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.

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

Artwork by Ellie Foreman-Peck

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Are cities getting too big?

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Theresa May knows she's talking nonsense - here's why she's doing it

The Prime Minister's argument increases the sense that this is a time to "lend" - in her words - the Tories your vote.

Good morning.  Angela Merkel and Theresa May are more similar politicians than people think, and that holds true for Brexit too. The German Chancellor gave a speech yesterday, and the message: Brexit means Brexit.

Of course, the emphasis is slightly different. When May says it, it's about reassuring the Brexit elite in SW1 that she isn't going to backslide, and anxious Remainers and soft Brexiteers in the country that it will work out okay in the end.

When Merkel says it, she's setting out what the EU wants and the reality of third country status outside the European Union.  She's also, as with May, tilting to her own party and public opinion in Germany, which thinks that the UK was an awkward partner in the EU and is being even more awkward in the manner of its leaving.

It's a measure of how poor the debate both during the referendum and its aftermath is that Merkel's bland statement of reality - "A third-party state - and that's what Britain will be - can't and won't be able to have the same rights, let alone a better position than a member of the European Union" - feels newsworthy.

In the short term, all this helps Theresa May. Her response - delivered to a carefully-selected audience of Leeds factory workers, the better to avoid awkward questions - that the EU is "ganging up" on Britain is ludicrous if you think about it. A bloc of nations acting in their own interest against their smaller partners - colour me surprised!

But in terms of what May wants out of this election - a massive majority that gives her carte blanche to implement her agenda and puts Labour out of contention for at least a decade - it's a great message. It increases the sense that this is a time to "lend" - in May's words - the Tories your vote. You may be unhappy about the referendum result, you may usually vote Labour - but on this occasion, what's needed is a one-off Tory vote to make Brexit a success.

May's message is silly if you pay any attention to how the EU works or indeed to the internal politics of the EU27. That doesn't mean it won't be effective.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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