Comment: Why science?

Professor Sir Keith Burnett, President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sheffield, delivers a speech at the 10th anniversary of the Joint Quantum Institute at the University of Maryland, USA.

Why science?

I was honoured when my dear American colleague Dr Charles Clark asked me to give an after dinner speech at the tenth anniversary of the Joint Quantum Institute at College Park, the Institute founded jointly by the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the University of Maryland. I am a true devotee of their work, by colleagues, some who I have known for all of my scientific career. It made me reflect on what my scientific life had been and how the world I worked in was changing.

I thought about what I could say to such a distinguished and wonderful audience at such a great celebration, and also at an extraordinary time for our countries.

I decided I wanted to tell them how much the people in the room meant to me, and how important our fellowship and mutual understanding truly was. I hoped they would be willing to indulge an old University President being their preacher for that night.

They could see from my rabbi's beard that I was getting on, and I told them there were two ideas "bookmarking" my life.

The first reminds me of the beauty of the world around us and the shortness of the time we have to look at it.

The second fills that world with people and reminds me of the colleagues and friends who have made that life in science the extraordinary act of fellowship and outright love that it has been. And some of the most important colleagues were there to hear me speak.

So first, the beauty of world. The Oxford poet and classical scholar A E Housman saw his surroundings with a lyrical beauty which was later to contrast with the horrors of the First World War. It starts:

"Loveliest of trees the Cherry now is hung with bloom about the bough".

The poem which has always meant a lot to me describes the fragile blossoms of the Spring and the poet's promise to himself that he will savour the brief chance his life offers him to absorb its beauty.

I have even used this poem as a text to explain to my students at St John's College what I thought the meaning of life might be.

The beauty of nature and the world around me have always inspired me. And I'm sure that our instinct to wonder and understand is the basis for so much of the work that is done at their institute, and by many others. It inspires all scholars who delight in this world's beauty and intricacies. It inspires poets as much as Quantum Physicists.

They know what wonders there are in our quantum world and how hard it is to learn and then to teach others about them. And the JQI has been at the true frontier of this crucial work for our world. The work they have done to date has more than justified the hopes and support of those helped found it. They deserved admiration as well as congratulations for what they have achieved.

They have indeed seen the beauty of the world first hand. And in my work I feel I have seen it to. I have been given the chance, and taken the time, to walk around the orchard of science: what a blessing that is.

My second idea and quote came from Norman Maclean and his final words in his great American memoir A River Runs Through It. This book was published by the University of Chicago Press when Deborah Jabon-Clark, Chuck's wife, was working there - she is a linguist with Russian a speciality.

In it, the ageing Norman recalls the lives of his family, now gone, and how they have shaped his life. Standing in the great canyon in Montana on the banks of the Big Blackfoot River, he reflects on the passage of time and the meaning of those he has loved.

"Eventually all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are words, and some of those words are theirs. I am haunted by waters."

When I hear those words spoken by Robert Redford, as the credits are about to roll in the film, I think back. I am in my '67 VW Beetle humming through a canyon in Colorado. John Denver is singing on the tape deck. It is 1981 and I'm an Assistant Professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder. We have bought a condominium on the Hill in Boulder and I have joined the scientific haven of JILA. I have become a resident alien, and I think I have given up my homeland.

I have been chosen by my new colleagues in my new country to join their scientific endeavour. My love of Science has overcome my love of nation. There are people in America who have listened to me and heard my music. This is the scientific life. The life worth living.

My father was a poet, and in the frontis piece of his only slim book of poetry there is a dedication to his friend Edmond for being the first person to "hear the music" of his verse. In Colorado I am learning just how remarkable an experience it is to not only have someone hear my music but to join in an ensemble of ideas in which I will riff and play with some of the most remarkable minds of my age.

For me the person who first heard my music in the UK was Peter - now Sir Peter Knight - closely followed by a US resident alien, Jinx Cooper at JILA. Now a proud citizen, Jinx came to America as part of the space race.

When I came to NIST Gaithersburg I found a wonderful group of colleagues. Bill, Paul, Chuck. Matt, Eite, Fred, Kris, Eric, Carl, Ana Maria and Katherine. Who heard each other's music.

