Dr Michael de Podesta – physicist (#102)



Michael de Podesta is 59 years old in 2019. He studied Physics at Sussex University (1978-81) and after almost ‘dropping out’ he went on to finish a PhD there on the arcane properties of metals at cryogenic temperatures. He went on to work as a lecturer in Physics at Birkbeck College and University College before leaving academia in 2000 to work at NPL. His work at NPL is mainly related to temperature measurement, but in 2004 he started Protons for Breakfast, a course on physics for the general public which ran twice a year until 2014. He was awarded an MBE for services to science in 2009.

Twitter: @protons4B

Blog: http://www.protonsforbreakfast.org

Can you describe something that has recently amazed you? How did it make you feel?

I read something my son had written and realised that the baby I had held in my arms was now an entire other human being with views and loves and humour and intelligence. How did that happen? I felt overwhelmed as I realised that I had participated in the circular nature of the pattern of life.


Where do you think our sense of wonder comes from and what can we do to cultivate it?

I think wonder comes when – either by design or by accident – we are unable to immediately categorise something we experience. This draws our attention to it as we stare and wonder (!) what is happening?


Can you tell me about your work at the National Physical Laboratory? Why is the work of organisations like the NPL so important?

The aim of the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) is to help people measure things better. We do this in several ways. Sometimes we help validate new measurement techniques. But one important aspect of what we do is to maintain the seven standard quantities – called the base units – that are at the heart of the International System of Units – the SI. My work is connected with temperature measurements and I help develop new processes and techniques of temperature measurement. And also I help maintain the standards of temperature measurement.

The work is important because we can understand things only as well as we can measure them – that’s science – and we can only make things as well as we can measure them – that’s engineering. So measurement standards are at the heart of Science and Engineering.


Apologies for the flippant question: Is the place full of pedants?

It used to be. Now it is a much more conventional organisation.


Does the drive for greater accuracy and precision at NPL spill out into other areas of your life? Do you see this as a good or bad thing?

The motto of The Royal Society is (roughly) ‘take nobody’s word for it’. And I agree. So I like to measure things for myself. For example:

  • I have measured carbon dioxide levels within my house. I can see them rise as more people enter a room, or when I use the gas cooker. And I have measured just how poor the air quality is on aeroplanes!
  • I have measured the radiation dose rate minute-by-minute on a flight across Europe: it is shockingly about 25 times greater than on the ground.
  • I have a cheap meteorological station in my back garden and publish the data to the internet (ITEDDING4 on the Weather Underground). It’s fascinating to see the sharp changes in temperature as weather ‘fronts’ pass over.
  • I read my gas and electric meters each week and correlate them with weather station data to work out how good the insulation is on my house.

Is it a good or a bad thing? I don’t know, but it is a thing.


Does measuring destroy wonder?

No. No No No No No No No. No.

The opposite. The patterns of ripples on a pond or a lake are as fascinating to watch as ever, but when one measures the patterns – such as the angle of a bow wave on a boat – then one additionally understands something about the process. And when one reads about it and one finds that you were not the first to notice it, one gets a sense of connection across time to other people who also found it fascinating. The world is endlessly fascinating. [See also the question below about candles.]


This year there was a major shift in the system that scientists use to measure things, can you tell me more?

Up until May 2019, human beings used predominately human scale standards for measurements. Using these measurements we have noticed that the world – and more widely the Universe – appears to have some properties which are naturally constant. Things like the speed of light in vacuum, the Planck constant, and the charge on the electron. And rather than trying to measure these constants against our human standards, we realised that it would be smart to use these constants as the measurement standards themselves. That’s what we achieved in May 2019 – the standards for measurements made on Earth (metre, kilogram etc) are now defined in terms of ‘natural constants’.


Why did you set up Protons for Breakfast? What were the aims? What have you learnt through it?

Protons for Breakfast was a course for the general public which taught all of physics in three evenings using a combination of lecture demonstrations, hands-on activities, songs, humour, and occasional dancing. I ran it for 10 years, twice a year and stopped in 2014 when it became unsustainable while working full time. Now it is just my blog.

The name arose as a juxtaposition of a science word like ‘protons’ with an everyday word like ‘breakfast’. And of course because every day we do actually eat protons! For breakfast! In other words, science isn’t ‘something which happens in laboratories’ it happens in our lives. The idea of the course was to build upon the familiarity with advanced ideas that almost everyone has. And to show people how their experiences are connected to these ideas.

I learned many things, but most significantly that we are all on different journeys – and that there is great pleasure to be had by sharing the tales of one’s own and other people’s journeys.


Why are candles fascinating?

Candles are attractive and fascinating in themselves, but when one begins to ask about how they work they become objects of even more wonder. I have a half-hour Youtube talk on candles here:

This is the perfect example of how measuring something and studying something only adds to the fascination and wonder. Candles don’t become less fascinating because one knows the flame temperature exceeds 1000 °C!


What science should we be teaching in schools?

Education is the process of handing on knowledge from one generation to the next. Many important people focus on how scientists (and engineers) make the country wealthy. But not everyone will become a scientist or an engineer. I focus on the fact that an understanding of Science – like music – is a something which enhances lives long after one leaves school. We can enjoy and appreciate music throughout our lives without having studied it in detail. Indeed, our appreciation of different types of music generally becomes wider and more profound as we grow. Similarly, I think we need to teach science in a way that prepares us for a life of learning.

One practical thing: teachers should be practitioners. In the same way that music should be taught by people who can play music, so should science be taught by scientists.

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