Stones from the sky: A heaven-sent opportunity to talk about science
Colin Pillinger, who died on Wednesday, was my first boss. I got a job as a research assistant in what was then the Planetary Sciences Unit at the Open University after I graduated in 1991. We didn't actually see that much of the 'popular science lecturer' side of Colin you can see in the video above. In fact, I didn't see that much of him at all. His management style could, even by the relaxed standards of academia, be alarmingly hands-off. The unit had a meeting on a Monday morning, where everyone gave a quick update on what they'd done and what they planned to do. That was about as much direct 'management' as I ever got. Phil, the Unit's other RA, once said he had "the same relationship with Colin as I have with the man who empties the bin in my office" by which he meant that they both let him just get on with what he was doing. That was how Colin ran his department - he trusted his people to good work and let them get on with it. It certainly served Phil well, he's now a professor at Curtin University in Australia. Without wishing to over-romanticise my time at the OU, it set me up pretty well too.
Although I didn't see a great deal of him day to day, I enjoyed the time we did spent together. He was good fun, generous with his time, and able to talk on almost any subject. During my interview for the job, I was asked what I was interested in, the subtext being what's an electronics graduate like you doing in a meteorite research lab like this? Even though it seemed a stupid thing to say, I replied that I was interested in everything. Since as a new graduate I had precious little else to offer, I wonder now if that actually got me the job. Colin drank his tea out of mug bearing the slogan "Scientists now more about Art than Artists know about Science". He was interested in things, and he liked people who were interested in things.
The PSU was a really good fun place to work. My job there, as described in my contract of employment, was to "carry out such duties as were required by your Head of Unit". Mainly that meant maintaining the various analytical instruments that the Unit had bought or built, and building new instruments. I taught myself a lot of software, a decent amount of electronics, and some heavy electrical stuff too. I learned a ton of stuff about meteorites, the early solar system, mass spectrometry, lunar exploration, planetary evolution, plate tectonics, volcanos, geology in general, and the fun you can have with liquid nitrogen. On a couple of occasions the job meant fastening roof racks to Toyota Landcruisers and once it meant fixing the florescent lights that had been damaged by flying corks when Colin popped off some champagne in the Monday meeting after he was elected FRS. One long, long night, it meant helping Andy run an experiment on some lunar soil. Colin was at a conference in Houston, where Andy phoned him the results which, as I remember, he promptly presented. I exaggerate - I wasn't *required* to do the experiment but, when Andy and I announced our intentions in the Monday meeting, I was encouraged to do it. That's the kind of place the PSU was.
It's a great shame that Colin will be remembered as the man who's spaceship broke down on the way to Mars. An investigation laid the some of blame for the mission failure on Colin's "poor management", but I believe that overlooks a very great deal. Just getting the thing built and launched was a triumph by itself. Securing the funds, building the instrument, getting the thing in the air, while simultaneously growing the PSU into the far, far larger Planetary and Space Sciences Institute, all that takes a long time and it doesn't happen by accident. He was a sharp guy, a good guy, and I very sad to know he's gone.
» Rosetta: Ptolemy Instrument Blog - Colin's "other" experiment. In November, after ten years in space en route, Rosetta will attempt to land a small probe onto a comet. The Ptolemy instrument is a GCMS and will examine the isotopic ratios of hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen, giving an insight in to the origins of cometary materials.
» Professor Colin Pillinger - obituary at The Telegraph
» Colin Pillinger obituary at The Guardian