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Searching for a star

By Matin Durrani


I learned earlier today that Lord Sainsbury – the former UK science minister – is launching a search for the UK’s “most inspirational technician”.

It seems a worthwhile initiative, given how important lab technicians are for the smooth running of science. (We can all probably speak from experience – I recall some fabulous technicians during my time at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, including Dick the glassblower, who once saved my bacon after I blew up a mercury thermometer that I’d left too long in a beaker on a hot plate. The beaker dried out and the thermometer exploded. Fortunately the embarrassing incident took place inside a fume cupboard and was not witnessed by anyone else.)

Supported by Sainsbury’s Gatsby Foundation and STEMNET – a charity that tries to get young people involved in science, technology, engineering and medicine (STEM) – the award seeks to recognize “the excellent work of technicians who inspire young people to follow technical careers” and to improve the image of a profession in “high demand by employers”. It is one of five categories in the National STEMNET Awards 2011, sponsored by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), the others being for best teacher, best employer, best STEM club and best STEM ambassador.

There is no limit to the number of categories you can nominate in and all finalists will be decided by an expert panel. The deadline for nominations is Monday 3 October – more information is available via this link

The top technician – and the other award winners – will win a day trip to the CERN particle-physics lab in Geneva, sponsored by the STFC. Winners will be announced at an awards ceremony at the House of Lords in December.

If he were alive today, I reckon in the running for an award would be veteran Cavendish lab technician Ebenezer Everett, who by all accounts did some fabulous work that played a key role in J J Thomson’s discovery of the electron in the late 1890s.

The reason I mention Everett is that I recently came across the following passage in Robin Strutt’s biography of Thomson, which appeared in the Cavendish magazine CavMag last year, concerning the switching on of a powerful electromagnet surrounding a discharge tube.

JJ: “Put the magnet on.”

There followed a click as Everett closed the large switch.

JJ: “Put the magnet on.”

Everett: “It is on.”

JJ: (eye still to the microscope) “No, it isn’t on. Put it on.”

Everett: “It is on.”

A moment later JJ called for a compass needle. Everett returned with a large needle 10 inches long. JJ took it, and approached the electromagnet. When about a foot away the needle was so strongly attracted to the electromagnet that it swung round and flew off its pivot, crashing into the bulb (which burst with a loud report) and coming to rest between
the poles of the magnet. Everett was glowing with triumph, and JJ looking at the wreck with an air of dejection.

“Hmm,” he said. “It was on.”

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