How do you make a bullet and an alien move at the same time?

Chris Thomson (16 March 2010)

I’m occasionally asked how I came to be a researcher and why I am still a researcher. To me the title of this post encapsulates this career decision for me, but perhaps needs a bit of explanation...

When I was nine or ten (around 1988-9) I started to be very interested in computers, my dad had lent his ZX Spectrum 48k to my school for their computer club, but it was requested back as I became more interested in his Amstrad computer that he now used for work. At first I was mostly interested in playing games, such and Horace Goes Skiing, and the many demos that could be obtained on tapes attached to the covers of colourful magazines aimed at my age group. But it was not long before I became interested in how they worked.


I can remember happy hours unscrewing various electronic things that had broken

Back then I was interested in how many things worked, but in a very experimental way, I can remember happy hours unscrewing various electronic things that had broken, even attempting to unsolder resistors and capacitors. I also had an experimental chemistry set that had been provided one Christmas, but I was never interested in following the built in experiments, I just liked mixing the chemicals together to see what happened, resulting in at least one very smell concoction and something that managed to strip paint of my bedroom windowsill. The main problem was that in the end these experiments ran out of materials, and I never did work out how electronic components work.

I also began reading widely after managing to overcome the worst of my dyslexia and finding things that I wanted to read (despite my mother’s best efforts early on trying many reading schemes it really did take that long for me to get going). I remember fondly the books of the illustrator and author David Macaulay, particularly The Way Things Work and Unbuilding (seriously good children’s books in my opinion).

It was in this spirit of discovery that I discovered that you could make a computer do what you want. With some guidance from my dad and the tutorials inside my magazines I began to write simple computer programs. Back then the Spectrum was a fantastic computer to learn on, with a simple programming language and a forgiving interpreter that let you experiment without the fear of making a mistake and running out of stuff. Also unlike chemistry things are infinitely repeatable without the need for precision measurements. And so it was that I began my career with computing.

Of course it wasn’t long before I came up against hard problems, like the one in the title. I like so many children wanted to make my own games, to be creative on my own terms. But the problem the alien and the bullet was tough, just how could you make a computer do two things at once? By this point I was beyond my dad’s understanding and the tutorials in the magazines did not seem to address this specific point, so I became, a researcher, not consciously at first, but over time that inquisitive and pioneering attitude has brought me to where I am today.

Of course the journey wasn’t easy; in particular my use of English still troubles me today. My teachers according to my parents always thought I would end up in a practical job. So it is perhaps something of a surprise that I have persisted in this path. I certainly don’t find it all easy, but every so often I stumble upon a problem that makes it all worthwhile...

I do wonder though, why are other people researchers, can you pin it on something back in your childhood?


Sarah Davies
Thanks for this, Chris - it's always great to hear people's stories. I'm really struck by the fact that your research career seems to have begun before you were 10! It seems like the trajectory you've come along has been quite intentional - whereas in my experience many of us kind of fall in to doing research. Did you imagine yourself in a university when you were unpicking your computer? And I'm curious - are you now a computer scientist? Or did your research take you in another direction?

the road to where I am now was hardly pre-meditated

Matthew Salois
Hi Chris, what a good story. I have great respect for programmers and computer scientists. I took a class on C several years back and just found it a painful and tough experience. I do program when I have to, but I am not very good at it! As for me, I never set out to be a researcher. As a young boy I can remember wanting to be a doctor. Later as a teenager, I wanted so very much to attend the US Naval Academy and work on a submarine. Not until much time had passed, and I was in college, did I decide I wanted to study economics. Even then, my goal was not to be a researcher but rather to work in the "real world" for the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank. I can even remember while writing my master's thesis how much I hated doing research! But the 2001 recession forced me to stay in graduate school and obtain my PhD. Of course, I am so VERY glad I did, because I absolutely love doing research, writing papers, and presenting at conferences. But the road to where I am now was hardly pre-meditated for most of my life. By the way, I found your use of English to be perfect. Where are you from?

