Thank you everyone - it's been good fun...
Favourite Thing: The challenge of putting together and performing an experiment when you know you only have a week or so of “beamtime” to get the data you want. Also – showing kids science using liquid nitrogen and exploding pringles tubes!
St. Catherine’s Primary School, Swindon. St. Joseph’s Comprehensive School, Swindon (until 2004)
University of Bath (undergraduate until 2008, Postgraduate now)
Swindon Town Football Club, DHL warehouse, Science and Technology Facilities Council,
University of Bath
Me and my work
Looking at how atoms move about inside amorphous materials using neutron scattering
Unfortunately I can’t upload photos here, but I’ve uploaded a selection of photos from work and play time here – http://gallery.me.com/d.whittaker#100200
I work at neutron and x-ray sources around the world. By firing a beam of neutrons (or x-rays) at a material and detecting how they scatter, we can work out where the atoms inside that material are and how they’re jiggling about basically using Bragg’s Law of diffraction.
From that you can work out things like how heat and sound travel through the material. Glasses are solids that look liquid (disordered) and are much harder to deal with than crystals – where atoms all line up in perfect order. I look at glasses under high pressures – about 20 GPa, It’s like putting all the weight of 40 busses onto your finger.
If you go down towards the centre of the earth, you start to get very high temperatures and pressures. By studying what happens to Silica glass (which is the main ingredient of sand) and other similar glasses in the lab we can help figure out what’s hapenning under our feet (e.g. earthquakes). I also look at how atoms jiggle about inside glasses by using neutron spectroscopy.
I work both with the University of Bath and the Science and Technology Facilities council, who run the ISIS spallation neutron source. So my work is mostly split between Bath and Oxford day-to-day with frequent trips to Grenoble in France (the ILL neutron source there is one the UK contributes some cash towards). The result is that I know a lot about how ISIS works and have two supervisors – like having a mum and a dad who don’t always agree!
On a personal note, I white water kayak in the little spare time I have and have started enjoying Salsa – though I’m not very good at it yet! I’m a keen swimmer (especially when I fall out of the kayak – which has yet to happen on a proper river, thank God!). I love meeting new people and travelling around, I make sure I take advantage of all the travelling I get to do with work! I’m also a sucker for a “high concept” US drama – I love 24 and lost.
My Typical Day
Every day tends to be different
Neutrons take a lot of effort and cost a lot of money to produce (you need either a nuclear reactor or what we call a spallation source). So there are only a few in the world – the UK has one in Didcot – www.isis.rl.ac.uk, France has a couple (one in Grenoble that I visit a lot – www.ill.fr). These sources have something in the middle producing neutrons and lots of instruments (usually 30 or so) around it, each “instrument” is like it’s own lab and has 3 or 4 people working on it and is tuned for different types of experiments.
We typically do 6 big experiments or so a year, each takes 1 or 2 weeks we work very hard (sometimes up at 4am). It’s tough work, but it means I get to work in Chicago, the south of France and lots of places around the UK and we take time off when we’re there.
A day might start at midday and finish at 3pm when I’m on an experiment. Or it could start at 5am and finish at 11pm. Every day is different. A lot of my time is spent making samples (it’s not too disimilar to glass blowing – you heat up powders till they’re at 1600 degrees, then dunk them in liquid nitrogen instead of water).
We also have to put together some big pressure rigs etc. so it’s hands on. I do a little high-level computer programming (high level meaning it’s easier than propper computer programming!) to help analyse data and operate the machines we work at.
I spend about 3 months a year in a hotel room somewhere (mostly Oxford or Grenoble, France). Which I enjoy – no cooking, no cleaning! While some weeks are standard office weeks – looking at data, writing talks and writing up results.
What I'd do with the money
Trips to Rutherford Appleton Laboratory for local schools
Rutherford Appleton Laboratory has the world’s most powerful spallation neutron source (http://www.isis.stfc.ac.uk/), the world’s most powerful laser (http://www.clf.rl.ac.uk/), projects which help CERN (http://public.web.cern.ch/public/) and testing facilities for satellites (http://www.esa.int/esaCP/index.html).
The science that they do at the lab is fantastic and hugely varied. Some of the top world scientists work there regularly. The facilities are pretty impressive too – it’s real science and really big science. Often people don’t get to see this sort of science on this sort of scale and that’s a shame. Everyone who visits enjoys it.
They’re willing to run tours for schools for free. However, transportation has to be arranged by the school and this costs money. I would try to arrange with our local schools (or yours if they’re interested!) for some tours around the biggest and best facilities at the laboratory and pay for that
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Energetic, Quirky, ….very slightly geeky :-)
Who is your favourite singer or band?
Lost Prophets or Killers
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Skiing down some beautiful mountains in France
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
The ability to teleport (so I could see friends that live around the country more easily), The ability to eat as much as I want and not gain weight, money for a research assistant to do all the boring bits of my job :-)
What did you want to be after you left school?
When I was younger – an astronaut or a policeman. Then in secondary school I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but I was good at physics so I stuck with it for a bit.
Were you ever in trouble at school?
Yes, quite a lot. Until yr 11, I was a little bit of a terror. But luckily I grew up and decided my grades were important. I turned it around and went from all D’s and E’s in Mock GCSEs to all B’s in actual GCSE and all A,A,B at A level.
What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?
Science-wise – we were the first people to experimentally get a partial vibrational density of states for a glassy material (usually it’s all done by simulation), a method now being explored by others. But personally my best moment was when I went to Aberystwith and gave a presentation at quite a big conference. I’m a nervous presenter. I look out into the audience and the guy who wrote the paper I was basing a lot of my work on was sat there. Everyone except me was a professor. I wasn’t even a Dr. yet! I felt so out of my depth. But I gave my talk, I thought it was good, my supervisor thought it was great and I’d used “gold”, “silver”, “bronze” to label varous results I had. From that point on all the other speakers said things like “I guess you could call this my silver result”. I was very chuffed!
Tell us a joke.
A neutron walks into a bar, orders a drink and goes to pay. The barman says “It’s ok, no charge for you” (the geekiest joke I know :-) )