Out, but not down!
EducationWirral Grammar School for Boys (Bebington) (1979-1985)
QualificationsCambridge University (Clare College) (1985-1991)
Work HistoryOxford University (1992-1993), Birmingham University (1994-1995), Manchester University (1995-2010)
Current JobJames Martin Professor in Energy Materials
Oxford University, Department of Materials (since Sept 2010)
Favourite thing to do in my job: I love it when an experiment works! – you spend ages thinking about what should happen, and put loads of effort into getting the materials and the people and the equipment together, and then it really does happen! (usually not quite as you expected, but that gives your loads of ideas for the next experiment)
My Work: I’m working out how materials get damaged, and how to make them stronger and more resistant to damage.
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. Here are some of our pictures of a stress corrosion crack, imaged by tomography. 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. This next pictures show an aluminium oxide ceramic, and a model of the strains in its structure that cause cracks. We can use the interaction between crystals and X-rays at the synchrotron to see the individual crystal grains, and also to study their structure.
We can see the effects of the strains in the material using crystal diffraction, and use this to test our models. The strains between the crystal grains cause cracking, so we can then try to make materials that are less likely to crack by reducing these strains. We’ve not tried that yet, but it might be done by making subtle changes to the chemistry and processing of the alumina.
All of the images above are the result of work by my research group and other collaborators.
You can find out a bit more about our work (and materials science) at these sites, but please do ask me anything!
I put an occasional blog on my page here, mostly about major meetings that I’ve been to. The list of published papers is very incomplete – it’s a new feature of the site that I’ve not had time to play with – writing and publishing papers is very important for university scientists
This is a really exciting initiative, aiming to solve the huge problems of the 21st Century by bringing together scholars from a wide range of fields. They fund much of my current work at Oxford. I have no idea how they found that photo of me, it’s at least 15 years old! I’ll edit it and put more info on the site when I get a chance
I’ve joined this group recently at the Institute of Materials. There’s some good info in the Features tab on how materials are used in energy. Please do click on the link – I want to do an experiment to see if we can create a blip in the website statistics, which are currently very low!
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 cycle to work most mornings (it was beautiful this morning in the sun).
Once I get there, 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!) – I 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 synchrotrons such as the Diamond Light Source or the ESRF, where I can do X-ray tomography 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!).
This next picture shows that teamwork is really important to make these experiments work! (This is the stress corrosion experiment that I mention elsewhere – can you guess which are my hands? or even how many people were there?)
I’m married (my wife is an artist), have got two great kids (both at primary school, aged 6 and 10) and one goldfish (we had two!), and it’s great to go home to them at the end of the day (not sure the goldfish ever notices me, however!)
What I'd do with the prize money: I’d get a teacher to join me on an experiment at a synchrotron, 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 the Diamond Light Source synchrotron 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 on the synchrotron – 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
Were you ever in trouble at school?
Nope! (my mum was a teacher)
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!”