You may not be surprised to hear that I don't plan to "retire" in the conventional meaning of the word, and instead hope to come in to my office in the same way as before for many years ahead. There are lots of ideas I am looking forward to working out. But it is great being able to say "No" to unsavoury jobs.
Let me reminisce a little about my early life in St Andrews and also describe what has been important to me about working in the university. In 1968, when I first arrived, it was a very different and dangerous world and our generation had a strong desire to help create a better one. We had been greatly affected by the Cuban missile crisis (1962) and the death of John Kennedy (1963) and 1968 had brought demonstrations against the Vietnam war, as well as the assassination of Martin Luther King (April), student revolution in Paris (May) and the soviet invasion of Czechosolovakia (August). The Paris revolution in particular marked for many of us a change from a backward-facing to a forward-looking view of life.
In this different world, it was a surprise to be appointed a lecturer after only 2 years study towards my PhD and with not a single publication. For the interview I had arrived at Leuchars junction and caught the train to St Andrews -- a romantic approach along the Eden estuary and through the golf courses, entering a magical world like Narnia or Hogwarts. The town was very different, with a Dickensian character, Mr Jessiman, in Hendersons the bookshop, as well as the exotic cheeses of Geddes the grocer and the inviting coffee aroma of Aikman and Terrace.
During my first term, I met and fell in love with Clare, a final-year biology student, and, during a holiday to Ireland the following summer, we visited Clare island, where I proposed to her.
In the University there was no sense of pressure -- endless time to think, to stroll down to the staff club in the Younger Hall and have coffee with arts friends or go to philosophy seminars. I shared a flat with an amazing character, an Irish philosopher with a ginger beard who painted beautiful landscapes and played a bassoon in his bath -- Leslie Stevenson.
The head of applied mathematics, Newby Curle, seemed ancient, but was in fact only 38 years old. Eight years later he called me into his office and warmly shook me by the hand, congratulating me on promotion to a Readership -- I was completely shocked since I had no idea I was being put up for promotion and had no such expectation.
Being fascinated and intrigued by the Sun, building up the Solar Research Group has been a lot of fun, and the solar theory Christmas parties were legendary. A classic was when a lively Irish research student (Robert Walsh) decided to make a video entitled "A day in the life of the solar theory group". With a fluent voiceover, he described walking down the corridor and saying "Here's Prof Priest's office -- his tutorials are reputed to be quite lively -- shall we peak in?" Opening the door, he revealed the sound of rock music and an image of gyrating bodies. Then he knocked on Dr Hood's door -- "Oh, he's not in -- probably playing golf as usual, so let's see what he has in his waste paper bin". The camera panned down into the bin to reveal a copy of my book (Solar Magnetohydrodynamics) that had just been written!
Let me describe five aspects of life in the University that have been of value to me. Firstly, it is a place where teaching and research are equally important: I have spent a lot of time and energy over the years on teaching and on helping individual students in many ways. My second-year lectures seemed to be especially popular -- somewhere near the middle of each lecture I would pause and the students would put down their pens and smile broadly -- it was time for the "joke break", during which I would entertain the students for a couple of minutes, often using a wide range of accents, including rather dubious Scottish ones that greatly embarrass Alan Hood. But this was done for pedagogic reasons, since the concentration time of students is less than half an hour and so the second half of the lecture was like starting from scratch.
Secondly, a university is a place where we can learn about so many interesting subjects outside our own speciality and can enjoy bridging the two cultures, balancing speciality with breadth. However, the current pressures to succeed mean that many are losing this sense of wider academia. For instance, Jamie Walker and I are part of a tiny band who aim to attend most of the inaugural lectures, which are invariably very well prepared, informative and highly stimulating.
Thirdly, above all, a university is a place where imagination can be nourished -- where we can consciously make space for creativity to work its magic. I sincerely hope that those responsible for running the university will work hard to decrease the paperwork and cut down substantially the pressures on young staff. My own creativity has been fed by having an annual summer scientific retreat -- 1 or 2 months in the USA interacting with some of the best minds in the world and returning with new ideas to pass on to research students and postdocs.
Fourthly, in a university we value openness. For me, Science is a journey where we know our ideas will change and where we discover how little we know -- and yet we can occasionally glimpse something of permanent or lasting value. In this there is very much a sense of mystery and beauty about the nature of the Universe. For me personally, Christianity is very similar -- certainly there is no way of proving the existence of God, but it is very much a voyage. So, in my view, the main divisions in society are not between christians, moslems and atheists, but between those with an open view of the world, where we can have a civilised debate and agree to live at peace, and those with a closed fundamentalist view.
Fifthly, in a university there is a balance between individuality and community. The university has many high-quality dedicated people such as Peter Adamson (with his inspirational photography), Michael Downes (with whom I have thoroughly enjoyed trying to lead the town-gown St Andrews Chorus), Alan Torrance (with whom planning the James Gregory public lectures has been a lot of fun) and Derek Watson (who is a highly valued core member of College Gate). Personal interaction is at the centre of what it means to be human and it is through personal contact that our ideas evolve and our prejudices smooth away.
I hope very much that in this new digital age, with its amazing potential for information transfer and knowledge, we can preserve the importance of personal interaction. At the same time we are fortunate to be members of many vibrant interacting communities in St Andrews, each of which binds us together. In each community there is a rich diversity of talents and personalities with none being more important than the others, and there is also a sense of support, appreciation and encouragement.
I would like to thank various people: the angels in the maths department that are called secretaries or computer officers, especially Fiona Macfarlane, Niki, Tricia Heggie and Pete; the solar group, especially Bernie Roberts and Alan Hood, with whom we have built something worthwhile; the brilliant young permanent members of the solar group, who are now all Readers and have a fantastic future (Thomas Neukirch, Clare Parnell, Duncan Mackay, Ineke De Moortel); my family -- especially my four super children, brother Gerry, and at the core the endlessly caring Clare, without whom I could have done nothing.
Finally, I am most grateful to all those present for their part in giving me such a wonderful life. Thank you.
December 10, 2009