Back to reality

View from VIlla Monastero to Villa Cipressi in Varenna. This postcard view is one of a thousand which assaulted me at every turn.

View from VIlla Monastero to Villa Cipressi in Varenna. This postcard view is one of a thousand which assaulted me at every turn. Click to view all the pixels my iPhone can muster.

Friends, I have returned to reality (a.k.a. Teddington) from the earthly paradise of Varenna where I gave a presentation at the Enrico Fermi Summer School on Metrology. I arrived in Varenna with my head still buzzing with things I should be doing back at NPL. But after spending a few hours writing my presentation I began to calm down. And 24 hours later – after a few more hours on my presentation – I had slowed down to match the pace of the school. And then I began to learn things…

Talking with colleagues from metrology institutes around the world:  from Australia to South Africa and, from Kenya to Belarus, I was reminded of just how much metrology matters. It matters not just at the level of parts per million of fundamental constants – the focus of much of my own work. But even in developing countries – it matters that people calibrate instruments which deliver doses of radiation in cancer treatment. At all levels, measuring things accurately brings benefits

And over the next few days, the talks reminded me of areas of ignorance of which I had been previously unaware.

  • Steve Choquette from the American National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST), told us about the desperate need for improved standards in biotechnology – particularly in the identification of cells.
  • Michael Stock from the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM) told us about the latest results from Watt Balance experiments around the world. These experiments aim to replace the unique kilogram artefact – currently the basis of every measurement of weight or mass made on planet Earth – with a phenomenon that could in principle be reproduced by anyone.
  • Patrizia Tavella from the Italian National Measurement Institute (INRIM) told us exactly how clocks from different measurement institutes are harmonised at the BIPM to create Universal Coordinated Time (UCT) – the time which we share around the world.

Varenna is every bit as beautiful as the pictures imply. And being in the presence of this transcendental beauty was constantly arresting – and imbued each moment and conversation with a numinous intensity. And perhaps it was because of this – in spite of having been invited there as an ‘expert’ – the talks intensified my own sense of profound personal ignorance.

This sense of my own ignorance – and of uncertainty about everything I think I know – is very familiar to me. And I was reminded of it again recently while reading the excellent Atmospheric Turbulence: A molecular dynamics perspective by Adrian Tuck. At the end of the book – after many technical chapters – is a chapter of quotations, of which the following quotation struck me as being profoundly true:

To be uncertain is to be uncomfortable, but to be certain is to be ridiculous.

The quotation is from Arthur Holmes (quoting Goethe) on receiving the Wollaston Medal of the Geological Society for dating the origin of the Earth via isotope ratio measurements. It is a paradox and a truth that in order to obtain the most certain results, one must concentrate with all one’s energy on the areas of which one is most uncertain. It is most definitely uncomfortable – but I will always choose that over the alternative


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