Lesley Thompson: "Steve Jobs showed that engineering and design are the same thing"

The director of sciences and engineering at the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council answers the NS Centenary Questionnaire.

New Statesman
Artwork by Ellie Foreman-Peck

What is the most important invention of the past 100 years? 
For me, it’s the transistor. It has had such an impact: I don’t think there’s an area of life that hasn’t been transformed in some way by the transistor, from computing and mobile phones to health-care technology.

What is the most important scientific discovery of the past 100 years?
Penicillin. I had a great-uncle who died at Dunkirk. If penicillin had been available at that time, he would probably still be around today. So that’s quite a personal one.

And sporting event?
The 1966 World Cup final. I’m the non-sporty one in my family. I can remember being completely silenced and put to one side of the front room, while my avid football-fan family watched the World Cup.

Which book, film, piece of music or work of art has had the greatest impact on you and why?
Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking. I love food, I love eating, I love cooking and France. The whole package is just a dream to me. It’s a book that I always take with me when I go anywhere.

Who is the most influential or significant politician of the past 100 years?
Nelson Mandela, because of the power he has had to unite. You only have to look at the world’s reaction to his illness at the moment.

And author or playwright?
J K Rowling. She’s been able to teach children to read and to enjoy reading.

How about someone in business?
Steve Jobs, for the joy that people have got from the iPod, then the iPhone and now the iPad – and because he showed that engineering and design were the same thing.

And sports person?
Jonny Wilkinson, because of what he did in the Rugby World Cup, in those last three minutes of the match when everything looked desperate. The ability of one person to kick a ball and have it lead to such joy – it’s just extraordinary.

And philanthropist?
Isaac Wolfson. He made all kinds of investments in technology and infrastructure. I think he should be better known.

Do you have a favourite quotation?
I wouldn’t say that this is my absolute favourite, but: “Happiness is not a goal; it is a by-product.” Eleanor Roosevelt said that.

Favourite speech?
Martin Luther King: “I have a dream . . .” Every time you hear it, it gives you the shivers.

What do you think will be the most significant change to our lives in the next 100 years?
There’ll be sensors everywhere. We’ll have the ability to add them to all sorts of devices and draw data, helping people live their lives better, whether it’s at work or in leisure or in health care. Any scientific advance has to be made with caution and with a strong ethical framework. This shouldn’t hold science back: you need to develop the ethical strand and the scientific strand at the same time. That’s the responsibility of all scientists and society as a whole.

What is your main concern about the future and why?
Water. Its distribution is very uneven. I think the potential for war or strife because of problems with water is profound.

What will be the most dramatic development in your own field?
This is going to upset some people. My area is quantum technology and it could be very disruptive. Think about the effect the quantum world will have on computing, sensing, communications, the measurement of time, the measurement of geography . . . The impact will be vast if we can seize the opportunity of quantum science and turn this into quantum technology. At the moment, we work down at a scale where electrons can be in more than one place at a time. That opens a whole new world of potential for how you might build electronic devices or optical devices and how to provide security for computers and have different way of communicating.

What do you think is the priority for the future well-being of the people and the planet?
The most important thing for me is to ensure that the world is investing in open-minded education. By this, I mean educating children so that they are able to question, not just learn by rote. Some of the conflicts we are seeing are driven by ideology. Opportunities for the world to create and to develop things could open up if education was available to everybody in a way that enabled people to develop their own thoughts and ways of questioning things.

Lesley Thompson is the director of sciences and engineering at the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council