Monday, 21 December 2009

Apollo 8 - the mission that really captured the world's attention

1968 was a horrible year for the US - riots, assassinations and a sense of almost total despair over Vietnam. But one decision 'saved' the year: the decision by NASA's George Low to make Apollo 8 a moon mission. It was a high risk strategy - man hadn't yet left earth's orbit, and the crew of Borman, Lovell and Anders would be heading for lunar orbit without any kind of lifeboat in space since the lunar module was not yet ready for space.

Apollo 8 took off 41 years ago today. The world really woke up to the final stages of the US race for the moon when the crew sent back their first pictures of the earth - a small shining bauble hanging in the vast blackness of space.

And in a way that simply wouldn't be countenanced in today's PC world, the three crew members struck exactly the right note of awe and wonder as they read the opening verses of the Bible's Book of Genesis in a Christmas Eve Broadcast as they orbited the moon.

The television broadcast gained, at the time, the highest global viewing figure in TV history. The space race was finally a global event: a world united in wonder.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Posting on poster posting

So yesterday was our first internal poster conference: a chance to present our research - or plan for research - to our peers and some of the academics in Brunel's school of social science. My supervisor dropped by and laughed: he then came back with my second supervisor and they had a giggle together...about my poster, about my colleague who's researching American dynastic politics' poster and about the whole session in general. Their general view was that this was a most odd way of presenting a political/historical topic. Oh well.

Meanwhile a psychologist and an 'unknown' academic assessed my poster (one section of it is up above) and the feedback was reasonable. The one thing missing was some academic references grounding my work - I'll know for next time.
The other students were interested - even if what I'm doing is seen as a bit niche and geeky - and I was interested to check out both how other people presented their work and the subjects they are researching. We're an eclectic bunch with everything from post-civil-war Sierra Leone through the economics of the Gulf to the politics of the Native American nation.
On the downside, the room was too small, too hot and too crowded - PhD stuff was all mixed up with MRes posters and for a while, confusion reigned. Still, it was quite fun to do.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Do we become PhDs in spite of the system or because of it?

I'm two months into my PhD, and now beginning to get some focus in what I'm doing. My research questions are beginning to solidify; I'm beginning to get around some of the best secondary sources, and have a better handle on the primary source people and material I'd like to explore.

I'm writing this from my shared research office at Brunel - where I'm sat on my own having popped in between work engagements this Friday lunchtime. The office is in portakabin building. it has four desks, four PCs, one phone, some lockers and a bookcase. It's basic, even spartan, but actually does the job. Six of us are assigned to this four-person space, but only three of us seem to use it with any regularity. So far, so good.

But, coming into this new venture with 20 years + work experience behind me, I'm finding there are a number of frustrations in the way that the School of Social Science is set up to 'welcome' and support PhD students.

For one thing, had I not asked about this office, I wouldn't have known of its existence. I've also had to ask about printing, about security and getting the room's access code changed (after some source material went missing from my desk) about access hours, pigeon holes and a plethora of other little details that I would have missed had i not been a bit nosy, a bit bolshie and perhaps more aware of what we should be getting than my younger or international colleagues.

What's apparent is that the School runs to the tune of the technicians - the academics are scared of them and the service ethic to students and staff alike is virtually non-existent. We have a byzantine printing process that means it costs far too much to print anything here - and the turnaround service is three days! They're also the masters of 'elf and safety' and managed to turn my missing personal papers into a fire risk issue - madness.

The other unexpected issue this term has been a Research Skills module that has taken up one evening each week so far. In theory it is a really good idea, and in practice has brought together an esoteric blend of researchers who have probably gained most from the informal networking that goes on outside the class. We range from Economics & Finance through Anthropology, Social communications and Psychology to Politics and History. As a historian, I feel like an outrider, cut away from the school's mainstream. however, I've really felt for the course leader, a really nice guy who has struggled to meet out wide-ranging and very varied needs. Frankly, the module has failed to satisfy anyone.

Inside, we've had a few half-hearted lectures on time management, poster conferences, critical analysis and quantitative techniques, but each MRes and PhD class member has also had to present their own research - or planned research in most cases. A few have been great - interesting topics well presented. But the majority have been droning voices, reading slides crammed with far too much information. The quality of presentation has been poor, and the tutor has done little to stop speakers droning on and on to the point of half the class walking out.

Anyway, next week sees the final class - an internal Poster Conference. I'm quite looking forward to it - but am also looking forward to parking the taught element and getting on with my research proper.
The best thing to come out of the last eight weeks? Meeting and making friends with some of my fellow PhD researchers - they're a really nice and scarily bright bunch. There'll be no slacking here if i even hope to keep up.

I'm still swallowing books whole by the way - the latest being Michael Allen's 'Live From the Moon' - not the best academic history book I've read, but an accessible narrative of the Cold War Sputnik-Apollo space programmes. I was worried at first that it would fill the space where my research sits. But it's complementary, and I'll certainly use elements of it.