Dr Helen Czerski
Helen Czerski is a physicist and oceanographer specialising in bubbles and is currently based at the University of Southampton after spending four years in the US working in oceanography teams. She regularly presents a variety of science programmes for the BBC on both television and radio including ‘Orbit: Earth’s Extraordinary Journey’ and ‘Dara O’Briain’s Science Club’.
I’ve always been more interested in the mechanics of the physical world but very aware that it links to the biological world.
On becoming interested in science
I didn’t have a moment where I became a scientist, I was very lucky that my parents always just said, ‘Well let’s try it, let’s try it out’, and so there was this general environment, I mean they didn’t think of themselves, they’re reasonably educated, they didn’t think of themselves as being the fountain of all knowledge, but they weren’t afraid to admit that they didn’t know, and when they didn’t know they said, ‘Well let’s find out. Let’s plant the avocado seed and see what grows, let’s, you know, stick a hole in that and see what happens’ and so it was more, it was a background, you know, it was OK to ask questions and it was OK to try and answer them. So there wasn’t one moment, it was just a general environment, and then eventually after I’d asked a lot of questions my mother said to me, ‘Well I don’t know, you go away to university and get a degree and tell me’. So I did.
On getting into bubbles
I’m a bubble physicist. I trained as a physicist and what really got me started was that I was interested in the very small world that’s very fast that can be right in front of your nose but it’s too small and too fast to see. It’s not atomic, it’s not as small as that, but it’s little little things that you can almost see, just on the edge of being able to see. And so I trained in physics and I did my PhD in explosive physics and that’s interesting because you start with, you know, even a cartoon character knows if you hit an explosive with a hammer it goes bang but what exactly happens to make that happen? You know, what happens in the thing that’s being hit? And I was interested in that so I did my PhD in that and got all kinds of exciting ways to look at, using high speed photography techniques, for looking at this very inaccessible world that’s right here. And when I didn’t want to do that any more I got into bubbles, because bubbles break apart and join together on very very short timescales, it’s the same thing you can, you know, pour a cup of coffee and things happen right here, you can sort of get hints but you can never really see it. And so now I study bubbles in the ocean, because they’re tiny, tiny things, they’re moving about very quickly but they affect our planet and that’s the fascination for me, to connect these things that are too fast to see with these things that are just a bit too big to see.
On what bubbles teach us
Bubbles help the ocean breathe; so an earth scientist sees our planet as made up of five different systems, five different organs like organs of the body and they’re the ice, the atmosphere, the ocean, biology and rocks and, traditionally, those are all studied separately. You know, you had a geologist who did the rocks and you had an atmospheric physicist who did the atmosphere and as we’ve gone on we’ve found that this really is a complete system, these things link up to each other, and the reason bubbles are important is because they help stuff go from the atmosphere to the ocean and back again. So, um, for example, we put lots of extra gases into the air, carbon dioxide and other gases, bubbles help those get down into the ocean, they also bring stuff up to the surface so, for example, tiny plants in the ocean during their lifecycle will produce various chemicals, and these bubbles feed these up into the atmosphere and that changes atmospheric chemistry. And then one very specific thing that happens is, you know when you pour out a fizzy drink and you hold it just underneath your nose and you feel little bubbles spitting stuff up your nose, well, all the white caps out in the ocean are spitting tiny particles out into the sky and those particles drift up and they’re important for cloud formation. So bubbles are helping stuff go down into the ocean, they’re helping it come back up and they’re important for how our climate and weather function, but we don’t really understand how. We understand that it happens but we don’t understand how much it happens in different situations. So the bubbles I study in my lab, ah, I try to recreate bits of the ocean in my lab, different bits, you know, where it’s hot, near the tropics there’s not much growing, where it’s cold in Antarctica, it’s a vey low temperature but lots is growing, and I look at how bubbles are formed and destroyed in those environments and the reason for doing that is it helps us understand how our planet is connected together so if we make a climate prediction that says maybe we’ll get more storms, so we get more breaking waves, more bubbles and then these other changes will also happen.
