Out, but not down!
Wirral Grammar School for Boys (Bebington) (1979-1985)
Cambridge University (Clare College) (1985-1991)
Oxford University (1992-1993), Birmingham University (1994-1995), Manchester University (1995-2010)
James Martin Professor in Energy Materials
Oxford University, Department of Materials (since Sept 2010)
I am working out how materials get damaged, and how to make them stronger and more resistant to failure.
I’m a Materials Scientist, which means I study the interaction between materials (things we make stuff from, such as metals, ceramics, composites, polymers…), properties (such as strength, toughness, stiffness, conductivity, magnetism….) and processing (the way you make the material or the final product has a huge effect on its properties). It’s a mix of physics, chemistry and engineering. It even includes biology. It’s great fun.
The materials that I’m most interested in now are the structural materials for nuclear fission energy, particularly for the future designs that will be built in the next few decades (These are known as “Generation IV“). Structural materials must be strong and tough for safety, and they need to remain that way all through the life of a reactor. However, high temperatures and irradiation can change the materials and damage them. We need to know how to predict this. The same kinds of materials are needed for nuclear fusion too, and there are some even more extreme conditions there.
The materials that I’m most interested in are nuclear graphite (big blocks of it are in the core of gas-cooled nuclear fission reactors), silicon-carbide ceramic composites (these will be used to contain the fuel in some designs) and high strength steels, particularly those that resist corrosion and irradiation. These steels are really important! (Ask me why)
I mostly do experimental work, and use new techniques like three-dimensional imaging (X-ray Tomography) to watch how damage and cracks develop. More recently, we’ve started to use neutrons (available on the STFC facilities of IMAT and Engin_X), and I’m very excited about what can be done using diffraction imaging. We can see the effects of strains in a material using crystal diffraction, and use this to test our models. We use these, and other methods, to work out how the material resists cracking, and to develop better materials. I also work with people who do mathematical modelling. It’s very important that models and experiments are done together.
My Typical Day:
Encouraging, helping and guiding the researchers who work with me, talking to them to get the most from our results, and then working out how to move onto the next thing that we want to do.
I’m really lucky to live in Oxford, so I can usually cycle to work most mornings).
There are lots of emails to be dealt with every day (and evening) – science needs people to work together and communication is really important. They’re all sorts of things, such as simple requests for information (or things that I need to do!) or scientific papers or research reports that my partners are writing that I need to read and comment on. A lot of them are about setting up meetings (loads of meetings!) – normally I would travel quite a bit.
The best emails are the ones from my students and researchers with new data in them – pictures and graphs that need to be understood. Ask me what’s in my inbox at the moment.
The rest of the day could then be meetings. This is where the real work is done – discussing ideas and results, thinking aloud, planning what do to – with people. Or I may be working on a research idea, so I need to read papers and check what others have done and how I can add my bit. Or I may be writing a paper or a research proposal (these can take months) – you need to describe what you have done or plan to do, and why it’s worth doing!
I also give lectures, which I enjoy!
The best work days are when I get to take part in experiments, particularly on big bits of kit like IMAT or Engin_X (neutron facilities) or Diamond (X-rays) with my students and researchers. You work 24 hours a day, but the results come in really fast and they are always new and exciting. (Sometimes the experiment doesn’t work first time, in which case it’s about the worst thing ever, particularly at 4 am in the morning!).
What I'd do with the prize money:
I’d get a teacher to join me on an experiment at IMAT (neutron source) or the Diamond Light Source, so they can tell everyone about the science we can do with one!
You need enthusiasm and experience to be a great teacher. I think the experience of taking part in a real experiment at a large facility like IMAT would be really inspiring – it’s also a great chance to talk and ask questions (about anything, not just the experiment) as you’re together for a long time in a small, rather warm, room for several days almost 24 hours a day (loads of clean T-shirts needed, please!).
The physics of tomography and diffraction (the main tools we use) are not very complicated – the most important thing is the Bragg equation, which you will probably learn at school. It’s also a great chance to see what other experiments people are doing – most are happy to chat about it during the night!
I’d hope that the lucky teacher would take this experience and enthusiasm back to their school (and others). We’d involve them in the preparation for the experiment also, and we would come into schools to explain what we’re doing. We would also do a live twitter feed and skype chats during the experiment to keep in touch with you all.
How do you think I should choose the teacher? Perhaps from the school that asks the most challenging questions? What are your ideas?
What’s the money needed for? Mostly to pay for the supply teacher, who would work at the school while the other teacher was with us!
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Enthusiastic, encouraging, optimistic
What did you want to be after you left school?
A theoretical physicist – so why am I an experimental materials scientist?
Were you ever in trouble at school?
Nope! (my mum was a teacher)
If you weren't doing this job, what would you choose instead?
Who is your favourite singer or band?
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Going down a snowy hill that was way too steep, on a sledge, with my kids. We all survived and they wanted to do it again!
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
To be able to play the guitar (instead of the bassoon) and to be better at talking with other people. The third one is a secret.
Tell us a joke.
Two scientists are talking in a lab one day and one says to the other, “Wait till you see my latest discovery. It’ll blow your mind!” Naturally intrigued, the second scientist asks for a demonstration of this amazing discovery. At his request, the first scientist gets a spider out of a matchbox, places it on the desk and says, “Spider FORWARDS!” At his command, the spider moves forwards. The scientist then says, “Spider, TURN AROUND”, to which the spider obeys. The scientist then says “Spider, FORWARDS”, and again the spider does exactly as it is told. The second scientist, impressed with his friend’s command of the spider, congratulates him on his work. The first scientist then replies, “No, you haven’t seen my discovery yet. Wait till you see *THIS*”, and he then pulls all of the spiders legs off and places it back on the desk. The first scientist then repeats his order to the spider “Spider, FORWARDS”, but the spider doesn’t move. “Spider, TURN AROUND”. But it still doesn’t move. By this point the second scientist is getting a little confused, and so asks his friend what it is he’s trying to do, pointing out that the spider isn’t going to move. “Exactly!” the first replies. “I’ve just discovered that when you pull a spider’s legs out, they go deaf!”