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Dr Roger Highfield

Dr Roger Highfield is currently the Director of External Affairs at the Science Museum in London.  He was previously the Science Editor of the Daily Telegraph newspaper and also the Editor of New Scientist magazine.  He has also written seven science books and was the first person to bounce a neutron off a soap bubble.

I realise that in 2013 it seems more amazing that people could actually get to the moon than it did in the late 1960s.

On science inspiration

Well the things that really inspired me about science as a kid, two things really stand out.  First of all, at school I had a chemistry master, Glyn James, who was just enthusiastic.  I hate all this discussion about curricula and what we have to teach children, it’s really easy: if you want brilliant science education, you start off with someone standing in front of a classroom full of kids who’s going to shower them with little bits of spit and start waving their hands around and getting really enthusiastic about what they’re talking about, because frankly if the teacher doesn’t believe that it’s cool to be a scientist, that geek is chic, then there’s no way the kids are going to believe it either, so that’s number one.

The other thing that happened when I was growing up, which blew me away, was the Apollo moon landings, and it still sends a shiver down my spine when I’m going through the Science Museum and I stand next to the command module, the Apollo 8 command module, and I look at this thing and I realise that in 2013 it seems more amazing that people could actually get to the moon and walk about on the moon than it did in the late 1960s, and I can remember as a kid looking up at the moon and thinking, a couple of people have been up there, and that was an amazing moment when science seemed to make anything possible.  So that’s what really turned me on to science.

On bouncing a neutron off a soap bubble

I don’t know why people always get so surprised about this thing about me bouncing neutrons off soap bubbles. I mean, it was part of my doctorate and I was developing a new technique called specular reflection of neutrons which basically means playing ducks and drakes with neutrons, you can…if you get them in at a low enough angle you can make them bounce off a surface.  So I had to go to a reactor in Grenoble, the Institut Laue Langevin; in effect, it’s got a hole in the side of the reactor, beam tube – and actually, interestingly, the beam tubes were bent because the neutrons fall under the influence of gravity – and then I would pull soap films, long films of soap where you’ve got soap molecules and then a little sliver of water between them, and if you look at a soap film something kind of miraculous happens, you see it thin down, you see these beautiful rainbow colours.  Each colour corresponds to a different thickness of a soap film and you can see the meniscus plucked up at the bottom.  

And then you notice something strange happening, suddenly nothing’s reflected at all and you can see the meniscus and yet, any way you look at it, you can’t see the film at all and it’s because the film’s thinned down so much, it’s actually smaller than the wavelength of light.  But you can get neutrons of the right wavelength to look at it: it’s one consequence of quantum mechanics, you’ve got a wave particle characteristic of neutrons and you bounce them off your soap film – in fact it was made of heavy soap, so, more expensive than gold – and you get the equivalent of these interference colours and if you plot out the way the neutrons of a specific wavelength off a soap film at different angles you get a beautiful series off interference fringes, so I used them to interfere with these neutron beams and that way I could investigate the structure of these extremely thin soap films which are kind of a model of human cell membranes as well.  That’s all it was about!

On moving away from research

There are various reasons why I moved out of research into journalism.  One was, waiting for the results of my doctorate, I had to fly off to Grenoble every so often, I was actually a bit bored when I was back at Oxford so I worked a bit for the university newspaper, Cherwell, and people there got in terrible trouble with the university, writing about their hopeless ICL computer, and I thought, ooh, I really quite like journalism.  And at the same time, you’ve got to realise the landscape of British research was very, very forlorn and there were, like, one or two lectureships in physical chemistry in the whole country that year and I could’ve gone on to do a post doc and my supervisor, Bob Thomas, a great guy, just said to me, look, Roger, you seem to like journalism, why don’t you have a go at journalism cause, frankly, academia is not that hot at the moment.  If it doesn’t work out, come back and you can do a post doc award with us but if it does then, you know, you’d have a chance to get a new career.

And then I worked on a medical magazine and then I was very lucky in that I worked for a nuclear magazine; I was probably the first British journalist to know about Chernobyl because I was trying to get into a Swedish nuclear reactor and all the alarms went off and the Swedes looked at what had set off the alarms and said actually it’s nothing to do with us, we’ve found radio nuclides consistent with a Soviet-style design.  Then the world found out about Chernobyl, I was working on this obscure nuclear magazine, the Daily Telegraph was desperate for a specialist and that led to 22 years working for the Daily Telegraph.  That’s it in a nutshell.

On working at the Science Museum

Being the Director of External Affairs at the Science Museum is actually an incredibly, sort of, difficult to define job.  At the kind of boring level, it’s looking after the press and the marketing and things like that.  It also means giving speeches, meeting the great and the good, it means arcane discussions about why we might need a lift shaft in another bit of the building which can be incredibly expensive affairs, it could be talking about how do we get the Deputy Prime Minister to sign a letter to his equivalent in Russia to get artefacts lent, it could mean redesigning the website, it could mean social media and looking at our quarter of a million Twitter followers and what more can we do and also things like, we set up a Great British Innovation vote, we got about 50,000 votes, everyone from the Prime Minister through to the lovely Brian Cox through to Stephen Fry involved so it’s a dry heterogenous hard to define job when you look at it.  I do do something, honestly!

On starting a science career today

If you said to me today, are the conditions the same now as they were back in 1983, when Mrs Thatcher was around, in terms of opportunities not looking that great across the research base and perhaps you should do journalism, I think actually to me it feels quite different today.  British science actually has been relatively protected from cuts and is in a very good state, so I think it’s still great to do research in the UK, I think there are fantastic opportunities in the UK, we’ve got things like the Crick which is going to be like a half billion pound powerhouse of research, the Science Museum, we’re under a bit of financial pressure at the moment but I have to say we’ve got the biggest informal science learning programme in the country full stop, hundreds of thousands of children are involved, so I think there are still tons of exciting opportunities there.

In terms of journalism, it’s a bit more complicated, I think traditional journalism is in decline but there’s new forms of journalism sprouting through blogging, through social media, through video rich media and so on.  And so actually I think it’s quite an exciting time to get into the media because everything’s changing, the old rulebook’s being thrown out the window and if you can come up with the magic recipe of what’s going to work in five years’ time  – and I must admit I can’t quite see it and I’ve got a long history in journalism – but I do think there are extraordinary opportunities there as well.

On current advances in science?

I think of all the research that’s going on at the moment, two things do excite me.  One is 3D printing; I think there’s an awful lot of hype about 3D printing now but I think we’re in the same state as we wrote about the internet in the mid-90s.  I used to write huge articles about how it’s going to change your life blah blah blah, but of course that was the era of dial up connection so that was like a load of old rubbish really, but here we are in 2013 and, actually, the web is just having the most massive effect on the way we live our lives and I think 3D printing in the short term isn’t going to do much, 20 years’ time I think it can have radical impacts across society in terms of why go to a shop, why order stuff when you can just push a button and print it out and so on, so that’s one.

The other area that I’m very excited by is synthetic biology; I’ve been lucky enough to edit Craig Ventor’s new book on synthetic biology and I think that when you look at where that whole field is taking us, it’s really sort of turbo charged genetic engineering and there’s extraordinary possibilities there.  There are extraordinary risks as well but I think we’re aware of them; it’s the old thing with any technology from harnessing fire onwards, you can always do good things and bad things with technology but  when you look at the potential for food production for the world, for dealing with rising carbon dioxide levels, it’s extraordinary, it’s off the scale. 

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