In the spirit of science

11th June 2010 at 01:00

I had a terrible dream the other night. I was in my car and had managed to get my left leg trapped in the spokes of the steering wheel. A junction approached and, no matter what I did, I couldn't extract myself. You might interpret this as indicative of a loss of control of my life, but I reckon it was because my leg was actually trapped under my wife's right foot as we slept.

This time last year I wrote of the death of my father. A few months after that, I had a dream about him. He was standing with his customary military bearing in his back garden. In the dream, it was clear that it wasn't that he hadn't died, more that he'd managed to get over it. Indeed, the lung condition that had cramped his style in his last couple of years seemed to have improved.

"Aye, faither," I said, looking up from the patch of garden I was weeding, "bein' deid's done you the world o' guid." It was exactly what one of us would have said to the other in those circumstances. We were close but not demonstrative. I woke up laughing.

I had the dream shortly after my mother, my siblings and I had scattered my dad's ashes in Glen Nevis. In a sign of the maturing of our relationship, my brother and I did not compete to see who could throw him the furthest. Indeed - and I risk being thrown out the physicists' lodge for saying something so irrational - my father seemed to take off down the glen faster than could be accounted for by the breeze. Free again in a place he loved.

My father died at the beginning of the week that last year's physics teachers' summer school was held. This event was organised by the Institute of Physics, the Scottish Schools Equipment Research Centre (SSERC) and Bob (everyone in Scottish physics education knows Bob). There were days when I felt I couldn't not go to work, and there were days when I knew I had to be with my family.

In the end, the Institute of Physics, SSERC, Bob and many others worked together to make things as easy as possible for me. I was never prouder to count myself a member of the Scottish science education community.

Had I still been a teacher, there would have been no difference, I am sure, in the level of support I was offered. I still doubt that I could have gone to work as often as I did.

Teaching is not really a job where you can disengage with the young people you work with when you need to. At one level, it's practicalities - being able to nip out to make a phone call, a call that may leave you feeling at best a bit fragile or, at worst, overwhelmed with the need to beetle off to support someone. This is probably insignificant compared with the need to be in the right emotional frame of mind to teach.

I'm sure there are other jobs where you can't take your hands off the wheel but, as you approach one of life's junctions, it's probably best not to risk getting your leg stuck between the spokes.

Gregor Steele managed to get through the 2010 summer school without losing any relatives.

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