Dr Philip Charles Ball

Doctor of Letters

14 July 2009 - Orator: Professor Kathy Sykes

Mr Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Philip Ball

When Philip Ball, now one of our country’s most esteemed science writers, first arrived in Bristol to meet his potential PhD supervisor, Bob Evans, he hitch-hiked here, in a lorry. As a broke musician, needing a cheap place to stay, he found himself sleeping with a family of clowns in a circus tent on the Downs.  This slightly surreal introduction to this fabulous city, combined with Bob’s enthusiasm and humour, meant a PhD in Bristol ‘had to be’.

Philip had spent the two previous years touring with his rock band, the ‘Abandoned City’. They had had modest success, even playing on Radio 1, but made no money.

Before becoming a touring musician, Philip had done his degree in Chemistry at Oxford. Although he had done well academically, he describes just ‘surviving’ socially.

Bristol and its Physics department were different from Oxford in several ways. This thriving city is not dominated by the University.  Socially, the department was, and still is, vibrant, with a range of different kinds of people, and a powerhouse academically. Professor Bob Evans, (Philip’s supervisor and now the head of department), had a supportive teaching and guiding approach, exemplified in one undergraduate lecture by answering a question with the comment, ‘from now on, I’ll just take intelligent questions, please’.  Philip enjoyed Bob’s humour, intelligence and support.

But now, Philip was certain that he was not ‘the cleverest’. He describes this as a ‘great relief’: he had grappled with this at Oxford. A couple of other PhD students, including Jon Keating (who is now a Professor here) seemed so clearly brilliant beyond everyone else, that he felt he could relax, stop worrying, and get on with his studies in his own way.

Philip was not a typical PhD student. The more common approach is to work ludicrously long hours. You have to be a bit of a perfectionist to do a PhD, never being quite satisfied with what you have, and exploring all possibilities. It also usually requires many lunches and late nights in pubs and bars.

But Philip did a nine to five day. He was extremely focussed, and spent those hours at his desk, working hard and not messing about (his degree was in theoretical Physics, so no hours were needed in a lab). His fellow PhD students and Bob Evans describe him as ‘extremely efficient, talented and smart’.

Then, in the evenings, he enjoyed performing in Bristol’s lively music scene. He played the keyboard in a Blues Brothers Tribute band, all clad in black suits and dark shades. This was a contrast to playing in his band Abandoned City, where they created music, but couldn’t be guaranteed audiences and barely survived financially. Playing with The Blues Brothers was easy. It was completely derivative, but also incredibly popular (in fact, I saw them many times playing to packed student parties), and so made them some cash.

Philip’s school, Carisbrook High School, was a solid comprehensive on the Isle of Wight. A key formative experience there were the lunches spent in the Chemistry lab. The teacher trusted the students; allowing them to experiment and explore, trying to make their own compounds under the supervision of sixth-formers. Philip says this creative, open approach was crucial in helping him choose to study Chemistry further, giving him a flavour of what it is like to do science. Also, the teacher giving them some freedom meant that they took responsibility for themselves, conducting experiments under ‘safe’ conditions.  Inevitably, they all tried to make Tri-Nitro-Toluene, TNT, the explosive. Happily, they failed.

Philip’s family were not academic, his father a local government officer, and his mother an education welfare officer. But they were hugely supportive, whatever he chose to do, whether science, writing or music.

So, Philip had gained a PhD, working on how thermodynamics is altered by being in confined spaces, in pores or against walls. He had decided that he wasn’t ‘the cleverest’, and that a future in research for him would mean plodding on and becoming increasingly specialized. He was keen to explore broader horizons. He had, again uncharacteristically for a PHD student, loved writing up his PhD and had been good at it.

A position at the prestigious scientific journal Nature came up. There was a tiny staff of just four and openings were rare. But Philip got the job, and immediately became an Editor, in 1988; and he has not really quite left Nature since.

He had wanted broad horizons: he got them. He had to cover the science of oceans, atmospheres, physics, chemistry, maths and bio-materials. And when one of the other three editors was on leave, he would have to pick up their topics too.

It was hugely challenging, with long hours, and was a joy for Philip. As well as the intellectual challenge of learning new topics, he also enjoyed learning the skills of being an editor in a supportive environment. Structuring a piece, sub-editing, finding good referees, making judgements. In those days, you would see the whole process too, sometimes literally putting the pieces together with scissors and glue.   

From 1988 to 1996 Philip was a full-time editor at Nature. But in the early 1990s, he wanted to explore broader horizons again. He began writing a book, on top of full time work. It meant 5am starts and long hours, a long way from his nine to five existence at Bristol University.

The book did well and Philip was smitten. He says he ‘had no choice but to keep writing books’. He describes writing a book as being a bit like being in love. It is a compulsion. He persuaded Nature to let him move to a 3-day a week job editing, then in 2000, down to a day a week. He has now – just a month ago – made the move to only working for Nature on a freelance basis.

He sees writing a book as a fabulous way to keep on learning. He chooses a topic that will keep him interested for two years. The breadth of areas he covers is vast. His book topics range from Paracelsus (and his World of Renaissance Magic and Science) to Colour. From a Biography of Water to Pattern Formation in Nature.

In just one of his books, you will find that he examines a huge range of topics. In ‘Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads To Another’, he explains the business cycle, random walks, phase transitions, traffic flow, small world phenomenon, catastrophe theory, and the Prisoner's Dilemma. It was awarded the Aventis Prize for 2005.

The Editor of Nature, Phil Campbell, both a Bristol graduate and honorary graduate, describes Philip as ‘one of the most quietly productive colleagues I know. As a journalist he is authoritative, critically minded but also informative, with unexpected gems of information, such is his intellectual depth and breadth. I am particularly impressed by his willingness to explore, as a writer, avenues that most would never think of, through entire books. His book on water was a classic in this respect’.

Philip’s ability to leap out of his comfort zone, and tackle new areas, whether intellectual or whole new ways of communicating, is deeply impressive.

Another colleague from Nature says, ‘One thing that encapsulates his breadth is the one-man show he created about Paracelsus. If memory serves, Phil wrote the play, acted in it, made the sets and designed the chemical special effects. I wouldn't be surprised if he had also written music for it’. Although Philip says part of the joy of this experience for him was working with a team of playful, visual mime artists.

In 2008, he wrote a successful novel too, ‘The Sun and Moon Corrupted’. It features a gaggle of over-confident Physicists… and left members of our Department agonising over coffee about who exactly he was writing about. 

So his writing spans popular science books, novels and plays. And, incidentally, he plays keyboards, sax and accordion, probably more, in rock bands… and even a Buddhist Ceilidh band.

Philip says that he didn’t plan any of this remarkable career. He had just always written, and enjoyed writing. He had not realised that there were careers in science writing; it just emerged for him from his choosing to do what he loved.  He is now managing to combine his other great loves, music and theatre, in his work,

His current book looks at what music does in our brains. He hopes that it will encourage others to appreciate music in new ways, even the pieces we think are too difficult; and to recognise that there are other ways to listen.

His advice to people starting out on their career is: ‘find your own interests and follow them. There is a myriad of paths, and you can make your own way through.’ I think of him as having been brave in constantly tackling different topics and broader areas. He modestly says, ‘I wasn’t brave, I just did what I enjoyed and what I needed to do’.

Dr Philip Ball, we admire you for pursuing your deep talents of writing, music-playing and performance that you love so well, with such breadth, depth, curiosity and intelligence, and for helping your millions of readers, and audiences, to experience the world in new ways. 

Mr Deputy Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Philip Charles Ball, as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.

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