Kynthia Chamilothori (PhD student, EPFL, Lausanne) met Peter Boyce on a visit to Sheffield University, July 2016.
KC: So let’s start from the very very beginning – what did you do before becoming a research officer at the Electricity Council Research Centre?
PB: I went to Reading University, I did a Bachelor’s degree in Physics, and then the head of the department asked if I was interested in doing a PhD with him, and I couldn’t think of anything better to do, so I did that and that was done on human fixation eye movements. It involved me wearing a very large contact lens with a stalk coming out with a mirror on the end, so that when your eye moves, the mirror moves so you can track where it is going.
- This was in 1962?
- This was between 1962 and 1965 – and I did that, and after 1965 I did another year as a post-doc and then I decided I didn’t really want university life anymore, so I found the Electricity Council, which was the body that ran the entire electricity industry in the UK. They had an opening in their new Research Centre near Chester, so I decided to apply there. It’s a nice place to live, so I thought I can go there – which I did. And after I had been there for a day, the Director sent for me and said “I want you to work on lighting”. The rest is history.
- Yes, I was very lucky.
- So, it wasn’t your own choice – it was more… “the path”!
- Well, the lighting, a bit, yes, I obviously had experience on vision, I knew about vision, and with the physics background I knew something about electricity and so on. And it was a very good place actually, for two reasons: first of all, they gave me time to get my feet on the ground … to pick up the techniques and begin to develop an understanding of the field. The other reason was that they didn’t have to hunt for money; there was money available, the question is what you would do with it. Those were good days.
- What was a turning point in your career?
- A turning point… well, I suppose I have really had two careers. I worked at the Electricity Council Research Centre for 24 years, and what happened was that I was essentially the only person doing lighting. There was a group of us working on the human environment, so there was someone else who did thermal comfort, someone did air quality, and things like that, because the whole Centre was devoted to the utilization of electricity. So I was the one who did lighting. And it worked quite well, they allowed you to do also some interesting things. I had a good mixture of things actually. Once I got seconded to a local area utility to work with a salesman... which is not usual research work. But actually it turned out to be very interesting, because what you learn by doing that was to find what this man wanted from research, to find out what the customer wants from research. What he did, you see, was talking to his customers, the one thing he would always talk about was lighting. So he always talked about that but he had to have the right information, which was predigested, no if or buts, very simple, but accurate. When you learn that at an early stage, you begin to appreciate that it’s not just a matter of publishing papers, which no one ever reads again, it’s a matter of solving problems. So that’s where it went to, but after 24 years things changed, and what changed was that the electricity industry was privatized. There was a promise that the privatized utilities would support research for the next five years, but I could see that they would support research on the things that were deemed interesting to them. And when the management asked what they wanted to know about lighting, -hah!- they said “We don’t want to know anything about lighting, anything you can tell us about lighting will reduce our load”. So I could see myself being made redundant at about 49-50 [years old], which is an uncomfortable position to be in. But an opportunity came up for me to go to the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Lighting Research Center in the USA. After bullying my wife to go – she didn’t want to go –and seeing that our daughter had finished college and was gainfully employed, we went.
- Your daughter was here (in the UK)?
- Yes, she was here. She was 22, she was employed and seemed to be enjoying life, so I thought “we have to go”. And we did.
- How was it?
- It was a bit of a shock – because I thought I was going into academia, but it turned out to be contract research with teaching. But there were two things my boss aid to me, soon after I got there: “if we are as smart as we think we are, we ought to be able to find something interesting in what seems to be the most mundane project” which turned out to be true. The other thing was that we have to be original – and we were, and it turned out to be a good thing. I also got to do some teaching, which was unusual. I hadn’t done any teaching before then.
- Did you enjoy it?
- Yes! Because I was teaching post-graduates. The biggest class I ever had was 18 [students], a small enough number to know all of them, what their strengths were, their weaknesses and so on. That was good, I enjoyed that. The other thing was that gradually the Centre built up. There were 5 people when I arrived and 35 when I left. It covered a whole range of different topics: we did product evaluations, we did field studies, we did detailed vision studies, everything. What was really good about it and what made it different from the Electricity Council was that there were a significant number of people interested in lighting, covering all different aspects. There were designers there, there were people in physiology, there were some psychologists, engineers and so on… and everyone was interested in lighting. So there were plenty of people to work with.
- There were collaborations happening?
- Yes, yes. That was a good thing.
- And how did you start working at LRC?
- When you are a specialist in human factors in lighting, there aren’t many places for you to go! What happened is that the LRC had just been founded and they were looking for people to join. So I went on a three-year contract with the thought that if, in fact, it all went wrong, we could come back in three years; but I thought that if I didn’t go, I would be out of lighting in a few years’ time.
- And how did you start writing your book, Human Factors in Lighting, what inspired you?
- What inspired me was that there was a gap in the market!
