Prof Tom McLeish – natural philosopher (#7)


Tom McLeish was educated at Sevenoaks School in Kent and Emmanuel College, Cambridge where he graduated in Physics with Theoretical Physics. A PhD at the Cavendish Laboratory on the molecular theory of polymer flow was jointly supported by the textile company Courtaulds, with whom he had worked as an undergraduate. This experience set a course of finding deep science problems arising out of industrial collaboration that has lasted ever since. A post-doc and fellowship at Cambridge was followed by a lectureship at Sheffield then a chair in polymer physics at Leeds from 1993 to 2008, which included 10 years running a large international collaboration on polymer melt design. He moved to Durham University as Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research, where he initiated more interdisciplinary research in theology of science and medieval science. In 2018 he took up a new chair in natural philosophy at the University of York.

Twitter: @mcleish_t



Describe something that has recently amazed you and how it made you feel.

The discovery of gravitational waves affected me deeply, I found myself weeping with joy at it. All those careers given to improving the detectors but without fruit – eventually leading to a whole new channel of ‘sight’ or better ‘hearing’ into the universe.


How would you personally define wonder, awe and curiosity? And how do they relate to each other?

Curiosity is the start of the story – it is a perception that carries a question mark around all the time. Wonder has a single object – the miracle that we can re-imagine the natural world as it is at all. Awe is more individual – a response to a particular phenomenon. – like the Milky Way above us and ‘seeing’ it as our Galaxy.


What inspires you to be creative?

Science – we re-create the inner structure of the world in our minds when we do science.


Do you have any ‘rituals’ or an environment that aids your creativity?

Yes – lots of paper and a very sharp pencil on a clear desk. I draw pictures and do mathematics around them exploring possible structures and dynamical processes of matter.


What do you love about magic?

It shows us how we project most of what we think we see onto the world.


What do you think hinders an audience from experiencing wonder when watching a magician?

They think they are being tricked – when actually they are tricking themselves all the time.


Where do you think our sense of wonder comes from and what can we do to cultivate it?

It is both evolved and endowed by God. I think it is part of our ‘in imago Dei’.


Previously at Durham University as Pro-Vice Chancellor of Research you had the responsibility to encourage and facilitate innovation. What are the biggest challenges academics face in being creative?

Time constraints and lots of formal pressures to deliver material recognised as normal for a discipline. Really imaginative stuff that is risky, interdisciplinary and heavy in time resource is disincentivized.


You’ve recently moved to the University of York and I know that you were thrilled to be given the chair of Natural Philosophy. Why does that specific name mean so much to you?

Because we took a wrong turning in the early 19th C when we stopped calling science ‘natural philosophy’. We exchanged the ‘love of wisdom of nature’ with ‘knowledge’ (that is what. The two words mean). There are many. Consequences – returning to NP will I hope enable science to be more clearly seen as a humanity or at least in a framework of the humanities, it will be more humble but also richer.  We can rediscover why for Wordsworth and Emerson it was OBVIOUS that there was a relation between science and poetry. Of course it also opens up a clearer avenue between science and philosophy. [Matt notes: interested readers might want to read more on this topic from Tom’s blog here.]


How does a Polymer physicist get involved in Medieval Studies?

He reads De Luce  by Robert Grosseteste after he hears that this. 13th C polymath wrote about light and matter and wonders what on earth anyone would write then about topics that I was taught belong to the modern era. Then his insights rather intrigue medievalists he talks to, who didn’t realise that there was so much mathematical content in the writings of their authors …. And the rest is history (literally)

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