, the Laidlaw Scholarship has helped me gain a better idea of both these things.

I would like to thank the team at CAPOD for their help and support thus far. I would also like to thank Dr Mateja Peter for her patience and guidance.

Natural & artificial depth perception

I have decided to use this opportunity (my second blog post) to talk about an instrument without which my experiment would have been impossible – a stereoscope. To be honest, until 2 weeks ago its mechanism was a bit of a mystery for me but that quickly changed when I had to disassemble and assemble it again. Luckily, Abi Lee, the PhD student, who made it was around and was able to give me a hand.

Before we talk about a stereoscope, we need to understand the term ‘stereoscopic vision’. Taken literally, it means ‘solid sight’ and refers to the visual perception of the 3D structure of the world. This type of vision is possible due to monocular and binocular mechanisms, that require the use of one and two eyes, respectively. Some of the monocular cues are perspective, image overlap and shading. There are two binocular cues:

  1. Binocular disparity – the brain uses the difference in image location of an object seen by the left and right eyes to extract depth information.
  2. Convergence – the effort by the eye’s muscles to focus on a close-up object gives a clue to the brain about an object’s depth.

So far we have discussed our natural ability to see the world in 3D but it isn’t the only way we can perceive depth. Most of us will be familiar with a stereoscopic instrument that allows to us to recreate this perception. 3D glasses are, in fact, a stereoscopic instrument in which each lens has a filter of an opposite colour (usually red and cyan). These filters match the filters of two superimposed on each other images, resulting in each eye receiving a stereoscopic image. This image is then fused by the visual cortex of the brain into the perception of a 3D scene. 

First stereoscope made by Charles Wheatstone in 1838. Image source: Smithsonian Magazine.

A stereoscope also allows our brain to fuse two 2D images into one 3D image but with one important difference in comparison to 3D glasses. Instead of two superimposed on each other images, we are shown a pair of separate images, depicting left-eye and right-eye views of the same scene. In other words, a stereoscope artificially stimulates binocular disparities that are naturally present when viewing a real 3D scene with two eyes. Our natural ability to perceive depth through binocular disparity works well if the combination of eye convergence and focus required is natural. On the contrary, the images shown through a stereoscope often involve an unnatural combination. In fact, you might be able to see depth without a stereoscope with practice but this process can take a long time and cause some eye strain.

I would like to thank Lord Laidlaw for providing these exciting research and leadership opportunities for two summers (and time in between as I had to think about my second summer’s project). Also a big thank you to the Laidlaw team and my amazing supervisor Prof. Harris!

References:

Howard, I. P., & Rogers, B. J. (1995). Binocular vision and stereopsis. New York: Oxford University Press.

Papathomas, T.V., Morikawa, K., Wade, N. Bela Julesz in Depth. Vision 2019, 3, 18.

Rosas H., Vargas W., Cerón A., Domínguez D., Cárdenas A. (2007) Psychophysical Approach to the Measurement of Depth Perception in Stereo Vision. Shumaker R. (eds) Virtual Reality. ICVR 2007. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, 4563.

The Art of Reflection

The world has become such a fast-paced environment that it feels like we can’t succeed if we’re not constantly moving in some sort of direction. In the craze of trying to keep up, we often lose sight of the big picture and instead of reaching our desired destination, we end up lost. What we often forget is that stopping every once in a while, is just as important. Giving ourselves a moment to pause and reflect is paramount to success in every meaning of the word. The same thinking applies when undertaking a research project. I was so excited about my Laidlaw project and had such big aspirations for what I wanted to do and it was very difficult to stay focused on the end goal because I kept getting so many ideas and went on so many tangents about my research that it got overwhelming. In fact, I’ve had to redefine my research project on a couple of occasions because it just got too much for me to take on for the purposes of the scholarship. What has allowed me to stay relatively on task, however, is the simple task of reflection.

 

Image Source: http://tozalionline.com/self-reflection/

 

As a student studying medicine, we are expected to write a reflection after almost every major activity that we do and, although it does become tedious at times, it has really helped me to track my progress. I decided to do something similar with my research. I am not a big fan of writing and so I try and find other ways of reflecting on my work, namely by talking. My supervisor, Dr. Frank Sullivan, has done a brilliant job of guiding me on my very first project and he has made the process so much easier for me. The chats I have with him on a weekly basis force me to consolidate all my work and see my progress from the last meeting. In our chats, we are obviously discussing the finer details of my project, but we also talk about my overall project goal. We often come back to talking about why I am doing my project. I truly feel that reflecting on your reasoning behind a major project is vital for the proper development of it. It’s crucial that you remember what your end goal is, what the big picture is, because if you don’t know why you are doing something, then you may as well not do it at all. Dr. Sullivan keeps my passion for the research alive and in check so as to make sure I don’t bite off more than I can chew. Apart from him, I also discuss with my family and close friends about my project and they offer a different perspective onto it all that really affects me and allows me to keep that passion going. There are days where I am frustrated with everything and just want to stop it all, and that’s where these close friends and family come in to help me relax and rejuvenate my fervour for my work. Talking to them reminds me of my excitement for the research and sparks my curiosity once again, allowing me to dive right back in with the same energy. By forcing myself to stop every once in a while, I allow myself the opportunity to go further than I normally would have.

 

I would like to thank my supervisors Dr. Frank Sullivan and Dr. Ross Upshur for their guidance on my project, as well as Dr. Derek Sloan for his ever so helpful insights. I would also like to thank my family and friends for their support along the way. Last but not least, I would like to thank Lord Laidlaw for giving the opportunity to students like me to follow their passions.