PhD Attempt Number 1

4 Feb 2012past-lives

I spent the period from October 1998 until November 2001 as a graduate student in the atmospheric physics department in Oxford. This all started out swimmingly.

The project I was working on was a space mission to remotely sense water vapour in the atmosphere of Mars, using a novel infrared radiometer on the Mars Climate Orbiter (MCO) spacecraftAnyone who has followed the sorry story of “The Curse Of Mars” already knows this isn’t going to be pretty.... I was going to write software to perform retrievals of temperature and water vapour profiles. MCO was slated to arrive at Mars near the end of my first year, so there would be real data to work on. Exciting stuff.

The first year was great. I learnt a lot of new and interesting things about remote sensing and Mars, and started developing algorithms and software. I visited the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, went to a conference at CalTech, and even won a departmental prize for my first year report. All very sweet.

A week or so before Mars Orbit Insertion, I went on holiday to the Canary Islands with my girlfriend, where we explored the cloud forests of Gomera, drank lots of cheap wine and stayed with some friends of her family. It was lovely and relaxing. We got back to my girlfriend’s place in Brighton afterwards and settled down to read the Sunday newspaper. “Here, isn’t this something to do with your work?” she asked. “‘Mars mission lost’, it says.” Uh-oh. A quick phone call to my supervisor revealed the gory details. This was the famous “metric-imperial mix-up” (it was more complicated than it sounded, but that was no excuse) that resulted in MCO being steered into the planet instead of into an orbit around the planet. Everyone in Oxford was furious, as this was the second time a version of this instrument had been lost.

Back in Oxford, I pondered my future. Friday lunchtime “planetary” beers were somewhat legendary in the department, “lunchtime” often stretching until about seven in the evening. At least one respectable visiting scientist had been discovered sleeping under a bench in the University Parks on Saturday morning, having got “lost” and being unable to find his way home or back to the department (the physics department in Oxford is next to the University Parks). This same respectable scientist afterwards referred to the planetary group as “animals” and refused to visit again. Needless to say, MCO-related sorrows were drowned and drowned again, with an additional toast or two to send them on their way.

Everyone in the department was depressed about the turn of events, and this led me to make a decision, that in the light of hindsightLife needs a rewind button., was rather foolish. I could have stuck with the work I was doing, built an instrument simulator to generate synthetic data based on likely Martian atmospheric profiles, finished developing retrieval algorithms which I could have tested on the synthetic data. The result would have been a perfectly respectable PhD thesis. That seemed like a dull and unadventurous approach to take. Oh, the folly of (relative) youth.

Instead, I chose to switch projects (and supervisors). I was going to develop optical delay line hardware and associated control software for a space interferometry mission. When I think back on this decision now, my reactions are something along the lines of “What? What what? What the fuck?”. It’s easy to enumerate the ways in which this was stupid: I had only a physics undergraduate’s grasp of optics and mechanical engineering, knew little about technical drafting and next to nothing about actually making things, I hated electronics as an undergraduate and had avoided it like the plague ever since, there was no money to fund this “project”, I had already spent a year on learning all about Mars and all things Martian, as well as having a lot of software already written for doing atmospheric retrievals from the PMIRR instrument. This was an idea that should have been smothered in the cradle.

As it was, I didn’t get very far. First thing I needed was a platform to test whatever delay line hardware I came up with. That meant an interferometer. Did we have money to buy a nice off-the-shelf metrology instrument? No, we didn’t. My supervisor said, “Well, I suppose you’d better make one then.” Right-oh. High precision machine shop work, optical system design, radio-frequency electronics, data processing electronics. What could possibly go wrong?

I accumulated piles of bits for an interferometer, most of which I made. I designed, built and tried to make work complicated electronics. (They never worked.) At the end of three years, I quit without a PhD and feeling pretty bitter about it all.

Despite that, looking back now, I don’t feel as though those three years were wasted. The outcome was less than ideal, admittedly, but I picked up an amazingly varied set of skills. I spent a lot of time in the workshop alongside people who really knew what they were doing, I learnt a lot about CAD, I learnt more about electronics than I ever really thought I wanted to knowI also bought a car from one of the electronics technicians for £150. A car that then burnt to the ground in a service station in France on the way back from a kayaking trip to the Alps. We had to pull all the boats and other gear from the burning car, then after the firemen had been and done their thing, I got a lift into Reims with the driver taking my car to the scrapyard, rented a van, drove my friends and all our gear to Dunkirk where I put them on the ferry, drove the van back to Reims, got a train to Calais, got the ferry to Dover, then the train back to Oxford. John, the technician, hid from me for about a week after I got back, until he had been convinced that I wasn’t going to beat him up.... None of these were things I would have been exposed to otherwise.

Ten years later, part of me still wishes that I had had the good sense to stick with the remote sensing project so I could get a nice quick PhD and go and work for NASA. But the greater part of me doesn’t regret anything. Apart, perhaps, from some of those Friday “lunch” outings.