On demonstrating bubble physics to an audience
There are so many, so many [experiments] because the world is full of toys ,right, science is not stuck in a lab, right, it’s here in the world around us and toys are not things you buy in a shop, they’re anything you can use to play with, so, erm, I might pick, well something simple, so, for example, God, there are so many things. Bubbles in a fizzy drink, well maybe that’s a bit complicated. So, for example, one of the good things I like about bubbles, it’s not a good thing in general, if you have a glass of a fizzy drink, Coca-Cola, something horribly sweet, right, and you drink it when it’s fizzy it doesn’t taste sweet and then you let it go flat and it’s disgusting how sweet it is and there’s a reason for that, and the reason is that the bubbles, so there’s physics and biology in this, bubbles come out of solution, they carry carbon dioxide, and they carry it, when the bubbles go over your tongue, carry carbon dioxide directly to your cheeks and they irritate a nerve there which is looking for poison and so what that does is switch off your taste so when you have bubbly drink going over your tongue you’ve also got your taste switched off so you have to put loads and loads of sugar in, in order to get any taste at all; when you take the bubbles away you can actually taste how sweet it actually is, and I guess that’s a nice demonstration because you have bubbles coming out of solution. I mean that’s weird, you have a liquid and then suddenly bubbles are growing. That’s weird but you can see something about the world there and then you have the interaction of that physics with the biology of being a human being. And it’s such a simple thing, its something that most people do every day of your life if you drink fizzy drinks and, you know, enjoy it, play with it, it’s just one example. There’s loads.
On scientific inspiration
I didn’t have scientific mentors until later on; I was a very, very shy child, like too shy to talk, no one who knows me now believes that, and the biggest challenge I faced as a kid was overcoming that shyness and I had a lot of friends who were very patient with me, and I had opportunities. Anyone who’s shy knows it’s a real battle to get across this illogical thing that people have better things to do than to talk to you, and one of the things that really helped me was gymnastics. My gymnastics coach was a huge influence and, ah, I was never the best gymnast in the class but I was enthusiastic and he stuck with me and helped me overcome the shyness. He was also the first person that discovered I could teach, because he had the confidence, even though I didn’t talk, to say, ‘Well you go over there and teach those kids’, and we all suddenly discovered that I could teach and no one knew that till then, so he was quite good, and then later on, I have a scientific mentor in California, who is a spectacular person, there are very few people you meet like that. This guy is spectacular and he has such integrity and he has fun with it and he’s honest about his mistakes he’s not afraid to admit he’s wrong. He’s an excellent scientist because he really tries hard, he sort of knows he’s not the, he doesn’t think of himself as a genius, but he thinks about it, he’s prepared to approach the challenge with integrity, and watching him work was fantastic and, in some senses, he’s been the biggest influence on my life.
On starting work as a scientist
My first experience as a working scientist was actually in biology, when I was in the middle of my A-levels and I raised money to go and join a conservation research project in Kenya, and it was a huge deal because it was a lot of money and I wrote these letters asking for sponsorship to go and do this and it was an amazing thing when people had enough faith in me and wrote back and said, ‘Yes, alright, we’ll give you some money to do this’. And so my first experience as a working scientist was on the shores of Lake Naivasha which is the lake in Kenya where Joy Adamson lived, who wrote ‘Born Free’ about Elsa the lion, and she set up a conservation centre and it was fantastically practical science because there’s no controlled lab environment. There were people there, we were fishing to work out how fish moved in the lake, some poor person there had, their job for the day, it was a different person every day, was to have a sort of a basket, and to run round, after the, I think it was an elephant, it was something relatively tame but not not completely tame and hold it underneath its tail to try and catch the outcome of its digestion, and that was their job, to try and analyse it before it hit the ground. And we looked at insects and we filtered mud for nematode worms and watch raptors – they’re boring, they don’t do anything, they just sit there – and so I’ve always actually been, for a physicist I’ve done a lot of biology, and I love that because I like the links between things. I’ve always been more interested in the mechanics of the physical world but very aware that it links to the biological world. Actually, I’ve never really thought of it like that but my first research experience was as a biologist.