On Tuesday 20 November 2012 the final of the Very Early Career Physics Communicator Award is happening here at the IOP in London. The prize is awarded to people at the start of their careers in physics who have undertaken activities that support and encourage excellent communication of physics.
Professor Jim Al-Khalili will be here giving a keynote talk on “Quantum Physics on TV: the making of a science documentary”. Then each of the four shortlisted physics communicators will make their case to the judges before a winner is chosen. You can sign up here if you’d like to attend this (free!) event, or follow along on Twitter through the hashtag #iopPhysComm.
In the run up to the final we’ll be finding out more about each of the shortlisted entrants. Today we talk to Andrew Steele, who recently completed a PhD at the University of Oxford.
What does your research focus on?
My PhD was looking at new kinds of magnets and superconductors, and trying to work out why materials behave in the way that they do. The behaviour of materials like these is crucial to many different technologies, from the hard drive in your computer to hospital scanners, and the devices of the future depend on us better understanding how materials work.
One particular type of materials I looked at are so-called molecular magnets, which are made up of elements like carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and so on—the elements of organic chemistry. The big scientific advantage of these materials is that they’re a lot more chemically flexible than a big bar magnet made of just iron: we can make subtle alterations to their molecular structure, and see how that affects its magnetic properties.
Physicists are trying to come up with general rules which would allow us to predict how a magnet will behave from first principles. Hopefully, one day, a technologist will be able to come up to us and say ‘Hey, I’ve got this brilliant idea for a quantum computer, but it needs a magnet with the following properties,’ and we’d say ‘No problem, I’ll bring you three after lunch.’ At the moment, we might say ‘Come back in a year and it’ll work at two hundred degrees below freezing.’ But we’re working on it!
What made you want to communicate physics?
I just love explaining things—whether it’s teaching undergrads or talking to teenagers, it’s brilliant fun to try to reformulate knowledge into new language and concepts until they ‘get it’. I very much believe that you can’t say you truly understand something until you can explain it to someone else—perhaps not your granny, physics is hard!—but someone who doesn’t yet ‘get’ the thing you’re explaining to them. (Unless your granny happens to be a Professor Emerita in Quantum Field Theory or something, in which case you’re cheating, in a number of respects. Perhaps you could get her to explain things to you.)
Also, indulgently, we do get to play with some pretty cool stuff—look, a model train which levitates using liquid nitrogen! It would take a churlish granny (or teenager) not to love that.
What’s your favourite communication project out of those you’ve been involved in?
I’ve really enjoyed FameLab, and I’d definitely recommend that other budding science-talkers give it a go. (I think it’s too late for in-person entries for 2013, but online video entries are possible until the end of the year.) It’s very, very hard—coming up with a topic which you can squeeze, fully-formed into just three minutes is a nightmare, but a joy once you’ve managed it!
I was lucky enough to get through to the international competition, which is pleasingly crazy. (Watch me talking in the International Final, if you’re interested.) FameLab has gone viral, with over 20 countries involved worldwide now. And it’s big abroad: one year, the Turkish final was watched by 20 million people! (I’m afraid the UK competition isn’t quite that huge.) I’ve even been on Czech and Serbian national TV, and actually I’m in Prague this week as a result. Madness!
Would you like to see more physicists getting involved in science communication?
Definitely. So many students have come up to me after talks and shows and told me that physics, or even science, was never their favourite subject, but that now they want to know more about it. I don’t think it’s widely known just how broad physics really is—astronomy and particle physics are beautiful and mind-blowing gateway drugs into the world of science, but there are big fundamental questions and lots of practical ones in other areas of physics too (did you know that the Higgs mechanism—the same one which gives rise to the famous boson—was first studied in superconductors?). I love astronomy and particle physics, but I’d also love to see physicists in other disciplines getting more involved: from technology, to economics, to biology, the physicists’ trick of using smart mathematics to describe the world around us has a lot of mileage in it. So if you’re interested in asking questions, solving problems and helping people, physics is a great way to do it… and we need to communicate that.