- Yes, in 1980, I thought “There isn’t really a book, a general book about the effects of lighting”. The only one was the Hopkinson and Collins one and that was it. I thought there was a gap there and that I could write something on that. So I did, and that was the first one, the first edition. The second edition came out in 2003, and that was 23 years later. Quite a lot of things happened in that time, my understanding had grown, and I thought it’s time, I’d better do this before I leave the LRC. That’s why I did it; I also had a sabbatical so I could do a bit of library work there. And this third edition is simply because there has been a sudden surge in the last ten years, all the non-visual effects have started to become apparent and all the LED stuff has come in. My understanding of that had changed quite a lot so I thought I might as well do another edition.
- Could you describe the process when you are writing? What do you do, you have an archive, do you take notes? How does it become a book?
- How does it become a book - well, I look at literature, usually, and try to pull together what will make a chapter. Let me put it this way: one of the first things I’ll do is to organize it so that you’ve got fundamentals, which is light, vision and then non-visual stuff, and then you’ve got generalities, where you talk about lighting on work and comfort, and then you talk about applications. Each one of these should take a chapter, and now you write down a series of headings. If you take visual comfort, for instance, you start off with what is visual comfort, and it turns out that it is about visual discomfort. And then you write down causes of visual discomfort and you’ve got glare, and you’ve got flicker, and you’ve got non uniformity and insufficient light and all those things. And then you look at each of those in turn and you say “well, what do we know about each of those”? And so on.
- So it is very systematic.
- Yes, it is systematic – and once you have decided on the topic, you can look at the literature and try to pull it together. You try and find a good review paper to start with, otherwise you finish up confused. You find a good review paper and then you begin to say “is this relevant to what I’m interested in, if it is not relevant, where does this apply?” you do it like that. And you do this for each of these [chapters], same with the applications. Because, the thing is, you see, for most of the applications chapters I’ve had some experience, I’ve done work in road safety and I’ve done work on emergency lighting –quite a lot of work on that-, I’ve done some work on lighting and visual performance, glare, so a fairly good range of things. And then you fill in the gaps in between, that’s how you do it – it takes time …… you’ve got to have a certain type of mind to put things in a logical sequence. You don’t always get into the fine details. For instance, I have not done much work on colour. There are some very clever people working on color, so I tell you: “go to them”! Colour is a specialist’s field. I can do the generalities of it… but I’m not going to go deeply into it, I’m not going to write a book on colour. Same with physiology, if you like, I wasn’t interested in – well, I’m interested, but I couldn’t write about it- the detailed physiology of the visual cortex and so on. What I was interested in was what people can do. So, you look at age effects, you can find lots of stuff on various measures of visual capabilities at different ages so what’s interesting is what this allows people of a certain age to do. But it’s also a matter of recognizing your own limitations.
- Why do you think we need lighting research?
- I think there are two big questions that lighting research needs to think about: one is on non-visual effects. You get a lot of stuff talked about the circadian system, which is only, as far as I can understand it, part of what non-visual effects might be and people go around saying we have to have a minimum amount light exposure. I don’t know, I think the circadian system is probably very robust, it seems to manage to go quite well with people living in Northern Finland and people living on the Equator. Very different light exposures, in Finland, at different times a year, and – does it have an effect, does it affect their lifespan? I don’t know, but it seems to me there are a lot of big questions there about how robust these non-visual systems are. Do we really need to do anything about it at all with electric lighting? I don’t know.
The other area we have to start thinking about is the fundamental quantities that we use to describe light. We have got the V(λ) curve, we have got a bit of adjustment, some for the mesopic and some for the scotopic but that’s about it. The V(λ) curve relies on just two out of five photoreceptors in the eye. And I think we could explain a lot more and understand a lot more if we could recognize that, and recognize what the short wavelength sensitive cones do and understand how the different photoreceptors integrate together. I think we need a different system of units – these are big scale projects.
The other thing that worries me a little bit is that there is a tendency sometimes to do things, do research, because the technology is now available to do it, not necessarily because it’s an interesting question. Now we have luminance mapping and all this other stuff – does it get you any better answers? It probably gets you a better answer, but is it an answer to a significant question? I think that’s where we should try to start in research, we start by asking what the correct question is. Now it is difficult to follow that rule, because you don’t get funding like that. Sometimes you’re being reined in by what the funders want, but “if we are as smart as we think we are, we should be able to find something interesting in even the most mundane projects”.
- I really like this quote!
- Well, it turned out to be genuinely true. You can find something interesting in anything. So those are the two big areas. There is also, I think, a need to look at some of the currently active research areas, for example, discomfort glare, is it really a problem anymore? I mean, how many people do you hear complaining about discomfort glare. LEDs maybe more of a problem, but this is usually bad design, bad luminaire design, rather than anything else. Flicker as problem has risen from the grave. It more or less disappeared when electronic ballasts became available for fluorescent lamps but now we’ve got LEDs with a very fast response and people turn out cheap drivers so there is something to be done about that.
