I made the final! Are you sure you guys have been paying attention...
Favourite Thing: Solving something. It very rarely happens, but occasionally you can write down a theory, calculate what should happen, and then do an experiment that agrees with it. When it does work, you know something new before anyone else in the world.
St Ambrose College, Hale Barns (near Manchester) (1999-2006); The University of Nottingham (2007-2011)
GCSEs, 4 A-Levels (Physics, Chemistry, Maths and Further Maths), 1st Class MSci (undergraduate masters degree) in Physics
The University of Nottingham, The British Army, various offices and a butcher’s shop
PhD student in Physics
The University of Nottingham
Me and my work
I’m a PhD student who studies what happens when you vibrate long, chain like molecules called polymers.
Hello! My name is Dave and I’m a Physics PhD student at the University of Nottingham.
My work can be summarised very simply as hitting things with a stick and watching them wobble, except that the things are 1000 times thinner than a human hair, and the stick is actually a laser.
Specifically, I vibrate very, very thin layers (about 100 billionths of a metre) of polymer molecules. To vibrate them, I attach them to a similarly thin metal layer, and then hit that with a very short pulse from a very powerful laser. This causes the metal to heat up and expand very suddenly, which wobbles the polymer layer. I can look at exactly how the polymer wobbles by bouncing another laser beam off it and measuring how the power of that beam changes. By doing this I can learn things about the structure of my polymer samples and what properties they have.
I also like to spend my time showing people outside of the University how fun and interesting Physics is (it is, honest!). I normally try do this with lots of demonstrations and, if possible, liquid nitrogen whenever I can find an excuse. For example, here is the finale of a live show I did recently where a make a cloud using some liquid nitrogen… 25 litres of it in fact!
My Typical Day
Coffee, cycle to work, coffee, go to the lab, coffee, more lab, lunch, even more lab time!, tea, mooch around office, pub.
When I get in I’ll go to my desk, have a coffee and sort out some emails. As you can see, my desk is kept in a Zen-like state of order:
At this point I’ll start to hide from my supervisor so he can’t give me anything else to do on top of what I already have. This never works so I’m soon off down to the lab to try out his latest idea:
In my research, I’m often trying to make new types of sample. To do this, I have to try many different things until I get what I want. This is the problem with trying to do something no-one has done before, it can be a pain, but it also feels really good when you find the right recipe to make something work. I use lots of different materials, but most often my samples are made of polymers, such as polystyrene. I also use gold occasionally, although for my work it needs to very pure, 99.999% in fact!
Once I’ve made my samples, I have to measure them, and for this I need the big laser…
Aligning this laser takes a long time, and I have to use a night vision scope to do it. This is because the laser is in the infra-red part of the electromagnetic spectrum, so can’t be seen by the naked eye.
I also have to do other things, such as writing papers for publication, but I’m primarily an experimental physicist, so I do spend most of my time in the lab. I’ve had the opportunity for travel abroad as well. Most recently I went to Switzerland to lead a team of students at the International Physics Tournament.
I love my work, and even though it can be hard when things aren’t working, there’s nothing I’d rather be doing.
What I'd do with the money
I’d like to create a series of YouTube videos that explain areas of physics on the GCSE and A-Level syllabus in greater depth
The idea is for the videos to be more than just revision videos, there are many resources out there that can help people learn what they need to pass an exam. The idea of these videos will be to try and help people UNDERSTAND the topics a bit better. My hope is that while the videos will, ultimately, help people pass their exams, they will do so in a way that lets people understand that physics is a fascinating and fun subject rather than just a bunch of formulas that need to be memorised.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Excitable, friendly, mischievous.
Who is your favourite singer or band?
Really like the new Daft Punk album, also listening to a lot of The Black Keys recently.
What's your favourite food?
Very hard to beat proper fish and chips.
What is the most fun thing you've done?
White-water rafting in Ecuador was pretty good.
What did you want to be after you left school?
Professional cricketer, had to give that dream up due to a horrible lack of talent.
Were you ever in trouble in at school?
Yes, particularly with my History teacher, we never quite saw eye to eye!
What was your favourite subject at school?
Biology up until A-Levels as I had a very good teacher. After that, Physics, because it got more interesting.
What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?
I built a device that levitates things using sound waves. There are pictures and a video of it below.
What or who inspired you to become a scientist?
I always wanted to find out how things work. If you keep asking “Why?” long enough about anything, you come back to Physics!
If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?
A videogame designer, mostly so I’d get to play lots of games.
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
1. To not have to worry about money (for obvious reasons); 2. Jedi powers (i’m lazy, would be useful to levitate things towards me so I don’t have to move); 3. A photographic memory (for revision/learning things!)
Tell us a joke.
Crime in multi-storey car parks. It’s wrong on so many different levels.
My work nest, it may look cluttered, but I know exactly where everything is. Most of the time anyway…:
The lab. This is where I spend most of my time preparing my samples. The bottom picture is from our ellipsometer. This is a device that lets us measure the thickness of very thin films using a laser beam:
The big laser. It’s actually in four separate bits: one laser pumps another which goes into a third box which makes it a very short pulse. This is then fed into the biggest beige box which amplifies the pulse by cycling it round and around:
These are all optical components to bounce and focus the laser beam to where we want it to be. It takes a long time to get them in the right place!
My ultrasonic levitator, those are little bits of polystyrene that are levitating in a sound wave:
It’s basically a speaker (on top) and a piece of aluminium (on the bottom) that reflects the sound and sets up a standing wave. The polystyrene beads sit on top of concentrated cushions of air in this wave
Here’s a video of it in action: