Chatting with Ben Segal - Podcast Episode 2 - How to Get Started?

May 17, 2020

CERN Alumnus, David Garcia Quintas approached the Alumni Relations team some months ago with the idea of creating a podcast. Out of this idea is born the 'Chatting with Ben Segal' serial which you will find here on the CERN Alumni Network, in weekly installments.

Introducing Chatting with Ben Segal

 

Episode 2 - How to get started

 

Transcript:

David: [00:00:00] How do you get started? How would you advise a person that just graduated - or maybe even perhaps just a younger self - as to what to do with your life when you find yourself being 21, 22, 23 and a whole wide world and now you're not being told what to do. It's up to you now.

Ben: [00:00:16] Yeah, it's a very good question and a hard question.

Ben: [00:00:20] In my case, I just followed the line of least resistance, if you like. I was good at physics. I was good at actually everything at school. But physics I was good at. I wasn't a top mathematician at school. I had friends who were better mathematicians. But I just did what was easy. And getting into Imperial College as I said was very easy. So this was the second best place to go after Cambridge or Oxford. So I just went with the flow.

Ben: [00:00:48] Getting the job was luck. Luckily, they came interviewing at the university, which was not common in those days. I remember quite clearly the interview I had. It was fairly formal and I didn't know after that they were going to offer me a job or not, but they did. I took another interview too, it was Philips. Philips had a set of interviewers from Holland, very dry guys and I quickly decided I didn't want to go and work with Philips.

Ben: [00:01:19] So again, it was a ... (??) I got this job offer. It was prestigious. Paid next to nothing but it was perfectly fine for me. And it led... one thing led to another. What it led to actually was two things. First I got interested in computers, even though I was not a programmer. Programmers at that time were lower forms of life for physicists, so I would write the equations and go and discuss with the programmer.

Ben: [00:01:47] So I saw the Ferranti Mercury computer which used paper tape. You had to repeat the problem twice if you wanted to be sure, or three times if the results were different the first two times, this sort of thing. So I saw IBM come. I mean, this was a computer where you didn't have paper tape. You didn't have to run the problem twice - it was very reliable. But it was also the center of a big social, rather frightening atmosphere that we ... OK we were the physicists, but we couldn't go into the computer centre. It was sort of a private thing.

Ben: [00:02:24] We did have, I had a programmer friend - this is a nice story. At that time, we were very young and carefree. And I don't know if you ever heard of what is called a football pool. It's betting on football matches and there were several companies. I remember one was called Vernon's - I forgot what the other one was called - and you would fill out your form by matches. Every match was like a penny or something, depending... people would just fill out 20 lines. And if one of the lines won, you'd get some money back.

Ben: [00:02:56] So. One of us had decided (it wasn't me) that we could do this by computer. And I had the idea that we should not have any system trying to guess the true results. What we should do is use random selections because if it was a random thing, it was much, much more likely to win when nobody else did. Because if there was some logic to guessing the better teams, then more people would win. So our idea, my idea, was: let's do it randomly. So my friend wrote a program and every week it would print out thousands ... and we were entering thousands of matches each week - we had a little syndicate, six or eight guys - and the company agreed to take our paper listings and process them (it was all done by hand). And if we won, we were going to win big. Well, I think we won two or three times but we won really nothing. But it was fun. Every Monday morning, we would all go and we would press our noses against the window, the glass outside the computer centre. Our friend would go in, print out, run a little program to do the checking and everything and we'd know if we'd won or not.

Ben: [00:04:10] That was my first introduction to a computer being fun. That was an IBM. So that was in Risley, near Warrington near where I lived. That was one of the social aspects of computing that I remember from that time.

 

 

 

 


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