My father turns sixty-five today. To celebrate this rather grand birthday I've decided to look back and reflect on some of those little achievements from his younger days. I thought I'd share them here because, well, I'm proud to have a father like mine.
Now I could talk about his humour, I should say that rather ridiculous sense of humour that he's passed on to both my brother and myself. As a quick aside, sometime in his late thirties he did believe for a while he could probably make a living out of writing ice-cream stick jokes. And I think he could have done it! But enough, because I want this post to be semi serious so I'm going to leave that side of his personality for the time being. I could also talk about his relationship with my mother, but I'm going to leave that too because I want to delve into a few of his early work related achievements. As time goes by we tend to forget about some of these things, but more often than not, it's those little things that turn out be the catalyst for how a whole life unfolds. So I'm going to start with a little bit of history.
From all accounts my grandparents became aware pretty early on that he wasn't an average child, and it soon became obvious he had some kind of talent. And who knows how or where it developed from, but it seems a thirst for scientific knowledge arose from somewhere deep inside. And as he grew up he began to ask many questions that his parents simply could not answer. I guess most teenagers don't ask their father things like "What can you say about the direction of the reflected and the transmitted rays if the material has a dielectric constant ε=-1 and magnetic permeability μ=-1".
Apparently my grandfather would often say, (cultivate a brummie accent) "Steve, I just don't know what your on about!" And although we joke about this, in many ways it's a little sad because what makes family relationships so special is finding the things we share, from interests and experiences to even having the same kind of sense of humour. Well that's what I think anyway. And so to be a little misunderstood by your parents must have been a very lonely feeling. But this seems to have had little effect on my father, for his talent and passion paved the way for him to break away from those native roots in Handsworth. In many ways his interest and engagement with' physics' was the catalyst that led him on a path that would pretty much shape his whole life, from his time in London and Oxford where he studied and met my mother, to their life in Cambridge where they have been ever since. And I really believe it was 'education' that allowed my father to reinvent and find himself, and in many ways it may be the reason he has dedicated most of his life to it.
One thing I really admire about my father is his passion and enthusiasm for knowledge. He's a scientist but he's also an engineer by nature. Give him any problem and he will try his damn best to solve it for you, how ever long it takes and even once you tell him you have found the solution yourself!
At the age of sixteen he designed and built his own kit to develop photos. (believe it or not, mostly from odds and sods he found lying about!) Why? Because he was fascinated by how they worked and with no access to a darkroom at school, he decided to make his own! How cool is that. Now do you remember the BCC computer. Perhaps like me you played games on it like Granny's Garden. Well, while some of us we were playing around with these early computers, he was much more interested in how they worked, which led him to him write his own set of programs in BASIC, which I also think is pretty cool.
However his biggest achievement are his books. While a teacher trainer at Homerton College, in his spare time (mostly at night) he wrote a number of published study guides for A-level physics students. These were big 400 page text books with examples, explanations and detailed diagrams, designed by my father and his colleague to help students to learn. And the time and effort he put into these was simply incredible. They really are brilliant even if I can't understand much past page three!
And what I find great about all these achievements is his passion and commitment to what he was doing. None of these activities were about the money, (dad, how much money have those books made you?) he simply got involved with these projects because he loved what he was doing and wanted to either work something out for himself or share his knowledge with others. And I can't tell you how much I respect that.
Now you may think a father like this would be domineering and controlling about his young sons education, but he was never like that. I think he was probably aware that I was never going to be a physicist! Im more of a left handed creative type, happiest dreaming up ways to communicate with pixels than writing complex equations. Thankfully my little sister has taken after him, but what's great is, I never felt a failure to him. He always encouraged me to follow my own talents and find what I loved doing. And that must have been hard, because when your such a great teacher and you have a real passion for your subject, surely you want to inspire your children with it. But no, he realised that it wasn't for me, and for this I have so much admiration and respect.
It's funny really. I've found as I got older I seemed to connect more and more with my father. As a teen I felt we were quite different characters, me playing Super Mario World 4 while he listened to Mozart's Piano Concerto No.2. However a number of years ago, I suddenly had this almost sudden and deep thirst to read every major philosopher from antiquity to now. I know what your thinking, what the hell possessed me to do that. Well, I really don't know but it was a adventure I thoroughly enjoyed. And I remember making a visit to my parents house one weekend and suddenly, for the first time, all those books on my father shelves lit up in front of me and started to make sense. And we shared our thoughts and opinions, our books and podcasts over an entire summer. I taught him things he didn't know and he taught me things I had no idea about. And it was great. And suddenly I realised how much we shared and how similar we really were.
I mentioned earlier that what makes family relationships so great is finding the things that make us feel similar and as an adult to be able to connect with our parents in a meaningful way. And that summer I totally connected with my father. And I hope even in a small way, thinking back to his own relationship with his father, that it means something to him too.
So Stephen, Happy 65th birthday.
Your eldest son
RSS coming soon :)