And then I saw them, with colleagues at the University of Maryland to found this great institute. An Institute where the power of two great choirs would sing together and the strain would be heard across the world. What a wonderful venture.

Many of us have had the extraordinary privilege of knowing people from other races and lands who have shared our songs. I could look around the room. Misha, Svetlana, Eite, Wolfgang, Peter, Victor.

In that room we had people drawn from around our planet who understand the importance of the challenge, the beauty of the world, the excitement of discovery, the fellowship of the search for truth and beauty. Most people will never have that extraordinary privilege. The excitement and the fear. The boredom of data collection in the lab, the fear of failure and then the thrill of the discovery. But those who work at the JQI really do. I like to recall these words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, when talking of the experience of war, the greatest of Civil Wars.

"We have shared the incommunicable experience of war, in our youth our hearts were touched by fire".

And I feel my heart was touched with fire and I am utterly grateful to have been a scientist and shared the experience of research.

So we were there to celebrate but we also had our eyes open about some of our fears.

Perhaps we thought it was obvious that this band of brothers and sisters, this Camelot of Science, had to be people from around the world chosen for their commitment and capability.

America itself had become synonymous with discovery in which one small step by an American was a giant leap for mankind. We looked back at our blue planet and saw a world without borders. We breathed the free air of our national parks and shared the voyage of NASA. And we thought we were safe.

But in both our countries we are seeing that some people do not share our hope and faith in an open world. I recall the words.

"And then came a Pharaoh that knew not Joseph".

How devastatingly powerful those words are. How our times and assumptions can change. And how many now are bereft at the thought that the land they came to love would not understand them. That some scientists even would feel their expertise called into doubt.

And this is an even bigger problem for my dear Brexit Britain. I have many staff from outside the UK fearful for their future.

But we must hold fast to the knowledge that many can still hear the songs of discovery. And perhaps we are having to learn what it means to sing the Lord's song in a strange land, and by so doing to make it truly ours.

Of course, we might have learned lessons of some of those who had travelled from the old country that it was always a mistake to take the nature of a nation for granted. Men like Sir Rudolf Peierls, a Jewish refugee, who had taught me as an undergraduate in Oxford and who had brought physics from Germany with him like a portable ark of the covenant.

Scientists like those who travelled to the UK and the US under the protection of the Royal Society and of Universities in the US which offered them sanctuary and created a place of extraordinary scholarship in the process.

But what I saw in the room was more than simply a gathering of Science. I saw a people defined not by a flag but by a shared anthem which goes beyond nationality which reaches for the very stars and seeks to understand them. As we do that we honour the scholars who have crossed borders to serve these greater goals.

And we must keep doing it.

Our shared endeavour creates bonds far greater than any nationality. That's because there is only one national anthem really worth singing and it ends with the chorus: "My Land's only Borders lie around my heart."

I then returned to A River Runs Through It. A great writer stands alone and seeks to make sense of his life, recalling the words of his father who believed that:

"All good things come by grace, and grace comes by art, and art does not come easy."

Nobody promised us that our work would be easy either. Indeed, our deep respect and affection for one another in part comes from the fact that we know it is not. We recognise the effort to learn the language of our subject, the struggle and frustration, the isolation and disappointment as well as the moments of discovery and understanding.

And we are deeply privileged to work alongside one another - as much a family and a nation as any ever were - with our own stories and heroes, our teachers and memories.

And the JQI stands in a great tradition.

A tradition of people bound together by dedication to a great scientific and technological pursuit.

An Institute that draws the brightest and best from around the world.

And let's not forget that it is also an Institute that is making a safer and more prosperous world for the citizens whose taxes support it.

I was honoured to speak to the JQI, that evening but there are many other places around the world who share in this venture.

And we are all brothers and sisters in this great adventure.

We stand as it were on the banks of a River of Science in the great canyon of our still mysterious universe, fishing for knowledge and aware of the art it takes to do so. We are a people and we share what is precious.

"The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are words, and some of those words are ours."