I learned about critical mass way back in the dim dark past when I was studying physics. The primary meaning of the term is the mass of fissionable material required to sustain a nuclear reaction. Interestingly it comes from the Latin word fissio, not to be confused with physio, meaning fissure. An interesting understatement.
I have been contemplating critical masses in the last few weeks in the context of getting some research projects rolling again. I have been short of staff for the best part of a year and very short of equipment. Staffing is now back on an even keel and in two weeks I will take delivery of new equipment that will significantly increase the capacity of the laboratory (P<0.001). For the first time since I got here, we will be able to schedule research studies without compromising patient access to equipment. Moreover I will have the staff to do the studies. The brain is in overdrive. Having a critical mass does indeed mean research can become self-fuelling.
Having had the safety valve screwed down for so long, the steam is now flowing freely and ideas are tumbling around in my head - yea clutter rules!! Having the critical masses of staff and of equipment will hopefully mean projects that have been on hold for too long will again start rolling.
There is a flip side however, and that is the mass of things I am presently involved with from the physiology lab to sleep lab, from web-site to spirometry training, from advisory groups to new hospital planning. Is there time left to oversee research and mentor my team? I do not believe I am involved in anything that is not important or anything external where scientists cannot afford to be not involved. Critical mass here assumes a different significance. Not only will processes self-fuel, but they are likely to get out of control and an explosion will result. I run the risk of doing multiple things useably rather than acceptably.
I am sure I am not on my own in this dilemma. There seems to be an unwritten rule in any Society, at least the ones in which I have been involved, that the majority of the work is done by the minority of the members. Any Society is blest by people who are prepared to do the work, and they do it gladly. However, despite the willingness they show, there is risk associated with their absorbing greater responsibilities and more roles. It is often hard to tell when a critical mass is achieved and an out of control chain reaction is about to result. It is therefore, very important that members put up their hands and accept responsibilities in the Society. Noone expects a new office holder to know it all, Heaven forbid that they do!, and a major benefit from assuming any office / role is to broaden skills and experience.
There is an election of a new Executive approaching rapidly and all of us need to assume responsibility in this. There are three ways to approach the situation. The first is to put your hand up and indicate your willingness to take your turn. The second is to approach someone you believe would do a good job for you in running the Society on your behalf and convince them to put their hand up. The third is to runaway and hide.
The first two scenarios see fresh ideas coming into play and can only be good for all concerned. The third is likely to see another assume more responsibility and we run the risk of a critical mass running out of control. While things may run, they may well not run as well as they should do.
Critical mass is an important concept and we should all be mindful of the build up to it. Whether there will be presentations or a fissured brain at Melbourne, however, remains to be seen.
'til next month,