Thursday, February 26, 2015

Radioactive University

I was lucky enough to go to the University of Manchester between the autumn of 1983 and the summer of 1986.

The course was an honours degree in psychology, and because of the slightly ambiguous nature of psychology, you could graduate as a BA or BSc. The psychology department was the largest in the country at that time. It's probably laughably small today, there were about 70 people in my year and together with the phd students and researchers, the department was about 250 strong.

We were housed in the Rutherford Building, one of the older parts of the university around the back of the splendid Victorian Gothic administration building and the Manchester Museum. It was a very important building in the history of science, as in the early years of the 20th century Sir Ernest Rutherford, Hans Geiger, and various other luminaries did amazing pioneering work on nuclear physics. All over the building, here and there were brass plaques, blue plaques and various other kinds of memorials to their breakthroughs.

Unfortunately, messing about with radioactive compounds is very dangerous, but of course the pioneers had no idea of the consequences of their work. When I was learning psychology in the Rutherford building, the main lecture theatre, a splendid rather huge room up in the loft was dark dusty and semi-derelict. We were n't allowed to use it as the area at the front where the lecturers stood was radioactive. Likewise the actual bench where Rutherford set up the apparatus to split the atom was down in the cellar. There were stories that for many years it had glowed in the dark. I seem to remember one other place where Rutherford or one of his assistants had slopped radioactive liquid or something and that was sort of fenced off or something. The details are slightly vague now - it was nearly 30 years ago. 

So I was very sad to read this article from the Guardian in 2009 (how did I miss it?!?) that discusses the early deaths of three of my lecturers. Dr Hugh Wagner was my tutor in the first or second year (I can't remember now!) and is someone I always thought of as a friend. Dr John Clark was one of those splendid English eccentrics, who taught us fascinating thing about clinical psychology. Arthur Reader was another eccentric, one that introduced me to computers and computing.

An enquiry has found that the cancer death cluster is likely to be coincidence, but still recommends that use in some of the rooms occupied by these men should be minimised. If you're doing psychology at Manchester, don't worry - the department has moved now and is in a completely separate building.