A Level students inspired by top physicists

A Level students inspired by top physicists

6 December 2021

Annabel and Nicole, Lower Sixth

On Tuesday 30 November, Lower Sixth physics students had the opportunity to hear top physicists talk about their respective fields, ask them questions and get advice on doing well in next year’s physics A Level exams. The lectures were organised by the Physics in Action Training Partnership at the Emmanuel Centre, London, and we were joined by students from other schools who shared our interest in the subject.

The first talk was by Professor Chris Lintott, Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Oxford and co-presenter of the BBC programme The Sky at Night. His lecture, ‘What we don’t know about the universe’, began with an attempt to answer the commonly asked question of whether extraterrestrial life exists. Professor Lintott referenced research proving there are around five billion planets in the Milky Way in the Goldilocks Zone (the area around a star in which a planet could contain liquid water on it like Earth), which means, theoretically, there could be life forms on each of these planets. He also talked about the European Extremely Large Telescope coming online in a few years which will be able to tell if planets have atmospheres containing oxygen, further increasing the possibility that life exists. He concluded that he does not believe we are alone in the universe and that one day we will eventually have proof of extraterrestrial life.

Planetary scientist and 2017 winner of the BBC series Astronauts, do you have what it takes? Suzie Imber looked at the dangers of space weather, explaining how, by watching Mercury, we can understand and predict what a worst-case scenario would look like on Earth. She also spoke about the consequences of space debris, particularly relevant given the recent Russian military destruction of a defunct satellite, which caused astronauts on the International Space Station to take cover temporarily from resulting debris. This brought up the interesting ongoing debate about the ethics of space travel and the launching of satellites. While satellites can be very helpful, for example by tracking down illegal fishers, spotting deforestation, or through Elon Musk’s Starlink Mission to provide faster internet connection to every corner of the globe, the launching of satellites worries some because of overcrowding in space. Suzie Imber explained that if we do not come up with a way to remove this space ‘trash’, the atmosphere will eventually become too crowded for us to attempt any kind of space mission again.

The other lectures were equally fascinating. Medical physicist Gemma Bale from the University of Cambridge talked about her own invention - a machine that provides a way to measure metabolic rates in the brain without the use of an MRI - which has helped doctors save the lives of many patients, especially premature babies who cannot be put into MRIs.  This is a great example of how science fiction becomes science fact, as a machine that could measure metabolic rates was included in the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Engineer Brendan Walker talked about how he creates thrill through the use of psychology and physics and Andrew Steele about future uses of superconductors, including the magnetic levitating high-speed trains seen all the time in futuristic sci-fi movies. Andrew even gave a great demonstration of this, levitating a superconductor over some magnets by cooling it with liquid nitrogen.  

The talks demonstrated the breadth of careers a physics degree can offer and inspired us to ask new questions about different physics discoveries and concepts and how our futures could be shaped by them.

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