Photo:

Nazim Bharmal

Good luck to Adam & Leila: I'll still try to do some questions so keep asking.

Favourite Thing: I love getting a hard problem, figuring out if I can solve it, then working through the numbers to make sure it can be built, then trying to build it so….at the end you get a picture that you know only you have seen, and you get to tell the world about it! So if it involves light, astronomy, and especially how light gets between the stars and galaxies and our telescopes on the ground, count me in.

My CV

School:

The Latymer School, Edmonton, London from 1988 to 1996.

University:

Selwyn College, University of Cambridge; undergraduate from 1997 to 2000 (<- so I took a year out), and then for my Ph.D. from 2000 to 2004.

Work History:

At a engineering company in Hertfordshire, at the British Antarctic Survey (but only in Cambridge—I don’t like the cold!), at the Universities of Reading and Durham.

Employer:

At the Centre for Advanced Instrumentation, University of Durham. (Where all sorts of cool things are built: new ways of making 3D TV, supersharp microscopes, even tricking the eye so we can learn how humans focus.)

Current Job:

I work with lots of complicated optical instruments, putting them together so that they can measure the twinkling of stars (made up in the lab for testing, or at a telescope in the Canary Islands). My colleagues use these instruments to correct for the twinkling, and I help them do that when I have time.

Me and my work

Working on building optical instruments to take sharper pictures of galaxies, stars, and other ‘extra-terrestrial’ objects.

I am interested in Adaptive Optics, which is like the image stabilisation in digital cameras, but for optical telescopes, like this one (made in Newcastle Upon Tyne but now in Spain.) The atmosphere causes twinkling of the stars (and when you can’t see the twinkling youself, it is there but just really fast). This means the images taken by the telescope are blurry and faint, like this. But Adaptive Optics can help fix this: we can measure the “twinkling” using a sensor, and then apply reverse “twinkling” to the light from stars, galaxies, planets and even our sun, by using a deformable mirror, like this one. The mirror is about the size of a 2 pound coin, but ours costs more than a house! It can move over 1000 times per second, and if you put it all together then you can get sharp pictures of the sky, like this one. The really cool bit is when we use lasers to help us measure the “twinkling” more accurately; like the biggest laser pointer in the world! (That is a real photo.)

My Typical Day

No such thing as a typical day: a mixture of writing explanations of what I do, creating software to control electronics, or in the lab fiddling with optics experiments based on my explanations and using my software; and lots of tea.

I work with experiments, and I also do theoretical calculations and I love doing both and working in-between: coming up with new ideas and proving that they can work. So the first step is often writing up what I have got working, sometimes for journals so other scientists can see what I have done. The really fun bit for me is then working on one of a few ideas I usually have on how to improve adaptive optics, or how to do something nobody has thought of before. Because there is a lot of electronics and software involved, I have to sometimes write little computer programmes to control digital cameras, or deformable mirrors, or other equipment. Then the really hard bit for me: I take it all down into our lab, try to build a prototype and prove that my ‘paper model’ really works. If I am lucky, I can ask others in my team to help make a version to take out to a telescope to test but this is really expensive and difficult so it needs to be checked first.

What I'd do with the money

I would help school students in Uganda, who often have to learn science without any equipment: imagine learning with only a blackboard!

My dad grew up in Uganda, and we recently went back to his old school. Amazingly, after nearly 40 years, the school labs hadn’t changed and were actually in worse condition. (I’ll upload a photo we took later.) The students don’t have any experiments they can use to learn with, and the teacher often doesn’t either (imagine how much more boring science lessons would be if you just to talk about it). The Institute of Physics has a programme to help African schools: to show teachers how to make simple experiments, show them how to use them to teach, and then give them enough for at least one class. I’m lucky to have grown up in England where I got a free education with all the equipment right there in front of me, and so are you! So help me to help students who are keen (and I’ve talked to them) to learn but just can’t…yet.

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Amazed (because we can understand the world) ; happy (because my job is to understand a bit of it) ; nerdy (I hardly ever stop thinking!)

Who is your favourite singer or band?

(Only one choice?) Probably, New Order. Go on, listen to them. Best. Band. Ever. (Try ‘Blue Monday’.)

What is the most fun thing you've done?

Camping in the middle of the Australian desert with no tent; I never realised how many stars were in the sky!

If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!

I didn’t think about chocolate so much at work; I could cycle faster and further; I could always get my experiments working first time.

What did you want to be after you left school?

A scientist! (Well, actually an engineer and I now do a bit of both.)

Were you ever in trouble in at school?

Not really—was I too boring?!?—I think I got detention just the once.

What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?

To get a really hard experiment, that I’ve helped design and build, to actually work when it looked like it was broken—and at 2am in the morning!

Tell us a joke.

What is the wife of a Sultan called? ……. A Sultana !!