This is the third in a series of blogs by the five ScienceGrrls who featured in “She Blinded Me With Science”. If you haven’t yet seen the video, it’s here and all sales proceeds are being donated to ScienceGrrl!
Hi, I’m Ceri Brenner. I’m laser plasma physicist at the Science and Technology Facilities Council. I use ultra-intense lasers to super-heat small, metal targets in order to generate high quality beams of radiation (protons, electrons, X-rays).
For a long while I’ve struggled with the answer to the question at parties or other social events: “So, what do you do?” I used to lead with “I’m an experimental physicist”, the response to which was, more often than not, “Oh wow, nice, ummm but what does that mean?” followed by some awkward shuffling.
The first mistake was leading with what I am, not what I do. The second was dropping two words that make most people feel uncomfortable and struggle to start a conversation from. This is one of the reasons why I’m such a passionate public speaker for physics, I’d love for “experimental physicist” to one day be as ordinary a response as lawyer, journalist, vet, nurse…… But until then, I’ve switched to using a more inviting approach.
I worked out after my first few experiences of science communication that people are interested in what I do and why I do it, not who I am and where I work. I can talk at length about how I study what happens when super intense lasers heat up matter to millions of degrees in less than a trillionth of a second, transforming it into the extreme 4th state known as plasma. About how I’m developing the potential applications of this research as varied as:
- helping with our severe future energy deficit;
- developing advanced cancer diagnosis and treatment options; and
- mimicking astrophysical conditions so that we can study extreme events in the lab such as supernova blast waves.
This is what gets me excited about what I do and I really enjoy seeing that excitement spread to others when I talk about what I do for a living. That’s why my answer to that question is now: “I get to press fire on the most powerful lasers in the world to develop technology that will benefit us and our future“.
But it doesn’t end there, how do I describe my workplace and the experimental hall, with its interaction chamber and high vacuum gate-valves, without it sounding like the home of Dr. Evil? Our laser is called Vulcan, which doesn’t help!
That’s why I was really keen to shoot my piece for the She Blinded Me With Science music video in the Vulcan petawatt laser target area. Yes, we wear lab coats and there are wires and radiation shielding everywhere, but we also use lens filters, mirrors, allen keys, various optics and cameras, an iPad to remote control the drive systems in the chamber……items that are familiar and fairly ordinary to everyone.
So, you see being an experimental physicist isn’t a world away from reality and is actually a really interesting and inspiring profession. It’s also full of fun enthusiastic people like me and Lia, which I hope comes across in this video of clips that didn’t make the music video:
Dr Ceri Brenner @CeriBrenner