South Hampstead High School, 1970-1984, UCL 1985-present
BSc Physics and Astronomy, PhD Geophysics
All at UCL starting with a postdoc, a Royal Society University Research Fellowship, then a permanent job
Professor of Mineral Physics
Favourite thing to do in my job: finally understand something having not understood it before
I try to work out what is going on in the Earth’s core and in the cores of the terrestrial planets, e.g. Mercury
The Earth’s core (and those of other terrestrial planets) is made mainly of iron. I use computer simulations to calculate the properties of iron, and iron alloys, in order to find out what happens when you heat them up to 6000 degrees and squash them to 3.5 million times atmospheric pressure. On a computer I set up a box of atoms (see below) and calculate the energetics of the atoms, from which many useful properties can be worked out. The only real observations of the Earth’s core come from seismic waves propagating through the Earth after earthquakes. My job is to try to find materials with calculated velocities which match those from seismology. When we get this right, we will know something about the composition and evolution of the Earth and other planets, such as Mercury pictured below.
My Typical Day
I’m in front of a computer, teaching, meetings, in schools – no day is ever the same.
Before children (BC) I would work on my calculations pretty much all day, dipping in and out of the computer until bedtime. After children, my day has been transformed such that my work day is contracted to pretty much 9:30-5, sometimes less if I have to pick them up early. Also, my “maturity” means that I now have people who do the work for me, so I spend most of my day telling other people what to do (including getting my fab PhD student, Amy, to build a papier mache model of mercury! (she’s holding it below)). I also teach a couple of courses (maths and geophysics), write journal articles, write grants (to get the money to pay the people I tell what to do) and, this year in particular, I have spent a lot of time doing outreach activities, both here at UCL and in schools – so a typical day is never the same. On top of this, I do quite a lot of travelling to conferences, workshops, etc.; recently I have been to China, Japan, USA, France, Italy….. But the actual research is computer-based. And because I spend a lot of time in front of a computer, I have a walking desk! It can move up and down so that I can sit, stand or walk on a treadmill while I work !!
What I'd do with the prize money
Earthquakes in the Classroom – A portable earthquake generator
Already I go round schools talking about minerals with a few samples I’ve picked up along the way or borrowed. I’m not a geologist so I have friends who come with me to talk about rocks. A lovely example of one of my minerals is this pyrite, pictured below, which has grown out of the rock in the shape of a cube. This is an entirely natural sample – this is how it grows…amazing! But what would be really incredible is to turn up to schools with a portable earthquake generator. We would have a lump of rock which we would put in a small but suprisingly powerful, “rock squasher”. After cranking up the stress, the rock will explode releasing sound waves (earthquake waves) which we will detect with special types of microphones called seismic transducers. We will relay this information to a computer to reveal the processes leading to catastrophic failure and the classic seismogram seen in disaster movies (see below).
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
efficient, lucky, tenacious
What's the best thing you've done in your career?
train someone to be a better scientist than me
What or who inspired you to follow your career?
Were you ever in trouble at school?
not really but I got away with a lot of low level stuff
If you weren't doing this job, what would you choose instead?
host walking parties
Who is your favourite singer or band?
don’t really have one – supertramp, nick drake, ella, robbie…..
What's your favourite food?
wine (can I say that?) – or spinach (for the iron)
What is the most fun thing you've done?
sing in a jazz choir on Las Ramblas in Barcelona or an excellent day out on the Lake District fells
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
younger, fitter and funnier (you didn’t say they had to be realistic)
Tell us a joke.
I can’t. See above.