“Beware the attraction of the pure sciences. They are only pure in the way an ancient nun is – bloodless, without passion. No, no. Stick to the humanistic studies where, though the truth is more difficult to establish and the proofs are more fragile, yet there is breath of living man in them.”

That Monsieur Treville’s instruction to Jean-Marc in Trevanian’s The Summer of Katya made me smile when I read it this week is unsurprising. As an academic in the social sciences it’s nice to see a defence of my field. It is a sometimes frustrating truism that the reason we know the social scientists are not true scientists is because they seek to defend that claim in a way a physicist or mathematician will never do.

In addition to reading (and loving) The Summer of Katya, this week I attended and presented a paper at a conference hosted by the Exeter Centre for Ethno-Political Studies. The conference, Ethno-Politics and Intervention in a Globalised World, was my first in about twelve months and I felt pretty out of practise as I approached the beard* of terribly intelligent people gathered at what is one of the most attractive university campuses I have ever visited.

I did an ok job and got some great feedback so my attendance was worth the conference fee, accommodation and petrol bill plus unmissable gala dinner that represented a quarter of my monthly take home as an intern but more than that it refreshed me. (For the record, tomorrow is my last day as an intern. I’m then taking a short break before beginning a new role as the Marketing Manager of the Dean Heritage Centre so everything is truly gravy dear readers). Anyway, refreshment...

The gala dinner was hosted at Bovey Castle which was simply incredible but it wasn’t the chilled Tattinger (ok it was a bit) that perked me up. Rather it was the change of scene that gave me a fresh perspective. I had rather hoped for this when I wrote the column on Focus four weeks ago. Frustratingly for me knowing oneself does not equate to being able to manipulate oneself into action. I needed challenging conversation, a charming castle and yes, chilled champagne to really get me going. As I gazed across the garden, flute in hand I felt more myself than I had been for a while.

I came across an article on Marie Curie today that I liked. So often the story we hear is one dimensional when reality is always textured and multi-faceted; passion and drama underpinning science as much as art is obvious and yet somehow surprising. What then for the middle ground of social sciences? Well there’s plenty of sex there. My paper was entitled Islam Hadhari: A policy for domestic terrorism and a cornerstone example was the recent death of a 33 police officer caught with a woman to whom he was not married. When you study society, you inevitably study sex.

But this is not the kind of physical I alluded to in the title. Instead, it’s physics (sorry if I led you on there). Ok not really but that was the term that Ambassador Lawrence Butler used on Monday night. Ambassador Lawrence used the term Europhysics and it was not the only time during the conference I heard the term. I am familiar with Geography essentially meaning a spatial dimension in addition to a subject which essentially means nothing -  and if I was a student at NUS (National University of Singapore) I’d be a student of political geography within the sciences rather than a student of politics within the social sciences as I am at Durham (really it’s just semantics!) - and I rather liked the term Europhysics for despite thinking the application of physics to human interaction is excessively grandiose, the notion has its appeal. Good lord but that was a long sentence. I do apologise.

My point is playfulness.** There’s a tendency both in academia and industry to take things a little too seriously. When we insist on pinning the proverbial moth to the card in order to better examine it (and hurt it I hope, as I hate the freaky creatures) we then only see it within the context we have placed it in. Objectivity is important in the sciences and reducing external factors is considered an essential pathway to finding truth. The challenge of the social sciences is that we cannot place people in isolation and every interaction with the subject takes the relationship further from objectivity.

Well I like to get down and dirty with my science. My paper was massively compromised by how personal it was (I took the opportunity to report on Malaysia as I saw it, not as my thesis presents it) and I actually think it was all the better for that. My findings did not call on the interviews I conducted but rather on tipsy conversations as I perched on a friends’ knee sharing his beer bottle. By being a friend, I heard the real story. I discussed religious education over Roti Canai, moral philosophy over Biryani and “game” over bubble tea. Physics isn’t the right word but it was physical; it was living in the moment.

I don’t actually think the pure sciences are as without passion as an ancient nun (Marie Curie destroys that illusion) but I think there is risk in purity and in flexibility, dirty unstructured flexibility, there is greater truth. This applies to everything from my industry of choice (the fascinating world so subject to Boxes) to how we choose to live our everyday lives. So get physical, give things a go but please hold on the jargon. Europhysics? Really?

* I have long believed that the appropriate collective noun for academics is a beard.


** Virtual fiver to the evoister to can name the poster whose grandmother-in-law was saddened by the change in definition of the word gay.



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