Claire Benson is a member of the Explosions and Fire Research Group at London South Bank University. A fire and explosion scientist, Claire’s areas of expertise include forensic investigation, catastrophic component failure analysis and droplet characterisations. She has presented stage fire demonstrations across a wide mix of arenas from working with the fire brigade to the Enlightenment Café at The Old Vic Tunnels.
When they talk about seeing a universe in a grain of sand, well, chemists know there’s one.
On getting into science
As a child, I remember watching lots of medical dramas and things like that. I remember thinking about becoming a doctor and when I was a teenager I had this quite unhealthy, possibly – no it’s probably fine – healthy interest in corpses and death and understanding people who’d been stealing bodies in the Victorian period for experimentation and dissection and from there I ended up possibly thinking about doing forensic pathology and actually, as time went on, I came to understand that was a very, very, very long path to that job and it didn’t actually suit my skills. I was far better at mathematics and chemistry and the sort of application of knowledge without having to learn vast amounts of swathes of information on the human body, because biology has a lot of facts that you’re required to learn straight off whereas mathematics, you have to learn rules but you can apply them quite nicely, and I enjoyed that. So I ended up doing what was at the time quite a new subject of forensic science. So I did a degree in that, an undergraduate degree, and that was very exciting, it was very varied. I don’t think any of us went into it thinking that it would be the degree that led to a job; we all did it thinking we would have to specialise in something else, we’d have to do something else afterwards to find an area that we could use those skills in and I was very lucky that a professor on that course was a professor of fire and explosion science and I loved it. Absolutely loved it. Fire was so exciting, so interesting. The chemistry, all the issues surrounding it, I really enjoyed looking at all the huge industrial incidents that had happened and understanding how they’d happened and why they’d happened and trying to use that information to stop them from happening again. So when I graduated I did odd work here and there but I ended up ringing up the university and saying to the professor of fire and explosion, ‘I really want to work in this field. Do you know anyone that will hire me’. And he had actually just released a job interview with the Ministry of Defence looking at aeronautical oxygen systems.
On role models
I think this was the hardest thing for me growing up. I was very, very keen on science. I loved it and I didn’t feel like I had a huge number of role models. I didn’t grow up in a very science based household. The people in my house weren’t enthusiastic about science so I have to say my role models, growing up in the 1980s, I think I was quite lucky that there were lots of strong women. It was about an age where you realised that there weren’t, or at least there shouldn’t be, any obstacles to doing what you wanted to do. So, politically not, but one of my inspirations somewhat was Margaret Thatcher. I know that, politically, it’s not necessarily my view but, it was great to understand that a woman could run a country and that was fantastic. And the other influence that I’ve always said is, the fact the time I watched ‘The Bill’, the person who ran CID at the time was a woman and that was great. The idea that I could go and do something like that and police were always something that was kind of an interest to me as well which is why, kind of, forensics came up later on.
On what a fire and explosion scientist does
So, I am a fire and explosion scientist and that can actually be quite a wide field so I do a number of different things. I’ve worked with oxygen fires and looking at materials that are suitable for use in oxygen. The last couple of years I’ve been working with the London Fire Brigade looking at arsons and deliberate fires and understanding why they happen and if there are any patterns in why they’re happening. So it can actually encompass quite a lot of different areas. From the social sciences and statistics all the way across to engineering and chemistry. Um, a lot of it is database based. So I look at all the incident reports that the fire brigade has on their database, which is thousands upon thousands of them, and go through and just do statistical analysis to be honest. There’s a lot of understanding what’s written in the reports, so you have to understand the terminology and you have to understand fires, house fires, how things happen and develop there, but a lot of the work is going to be mathematical, statistical and just looking for patterns within that. Trying to understand where the trends are and trying to see if there are, or if anything is developing over time, to understand if poverty is perhaps being an issue or to see if there are any particular types of fires happening that aren’t being effected by initiatives that are trying to stop them.
On women in science
As I say, growing up, I never had any male or female science role models, it was just what I enjoyed doing. I think, looking around me, there’s definitely a propensity for biology to be taught by women and the physical and chemical sciences to be taught by men so that might very well have an impact on you when you’re looking at careers. My feelings towards the ways schools encourage things is I think there’s a real lacking in understanding of what jobs in general there are in science. So I don’t think it’s just girls who are struggling there, I think it’s all children and schools aren’t necessarily being shown the variety of careers that mathematics, science and engineering can lead to. I mean, I remember, I was very good at maths at school, and I remember thinking, well, why would I want to do a maths degree because as far as I could see the only jobs there were going to be a maths teacher or an accountant because these were the only jobs that’d I’d ever come across, you know, working class kid, the only jobs I’d come across were those two jobs that involved maths. Now, if someone had told me I could be an analyst with MI6, with mathematics, I might’ve done it after all and I could have a very different life. But it’s OK, I like where I am.
On making science accessible
Personally, I’ve never struggled to see the world around us as something quite fantastical. I always remember hearing, or I always remember arguing actually, with people at school, because I remember there were people who were doing English and art who liked to argue that these were the subjects that showed you the depths of things and the universe is past what you could just see. But as soon as you started to understand, when they talk about seeing a universe in a grain of sand, well, chemists know there’s one. They know what’s in there and we’re still discovering more. I think things like the LHC, making that really accessible on the internet, showing us the data has been really cool, and that really helps. Making it as accessible and understandable as possible, particularly those really quite abstract ideas that even those of us in science really struggle to understand. Putting those as simply as possible and making sure you make people see how they actual apply them to the real world, how they matter to your life, I think kids can often struggle with that, with seeing the end game, seeing how what they’re learning in a classroom really impacts in the wider world, and on their lives. So I think if you can make it relevant then that’s really important.
On tackling abstract ideas
Oh, look, string theory. I don’t understand string theory, but it’s great. Or, well, electrons. They’re, um, nobody can quite work out if electrons exist or if they don’t exist or if they exist in a cloud or what they are exactly, that’s still open to speculation. But that’s fun, isn’t it? I think we operate by assumption. When we get out of bed in the morning, we assume that the floor will be there when you step out of it and I don’t think you can go through life questioning everything, so to operate in science you have to make some assumptions. The problem is when you get results that are not working out you have to then be aware of the assumptions you’ve made and then go back and understand them, but surely the journey’s the fun thing. I don’t think that finding the solution is the point. I think that gaining a greater understanding is going to benefit us no matter what. Knowledge is a great thing and you never know how it’s going to help or what it’s going to lead to.”