- So this is what you would imagine in lighting research in the future?
- Those are the areas which I think you will find interesting questions. Those are the two big areas where you find your questions. There’s a lot of application stuff as well, about road lighting, pedestrian lighting. How much do you really need? I mean, most of it is really straightforward, why do people feel more comfortable when the road is lit? Because they have got much more time to make a decision, you can see things a lot further ahead. My father, when he was about my age, wouldn’t drive at night, he would want to be home before it got dark, because he couldn’t see very well with just headlights. So I think road lighting makes a great difference but do you really need a lot of science to find that out? Where you do need some research is on how much light is required and where you should put it because the answers affect costs. Some people argue that you should only light the road and anything else is a waste.
- I disagree, you want light on the edges of the road, you want to see what’s coming in to the road. There are also some detailed questions in other areas, but those seem to me the two fundamental questions: fundamental quantities and non-visual effects. And all that stuff about colour rendering and so on… it’s interesting, but I think it’s of limited interest - if you are a manufacturer it’s important, but if you are a user, it’s not important unless you’ve got something where the colour really matters to you.
- What are you most proud of in your work?
- There’s one in each situation… One in the Electricity Council, where I did some work on emergency lighting. The USA recommendations were ten lux, and the UK recommended one lux – how much difference does it make? And I did a study which involved infrared sensitive video cameras so we could follow how people were moving in the darkness. We took these videos and I showed them to one of our managers, and he said: “you don’t need to write a paper, just show them this”!
Because you could see what people did. People, when they were confident, they would walk straight out with their hands in their pockets. If they were a bit uncertain, when they got to an obstacle, when they got to a corner, you could see a hand reach out, and when they had no idea you could see they were moving by touch. The reason I was quite pleased with that was because it showed quite a nice curve – and I thought how does this fit with other peoples’ work? What I did was in an open plan office, someone else had done it in a series of small independent rooms with steps between them, and somebody else had done it in some corridors and stairways. So I thought, if I measure the speed of movement, this is probably the simplest thing to do. And when you did the speed of movement for all these studies, they came up very close together. So all of a sudden you have got three independent studies, in very diverse circumstances, showing a nice, smooth trend. So that’s one, I was pleased with that.
The other one I was pleased with was on the outdoor perception of safety. We found some sites in New York City, we got people in minibuses, drove them there, and had them walk up and down in streets and said “how safe do you think this is”? We took it all back to the lab, put all the data together, and lo and behold, you’ve got a nice curve! Two nice curves – one [for] male and one [for] female, plotted against the illuminance on the horizontal. People say “well, why didn’t you do vertical”, because that is what people were looking at, and the answer is because the vertical illuminances were highly correlated with the horizontal illuminances and horizontal illuminance was used for design, so we thought we’d stick with that. So we got a nice curve, and we showed it to people and they said “Oh well, that’s New York City”! So we said, we’d better try something similar in Albany.
So, for a second study, we did urban and suburban parking lots, and we also did it by day and night.
What we found is interesting – the urban parking lots were not seen as safe as suburban ones even by day, except for two and when you looked at those two they had attendants, and the other ones didn’t. And then we found that when we looked at the lighting, all we did was measure illuminance, was that you could show that with good lighting you could get a level of safety, of perceived safety, up to the same level as in daytime. The thing about that was that I could only look at illuminance, and I really would have liked to have done spectrum and light distribution, particularly distribution, because uniformity is an expensive business. But someone recently has done a study like that and it showed that if you have a very uniform situation, you can drop illuminance and it’s [perceived as] equally safe. So I think that’s the two things I am probably most proud of. I feel I made a difference there.
- What makes you happy outside of work?
- What makes me happy. Ah, going riding with my daughter! Yes, we’ve got a horse, we’ve got a cob mare, which we go out on and plod around the fields, around the woods. My daughter lives in the same village as us, we went yesterday in fact.
- Very nice!
- Yes, very nice. Home life in general. And now I’m editor of the [Journal of] Lighting Research and Technology, and that keeps me very busy. Too busy now, I’m going to change this; I’m going to be Editor in chief and I’m going to have some associate editors – but that’s interesting!
- How do you manage life and work balance?
- You should ask my wife! She keeps telling me, “you work too much”! Let me tell you what my daughter said when she knew we were coming back from the States; she said to my wife: “you know, if Dad doesn’t have something to do, he’ll be intolerable”!
- I see, there is a plan!
- I think she’s right, yes. I have to have something to do, and I’ve been very lucky in the sense that I’ve managed to get into this particular activity, which is good, because I did it after I started writing a book and so on. But I must admit – a bit more of life and a bit less of work would be good.
- Great, thank you very much.