E = mc^2 … and make mine a pint while you’re there

Some university professors have always made it their mission to keep their students out of the pub.

Professor Eugene Terentjev, head of science at Queens’ College, Cambridge, last week provided a spectacular example of this impulse, in a note sent to his new intake of undergraduates who, he had observed, like a drink.

Professor Terentjev’s letter ran as follows: “Please be careful how you handle yourselves here; remember you are NOT at any other uni, where students do drink a lot and do have what they regard as a ‘good time’ – and you are NOT on a course, as some Cambridge courses sadly are, where such a behaviour pattern is possible or acceptable.

Physical sciences is a VERY hard subject, which will require ALL of your attention and your FULL brain capacity (and for a large fraction of you even that will not be quite enough)… People who just TAKE the course, but enjoy their social life, can easily survive in many subjects, but not in this one…”

No doubt Professor Terentjev’s intent with all those admonishing capital letters was to inspire his students to a path of righteousness: a social life was for losers. Not surprisingly, however, his welcome note proved distinctly unwelcome to many.

A spokesperson for the Cambridge branch of Student Minds, a mental health charity, argued that the message would encourage “impostor syndrome”, that sense among students that they were not worthy of a place, with all its damaging psychological consequences.

Again, not surprisingly, some commentators, notably in the Daily Mail, saw this latter response as further evidence of seditious “snowflake” tendencies within our universities.

“Surely students are there to work?” the outrage ran.

Charitably, you could argue that Professor Terentjev’s message showed an underlying concern about his students’ welfare: heavy drinking was probably at least as likely to undermine their mental health as overwork.

But in other ways, for a man of science, his analysis sounded curiously flawed.

For a start, the impression he gave that such behaviour is on the increase goes against both the grape and grain of wider data.

One of the more striking findings in the Office for National Statistics study of British social attitudes published this year was that young adults are much more likely to be teetotal than any older age group.

More than a quarter of 16- to 24-year-olds do not drink at all, compared with just over a fifth of the broader adult population.

I saw some evidence of this myself recently when I was writing a story about freshers’ week at Edge Hill University.

Partly because the level of fees had concentrated undergraduate minds, there seemed an unusual earnestness about the new intake.

A student union president told me her key aim for the introductory week was to have “at least as many non-alcohol as alcohol events”, while a university chancellor offered two observations of a new sobriety.

“The bars are empty and you can’t get a seat in the library,” one student rep had lamented to her, while a cleaner in the halls of residence insisted that students seemed so much more diligent. Her evidence? “There is no sick in the bins any more.”

Another apparent misconception in the professor’s remarks – that any kind of enjoyable social life would make it impossible to survive his course – sounded even more wrongheaded.

We live in a country high in European league tables for working hours, and low in terms of productivity.

Those habits are often ingrained in an education and exam culture that prioritises grind over balance.

Bertrand Russell’s famous contention that human brains are capable of no more than four hours a day of serious concentration, and that the rest is best spent idling, is borne out in much of the recent science.

Recent studies of work suggest that all productivity declines sharply after 50 hours a week and that the most productive brains need about 20 minutes of inactivity for every useful hour.

Crucially, the longitudinal studies show that the single key component of an engaged and productive life is the ability to forge and maintain strong friendship groups.

Everything else flows from that. Professor Terentjev appears to propose, rather sniffily, that the discipline he teaches is uniquely immune from such findings.

There are plenty of scientific minds who would beg to differ.

I spoke recently to Professor Carlo Rovelli, groundbreaking theorist of quantum gravity.

His book, Seven Brief Lessons of Physics, begins with an account of Albert Einstein, mostly idling and loafing through his teens and early 20s, before his great work began.

“You don’t get anywhere by not ‘wasting’ time,” Rovelli proposed. I wondered how much he thought that principle essential to scientific practice?

“Leaps of knowledge are made when one steps back, and forgets, and explores different things,” he said.

In his own life, Rovelli had come to concentrated study in physics only after “being a very bad student” travelling, drinking, involving himself in politics, starting a radio station. It is often only through a broad and sociable experience, he argued, that you can find the resolve and opportunity to focus on what Terentjev would call VERY HARD problems.

Somewhat sadly, Rovelli suggested, such a life was increasingly impossible in academia.

There are plenty of other examples.

The one that sticks in my mind is an afternoon I spent at Manchester University with one of the Nobel prize-winning discoverers of graphene, Kostya Novoselov.

For all the intensive hours of research that led to the discovery of the magical one-atom thick material, the real breakthrough he insisted, with a laugh, had come in a playful after-hours discussion, with a beer or two, and the idea to use a roll of Scotch tape to harvest the material.

If Professor Terentjev really believes his own university is different in kind to any other, he could also look a hundred yards up the road.

The most significant Cambridge eureka moment of the last century was first announced not in a lab or a journal but in the Eagle pub one lunchtime, by Francis Crick and James Watson, both regulars there.

All the evidence suggests that, in the healthy brain, recreation makes concentration possible.

Is it possible or useful to instruct our minds to be intensely curious about one thing and not about every other thing? The science suggests not.