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The True History of Jeremy - An Interview with Associate Professor Helen Johnston

"If you’d asked me 30-something years ago if it was still going to be called Jeremy, I would have laughed so hard. I don’t know what that means about the shear innate conservatism of physicists."

Jeremy editors caught up with Associate Professor Helen Johnston. While she is know for her astrophysics research, she also has a long history with Jeremy. While she revealed the secrets to the origin of Jeremy, most secrets are too outrageous for public consumption and must stay secret.

So how did you first hear about Jeremy?

It’s way better than that, I invented Jeremy. Which is to say Jeremy started in my generation of the physics society. Which, and here I have to have a little rant because I have never known whether it’s PHIsoc or FIZZsoc because I’m sure when we were around we used to pronounce it FIZZsoc and now people have all started writing it with a phi and it’s become PHIsoc and I’m very confused.

Anyhow, back in the dark ages of the 1980’s when I was an undergraduate the physics society had basically died. As student societies do all the time. So me and a bunch of friends were in 3rd year and decided we were going to revitalise it and obviously the first thing to do was to revitalise the newsletter at the time it was called ‘The PhySoc Rag’ which is a terrible name for a newsletter and so we went around saying we want to bring back the PhySoc newsletter but we need a new name for it you see and you know go around asking lecturers in the corridor, asking students, you know what should the name for our magazine be.

And eventually one of my good friends said...

...and literally that’s how we got Jeremy...

...a long-lost brother of Ernest Rutherford called Jeremy Rutherford who had failed in physics and was actually a ticket collector on the London underground...

...So that’s why Jeremy is called Jeremy.

There’s rumours about it (Jeremy) being the name of one of Messel’s crocodiles, did that get made up?

Yeah, well that’s because the logo then became one of Harry Messel's crocodiles with the little transmitter on its head. And so there was a picture of the crocodile and Jeremy next to it. So I guess everyone assumed that the name of the crocodile was Jeremy. But no, Messel never, to my knowledge, never named one of his crocodiles Jeremy. It was just there was a crocodile and there was Jeremy, the name of the newsletter and there you go.

Did it ever have anything to do with 19th century philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham?

Well, I'm here to put on record that that's...

On the note of Messel, why the crocodile?

This is what Harry Messel actually did, he had this project to build little radio transmitters

and stick them on the heads of crocodiles and I don't know what he did with it. I mean, he followed crocodiles, I mean, you know, this was back in the 60s and 70s. So the technology was primitive, shall we say, they didn't have tiny little GPS trackers and that he had to take, you know, big antennas on top of four wheel drives up to the Northern Territory and the little transmitters he put on the crocodile's heads were like the size of a dinner plate, the poor crocodiles is all I can say, with a little mast sticking up.

And I guess he was doing something about crocodile behaviour or something. I have absolutely no idea. But yes, he did. And he used to go on these expeditions up to the Northern Territory and track crocodiles.

But was it made the Jeremy logo just because he was head of physics at the time or was there was there something going on with the crocodiles at the time?

There was just this this post-doc. No, he was a post grad student in plasma physics at the time. I believe he was just this fantastic cartoonist and he used to just draw caricatures of lecturers and things.

And one day he drew a crocodile and we said, hey, can we use that in our newsletter? And we did. Everyone always assumes there’s deep meaning behind things and there really, really isn't… bearer of bad news here.

So, what’s your favourite memory of Jeremy, or working on Jeremy?

I don't know, it was just fun because, you know, we used to leave piles of them actually in lecture theatres and, you know, physically go and shove them into people's hands and that and I think the best one was the quotes competition was always so popular and it really was a really good way of getting like first years into it because even first years who were too shy to ask questions, can and did write down the really stupid things they like to say.

And we used to have a little post-box, you know, literally opposite Slade (lecture theatre) where you could drop your entries for the competition in and that. So that was that was always really good and seeing some of the things that lecturers say in lectures makes you realize just how dumb you can be when you're talking on your feet. And again, I think it did, it then encouraged the first to to join in and to listen and, you know, maybe while they were listening they learnt some physics, I don't know.

But the competition was definitely, definitely my favourite of the whole thing. We did always have a suspicion that after a while some lecturers started saying stupid things just so they could get to the competition.

I'm sure people like Tim Bedding are not above doing that, for instance.

Apparently there's a rivalry between Bedding and Bartlett for the competition to have any and really any idea when that came in, because it seems to have been in place the entire time we've been.

Well, you've got to remember, that Tim Bedding is of my era. So he was a student and what was probably putting entries into the competition when I was running Jeremy. So (the rivalry) clearly started past my time. But yes, no, I think you want to revive it just because I'd like to see that, Tim and Stephen going head to head for quotes.

Reread 2020 Issue 6 here.

We've got to compete with the maths, the quote competition. Now, they've started one.

Oh, I see right, now we have the occasional maths ringer, people would put entries from maths lecturer's in.

What was or is the best article that you've seen in Jeremy past or present?

My favourite. And again, you have to understand, I haven't read Jeremy closely for the last few years, if you know what I mean. So this is, I’m definitely coloured by all this. But the absolutely marvellous article that was written about the the quantum existence of screwdrivers, that was definitely my favourite. Yes. And how all screwdriver's are actually, a quantum superposition of the one that's too big is the one that's too small, which is called crowbar and tiepin, you see and left to themselves any useful screwdriver, it’s state will collapse into one of the two useless cases you see.

Read it here.

So what would you like to see Jeremy do in the future?

The best thing about things like Jeremy is that you really can bring everybody together, you know the lecturers are giggling over the same jokes the students are and stuff and that’s really the thing that can make people feel like they’re part of the department. When lecturers are telling students about, oh no someone’s going to write that down and it’ll end up in Jeremy, it makes everyone feel like they belong.

- Interviewed by Martine and Sam

The Jeremy Quotes Competition is back! Send us the best/worst quotes you've heard your lecturers say here.

Interested in writing (or making jokes) about the latest in physics? Let us know at

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