Winner! Thanks so much everyone for the votes and amazing questions! WOOP!
Manchester University: 2003-2007; Havant College: 2001-2003; Horndean Community School (now known as Horndean Technology College): 1996-2001
About to submit my thesis for a PhD at Oxford University; MPhys in Physics and Astrophysics; AAB A-levels; 5 A* GCSEs
A National Laboratory, a fire-detector factory, a garden centre and a home DIY store
Particle Accelerator Physicist at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory
Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC)
Favourite thing to do in my job: I love bringing together all kinds of different bits of science into one experiment: lasers, lightning, plasma, robots and explosions!
I studied astrophysics at university, so I know all about stars and planets, but now I work on particle accelerators!
I operate a negative hydrogen ion source. This takes hydrogen atoms from an ordinary gas bottle and adds an extra electron to them: so one proton orbited by two electrons. It’s pretty difficult to do this and the end result is quite fragile. It needs an intricate balance between all kinds of exciting science: vacuum, high voltage, strong magnetic fields, high temperatures, explosive gases, exotic metals… All of this equipment to operate a device that fits in the palm of the hand!
I also work on other bits of the accelerator. For example I’ve designed and had manufactured several big electromagnets which I’m very proud of. I also designed lots of parts in a big copper accelerator structure called a ‘radio frequency quadrupole’ (RFQ) which I’m very excited to see work when it turns on toward the end of the year!
My Typical Day
Loud and excitable discussions with colleagues whilst twiddling dials on fancy equipment and peering into a beautiful purple plasma.
After about half an hour replying to emails that come in overnight from international partners, I check the operation of the machine (the ISIS Pulsed Spallation Neutron Source in Oxfordshire) and my specific part of it (the ion source); giving a tweak to the settings if necessary. Then I’ll either carry on designing some new parts for the ion source, seeing how they should work in simulations, or testing them for real on the machine. Because it’s all new and theoretical, it’s very exciting to put it all together and test it. Problems or unexpected results often happen which need lots of boisterous brainstorming with colleagues to work out what’s going on. All of this whilst trying not to destroy any expensive equipment or hurt myself in any number of interesting ways!
I get up to all sorts, though. For example I might help install new kit or clean old kit in other parts of the accelerator when it is in a scheduled shut-down. I might give tours to audiences ranging from school kids to high-up politicians. I might be preparing a presentation or journal paper for an international conference. At present I am actually involved with organising a conference: I’m in charge of gathering sponsorship funding, as well as designing the website. Every day is different and I’ve got such a lot going on which is why I put ‘busy’ as one of the words to describe me!
What I'd do with the prize money
Build an incredible high voltage sparking xylophone!
I regularly give talks to schools either by visiting them in person or during their tours at our laboratory. I particularly like doing electrical demonstrations with the high voltage Van de Graff generator and would like to come up with more demos. One thing that has caught my eye is a high voltage pipe organ which has spark gaps held inside plastic tubes. The tubes are different lengths so the zaps that you hear from the sparks have different musical notes, just like a pipe organ. If I won the money I’d use it to build one of these musical instruments and take it with me on my school visits.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Busy, inventive and patient.
What's the best thing you've done in your career?
Switched on my new laboratory and it produced a bigger particle beam than ever seen before.
What or who inspired you to follow your career?
My grandad and his best friend were two of the last people alive to see an atomic bomb blast, having helped in the Manhattan Project. I personally don’t especially want to be involved in bombs, but the fact that these two guys did such extraordinarily rare physics like that was very inspiring.
Were you ever in trouble at school?
One time I got a detention for (predictably) messing about with high voltage. Suffice to say things got a little burnt…!
If you weren't doing this job, what would you choose instead?
Astronaut or architect.
Who is your favourite singer or band?
What's your favourite food?
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Kayaking through a tunnel into a volcanic island to see some real wild monkeys in their natural habitat. One of a kind experience.
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
First I’d want enough money to pay off the mortgage and set the kids up comfortably (boring, I know!). Then I’d love to be the first man on Mars. Finally, I wish I had all the powers of a character in Dragonball Z (nerd!).
Tell us a joke.
Why didn’t the bicycle cross the road? It was two-tired.