Prince of serendip

The three princes of Serendip were always making discoveries, by accident
and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.

Horace Walpole 1754

In an era of increasing negativity, the Campbell Laboratory latterly acted as a haven of scientific open-mindedness. Fergus relished any opportunity to challenge conventional beliefs and to consider seriously even the most seemingly heretical scientific proposals.

“Never talk yourself out of doing an experiment because the result is ‘obvious’ or because it may have been done before”, he warned, “we are all inherently stupid and can’t possibly anticipate Serendipity”.

Fergus Campbell was relentlessly curious, as demonstrated by his fondness for a new idea, an elegant experiment, a fresh face and the latest gadgetry. His was surely the only Laboratory where the visitors’ book listed Tibetan mystics, foreign inventors, MoD monitors, Soviet entrepreneurs, gadget salesmen, descendants of Lebensborn, painters and at least one self-confessed Messiah.

A scientific showman of Faradaic proportions, I remember Fergus convincing undergraduate hypnosis subjects that he had just walked across the ceiling in front of them. The scientific magic he inspired was most intense, however, when prisms, cardboard and string came together with an ancient projector or a war-surplus oscilloscope in pursuit of some question too ‘trivial’ or controversial for the attention of lesser scientists. As one of the last of this sorcerer’s twenty apprentices, I was saddened to see his conversation with Nature, his whole style of Science, effectively extinguished by the new culture of risk avoidance.

The conversation in both Phrontistery and Combination Room, I’m told, is safer and less demanding now:- although, on a Sunday morning, I still half expect to glimpse a minute, moss-roofed diesel buzzing excitedly towards the Craik-Marshall.