Physics dept UBham
Physics Department, University of Birmingham. Mom is second row, first lady on the right. 1950s

My mom worked in the 1950s at the University of Birmingham, where she was first a laboratory technician then a secretary.  She worked as secretary to Prof Rudolf Peierls, who was the Mathematical Physics Department Head, from 1956 to 1959, before she made the decision to leave, ultimately immigrating to Canada.

She would tell me and my brother wonderful stories of her time at the University, and of her colleagues there, and of her boss, Prof. Peierls, whom she greatly admired. Mom was young, single and Britain was just emerging from the hardships brought on by the Second World War.  When Peierls wrote a memoir in 1985, Mom went and ordered a copy because she was interested in reading his life story.  When she had done reading it, she was pleased with the result.  I asked if she was mentioned in the book, and she said no.  That was just not important to her.  The book gave her a chance to reminisce.  When she died, I kept the book.

Fast forward to 2018, and I decided to read the book.  I really enjoyed reading the book, and was fascinated by his life’s path.  He lived in interesting times, and worked with amazingly brilliant people.  Birmingham was a part of a larger and important period of scientific discovery.  Prof. Peierls  played a key role in the development of the A-Bomb during the Second World War, continued to play an important role in the development of physics both as a researcher and as a teacher.  The department of Mathematical Physics was a bustling hive of innovation and discovery.  I was given a glimpse of how things were in the department when Mom was working there, the excitement of discovery, the comradery, and the fun.  He too had wonderful memories of that interesting time.  And what a wonderful way to slip into Mom’s early working life.

Of course I wish he would have mentioned Mom, just so I could have some vision of her at that time, but such is life.  Even without Mom’s name, and I would even say without Mom’s connection to the author, the book is a great read.  He was a humble man, observant, and seems to have been very kind. And what an interesting life.

I think the passage I like the most is this:

“A good research training in any live field provides a good start for research of any kind (and even for many other kinds of work).  The experience of finding out what a problem is about, reducing it to basic questions that can be tackled, collecting the available information, and trying to formulate clearly what is that one has not understood are activities common to all forms of research.”

Bird of Passage: Recollections of a Physicist, Rudolf Peierls, Princeton University Press, 1985, page 250.

physics bham 1951
Physics Department 1951, University of Birmingham – Mom is the front row, far left