St Macartan’s Secondary School, Monaghan, Ireland (1980-1985); Dublin City University (1985-1993)
Following my PhD at Dublin City University, I was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Nottingham (1994-1997). Then a lecturer at Nottingham. Then a Reader at Nottingham. And then, since 2005, a professor. At, errmm, Nottingham.
Professor of Physics
University of Nottingham
Favourite thing to do in my job: In science? Push atoms around, one at a time, to make structures no-one has ever seen before.
We’re aiming to do 3D printing with atoms.
I’m a Professor of Physics at the University of Nottingham. Alongside teaching undergraduates, I manage a research group which focuses on imaging and controlling not only individual atoms and molecules, but single chemical bonds. You can find out about the research we do by taking a look at these videos, from the Sixty Symbols YouTube channel:
Sixty Symbols is just one of a number of science- and maths-dedicated channels from the talented and prolific video-maker, Brady Haran). Working with Brady has allowed me to connect with lots of people who share my interest in physics (and science in general).
Although I don’t share my infamous namesake‘s fascination with the binomial theorem, in my spare time I enjoy exploring the relationships between mathematics/physics and music.
My Typical Day
There isn’t a typical day!
Every year I visit my children’s primary school to give a talk on what it’s like to be a scientist. Here’s a list of some of the things I tell them I do:
Write. A lot. Papers, reports, books, blog posts, articles…
Give lectures and talks.
Analyse the results of experiments.
Supervise PhD students and postdoctoral researchers.
Travel. (I’m writing this “I’m A Scientist…” profile from a hotel room in Prague.)
Invent (and sometimes build) things.
Apply for funding. (Lots of time spent on this.)
Write blog posts and articles.
Set and mark exams. Mark coursework.
And, most importantly,…
Try to understand how Nature works.
Play. (This is essential for scientific research).
What I'd do with the prize money
Put the money towards funding the development of a computer game based on our research (MekNano) or a video for a physics-inspired rock song.
My colleagues and I have recently submitted a grant application to fund our research to develop three-dimensional atom positioning techniques. (There’s more information in this recent blog post (although some of it is quite technical)). As part of what’s called the “impact” component of that application, we have proposed to develop a computer game based on the research we’re developing.
This game has the working title MekNano. The idea is that the player builds structures an atom at a time using different probes (just like we do in the lab). Importantly, the atoms can only be put together in ways that are true to the real-life quantum physics and chemistry. The player won’t need to know about quantum physics to play the game (!) but MekNano will use quantum physics and chemistry in its gameplay.
We’re also thinking about a ‘soundtrack’ for the game. This would involve a mixture of physics, chemistry, maths, and metal, a little like we did previously for the video below (but with more physics- and chemistry-inspired content).
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Too. Much. Coffee.
What's the best thing you've done in your career?
Taught students who have gone on to do much more remarkable things than I’ve ever achieved!
What or who inspired you to follow your career?
My uncle was a radio amateur (radio ‘ham’). When I was eight or nine, he and I used to built electronic circuits on a piece of wood, using drawing pins to hold the components in place. We built a crystal radio — a radio that doesn’t need a battery (or, apparently, any source of power) to work. Hearing a radio station “out of the aether” from a circuit I built was a key moment of inspiration for me.
Were you ever in trouble at school?
Yes, quite a bit. Generally in Religion class. I was an atheist at a Catholic school (which had previously been a seminary). Not a match made in heaven…
If you weren't doing this job, what would you choose instead?
Sound engineer or a (very bad) musician.
Who is your favourite singer or band?
What's your favourite food?
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Just *one* choice? That’s tough… On the science/teaching side one of the most fun things I do is a ferrofluid (magnetic liquid) demonstration for primary schools. Watching a class of Year 1 kids all go “wow” when the ferrofluid jumps out of a beaker because its attracted to a magnet held above…that’s a lot of fun.
Tell us a joke.
Did you hear about the girl who got cooled to absolute zero? She’s OK now. [Ouch. Sorry.]