Prof Philip Thomas became Master of the Scientific Instrument Makers on 20 October 2022. See below for his thoughts on the last few years and his Admission Court Dinner.
I learned from the late Professor Ludwik Finkelstein, a distinguished Liveryman of the Company, a colleague and a friend, the importance of institutions to national life and to national stability, a quality that emerges as all the more valuable when viewed against the backdrop of recent political turbulence. Our Livery is one such, important institution, the role of which is to distribute significant charitable funding (currently roughly eighty five thousand pounds a year) in support of scientific and technical education, while also fostering mentorship and good fellowship amongst its members. I am honoured to have been newly elected as Master.
Steering the Livery through the closing stages of the Covid-19 pandemic was no mean feat, and I thank my predecessor, Charles Holroyd, for his leadership throughout this past twelve months. We have seen three complete waves of Covid infection in England since the beginning of January, and we are midway through our fourth. The good news is that each successive wave has become smaller: in control engineering parlance, we are seeing an under-damped oscillation, with a set point of zero.
Covid deaths peaked at 250 per day in January 2022, which represented an 80 per cent fall from the worst days of the year before. Daily hospitalisations and deaths have fallen in each successive wave this year, and I would be surprised if we saw more than 150 deaths per day at any point in the current cycle. Britain’s successful vaccination campaigns have added to the immunity conferred on the millions of people who have caught the disease (including me and my consort, Audrey), so that now, at last, the nation has reached a point where the harm caused by Covid is no more than we face from influenza and pneumonia every year.
Unfortunately, the heavy lockdown measures adopted in Britain and in all Western governments in response to Covid, with the notable exception of Sweden, made the inflationary and recessionary pressures, which we, the Eurozone and the USA are now facing, almost inevitable. The Company has managed, nevertheless, to avoid abrupt increases to its quarterage charges this year, although we will need to continue with moderate rises into the future.
Fraser Nelson, the editor of The Spectator, was my principal guest at the Admission Court Dinner last Thursday, 20 October, which was the day that Liz Truss decided to resign as Prime Minister. This meant that we were all granted a ringside seat for the political struggle to succeed her that had just kicked off. Fraser treated us to an up-to –the-minute account, including the changing bookmakers’ odds on Boris Johnson, who was at that moment on a plane back from the Dominican Republic, intending to resume the mantle he had so recently discarded! Fraser categorised the odds on Boris or Rishi succeeding as political measurements, and he was keen to take measurement beyond the technical, beyond economics, and into politics, starting with The Spectator‘s Data Hub. The website lists a growing variety of socio-economic and political data, which were previously the preserve of government alone, but which he was now making freely available to everyone. Political decisions might then become not only more rational, but also “democratised”, to use Fraser’s term. It was a sparkling speech, much appreciated by members and guests alike.
We were also able, at the dinner, to reward educational achievement across our three Armed Services: the Royal Navy, the Army and the Royal Air Force. We awarded, jointly with the Institute of Physics and Engineering in Medicine, a prize for a technical essay that the rules stipulated should “be understood by members of the general public”, and we acknowledged the Cornish Award, which is named after the late Derek Cornish, a former Master, which is sponsored jointly by the Livery and the Institute of Measurement and Control, and which was, this year, presented to Professor Graham Machin’s group at the National Physical Laboratory, recognizing its contribution to developing, maintaining and advancing world-leading expertise in thermometry.
Our next social event is the Informal Livery Lunch, which takes place on 28 November at Glaziers’ Hall, just before the Christmas season gets into full swing. I and my consort, Audrey, look forward to seeing you there.
Professor Philip Thomas
Master, 2022 – 2023
Worshipful Company of Scientific Instrument Makers