Tennie Videler
Hi Chris, great post and it set me thinking. I was interested in how things worked as a child, but would be more likely to try and look it up than work it out. I loved reading and finding out things. My other passion was art. As my father was a lecturer research was a low threshold option but what swung it for me was the combination of finding things out and being creative, allowing me to find out things noone else knew yet! Agree with Matthew your use of English is pretty perfect!

Chris Thomson
*Blushes* The real issue with my English these days is the time it takes to get things down on paper, and writing in an appropriate academic style. I'm from the UK, so it is my Dyslexia (now considered very mild and I never got any extra support in school or at uni) that caused the most issues - basically because it took me so long to get reading and writing I missed out on a lot of the teaching in this area at school. My 'home' discipline is computer science/software engineering. And really on the boundary, so I've published some papers in theoretical computer science and some about software engineering methods from a human perspective. I find the theory and maths papers relatively easy to get together as you simply move through a set of facts, the softer software engineering papers are harder altogether. I publish these in empirical software engineering where there is a emphasis on quantitative results and a scientific writing style - but I have worked with a lot of qualitative data or a mixture of the two, which is kind of hard to write in the expected style! I'm now working in a business school, and currently my research is in the field of doctoral education, oddly my experience in empirical software engineering seems to be paying off as people seem to like my approach to working with data... I'll try and work on another post which describes a little of how my journey into research went, but a small taster, I certainly did not want to do research at the outset, the thought of writing a thesis when I had such problems writing initially was not something that appealed... But I also think it would be wrong to say that I have found myself here because I fell into it - I've had opportunities to do other things along the way.


I arranged placements to give myself a head start

Elizabeth Dodson
Hi Chris. Found your post really interesting. We are 'of the same era' and I spent many an hour programming a Vic20 - mainly to create mindless adventure games! Academia is not a place that I expected to end up - as I made poor A’ level choices and frankly gave up on the idea of university! I switched to a brand new vocational course, which I enjoyed far more and I found a renewed interest in education - and particularly psychology, which I had never studied before. But once I came back round to the idea of academic study, I then faced the challenge of persuading universities that my vocational qualification made me a suitable degree candidate. I was offered 3 places at decent universities - which surprised even the college lecturers - and I considered myself very lucky. I loved doing my psychology degree and at that stage thought I might qualify as a clinical psychologist - so I arranged placements to give myself a head start. I ended up as a regular volunteer at a centre for adults with acquired brain injuries and found the work incredibly interesting and fulfilling. I wrote my dissertation on the importance of this service to the people who used it and found that there was so much more that I wanted to understand and to write about. I applied to stay on at my university and expand my dissertation into a PhD, exploring the consequences of brain injury and the experiences of service provision far more broadly. I couldn't have been prouder the day I got my doctorate, and wanted to do more within the field that I'd specialized in. However my eye was caught by a research post investigating road accident causation and working towards improvements in road safety. As most of the people I had interviewed for my PhD, received their brain injuries in road accidents, I felt that accident prevention would be a really worthwhile field to move into - and I've been there ever since. So as Sarah suggested is often the case - I kind of fell into research, but love the work I do and feel very privileged to have this opportunity.

Andy Humphrey

Thank you for all these reminiscences! My own story was very ordinary by comparison. I got hooked on sciences at quite a young age (marine biology first, then ornithology, then chemistry) and met someone from R&D in one of the chemical companies (can't remember which one) at a careers fair at school, and decided I liked the sound of what he did. Went to university, took a chemistry degree, and had my first try at research during the 4th year of my degree. Decided I liked it, found a niche that enthralled me (in bio-organic chemistry), started applying for the Ph.D., and here I am still in research 13 years post-qualification. My specialism has taken me into a lot of different areas, from cancer research through food security to the question of why seaweed is sticky... The challenging question for me, at the moment, isn't so much how did I get here, as where I can go next... but I think that's a subject for a new blog posting altogether!