It could be argued that Fusion owes its existence to a letter that went astray somewhere in the Institute of Physics. Here is the full story …
The letter in question was written by OU student Jim Grozier to Julia Rose, the Institute’s Student Liaison Officer, and it concerned the possible starting-up of a special sub-group of the Institute for OU students. Jim had started his degree in 1999, and had begun to organise visits for OU students to places of scientific interest, such as Dungeness nuclear power station and the nuclear fusion research centre at Culham.
“This wasn’t as altruistic as it sounds”, says Jim – “many of the places I wanted to visit would only open their doors to organised groups; so, in order to get in, I organised a group”. The problem was that it was very difficult to publicise such events among OU students, and the idea occurred to Jim that Nexus, the student wing of the Institute, might be able to help by sending out a newsletter to all its OU members. So in June 2000 he wrote to Julia and suggested this.
When no reply was forthcoming in four months, Jim decided that it might be better to try and do the whole thing within the OU, and not rely on the Institute and its one overworked full-time student officer whose job involved looking after some 7000 members. So in October – on a carefully chosen date, just after the OU exams – he sent a message to various First Class conferences asking if there was anyone “out there” who thought that a fully-fledged OU Physics Society might be viable. Fourteen people responded to this message, and the overwhelming majority of the responses were encouraging, although only one, Norrette Moore, actually offered to help. Two people seemed rather too small a nucleus to form a society round; but reinforcements soon arrived.
Three days after he had sent out the “launch” e-mail for a physics society, Jim received an answer to the four-month-old letter to Julia Rose. Julia wrote to say that she was prepared to give the newsletter idea a try … but by now, unbeknown to her, things had moved on. However, Julia did make a vital contribution to the viability of the society idea by putting Jim in touch with Tina Heaton, another OU student who had written a number of articles for Nexus News, and who was equally enthusiastic about forming a Physics Society.
November saw the second ever Young Physicists’ Conference, Nexus’s new annual get-together for physics students and recent graduates, which was held in Chester that year. Having queried the rather ageist-sounding title, and been assured that it was open to all ages, Jim thought he ought to go along. To his eternal gratitude he found that he was not the oldest physicist at the conference (by one month); that honour fell to fellow-OU student Paul Ruffle, who was a graphic designer by trade, and felt that he could use his skills to help with the society’s newsletter and website. Finally Jim heard from Eleanor Cowan, who had seen his original e-mail but had been too busy recovering from exams to reply straight away. Now there were five, which seemed a much more workable number.
After numerous e-mail exchanges between the five, a meeting was set up for just after Christmas. (At this point only Jim and Paul had actually met each other!) But the weather was poor, and only Jim, Norrette and Eleanor managed to get to the venue – the bar on platform 8 at King’s Cross station – along with Frank Hollis, OU Chemistry Society officer and a friend of Eleanor’s from Harlow OUSA, who had too many commitments already to have a formal post in a physics society as well, but was able to give some useful tips from his experience with OUCS. A further rendezvous on January 13th 2001 at the University of Westminster’s cafeteria, opposite the London Planetarium, was more successful, and here the five all met together for the first time, and spent some 3 hours brainstorming about all the things that a society would need. When they left that meeting and emerged blinking into the light of the Marylebone Road, the society had a name and a logo, and its five members all had jobs – Newsletter, Events, Treasurer, Membership and Website. Fusion was born.
Of course, they couldn't do much on their own. The crucial question was whether the OU would publicise the new society to its students; without such publicity, the membership might never have got much above five people. Luckily, Ray Mackintosh of the OU's Physics & Astronomy Department was enthusiastic (although he reminded the five that they were not the first to try to start up an OU physics society!) and agreed to help by including a flyer with relevant course mailings; and Julia Rose offered to help with the newsletter printing and distribution. Membership quickly rose once the mailings went out in April 2001; and the rest, as they say, is history ...