Interview with Philip Moriarty

We talk about the impenetrability of physics, the problem with Psi and “corporate uni bollocks”

July 28, 2016
Philip Moriarty, University of Nottingham

Philip Moriarty is professor of physics at the University of Nottingham. With video journalist Brady Haran and astronomy academic Michael Merrifield, he is a leading member of the Sixty Symbols project, a series of informal but authoritative videos – originally themed around 60 physics symbols – to help improve public understanding of the subject. Since 2009, more than 290 videos have been produced, clocking up more than 54 million views on YouTube. In July, the team was awarded the Institute of Physics’ Kelvin Medal for outstanding contribution to public engagement within physics.

Where and when were you born?
London in 1968, but my family moved to the Republic of Ireland when I was four. I was brought up in a place called Monaghan, one of the border counties about 80 miles north of Dublin.

How has this shaped you?
Growing up as a teenager in the early 1980s was interesting in that part of Ireland. Monaghan is a fairly Republican, deeply Catholic place. I’m not the greatest fan of religion and I’m not the greatest nationalist either, so an interesting time.

What was the inspiration behind the Sixty Symbols project?
It comes from Brady Haran, I cannot stress this enough. He was initially a BBC journalist, then went independent. The first project that he had at Nottingham was something called Test Tube, [then he created a series of pieces called] Periodic Videos with chemistry. That got a lot of attention, and we looked at it and thought that looks very interesting, maybe we should talk to this guy. He doesn’t let us get involved with any of the editing. If we were in charge of the editing, the videos would come out at a rate of one every three years.

What is it about a video that makes people engage in such a deep way?
It shows science as a living and breathing thing, not as a body of facts in stasis. I’m a microscopist, image analysis is our stock-in-trade, and there’s definitely something very visceral about an image. However, physics is conceptually challenging, there’s an awful lot you really have to mull over for a [long time] before some of it clicks. We can, if we’re not careful, set up a culture whereby you watch this two- or three-minute video and think: I’m an expert. Thankfully, the vast majority of people don’t do that.

Do you think it’s more advantageous for communicating knowledge if you have a group of people involved rather than one well-known presenter?
Certainly in the academic context. I think it lends some air of credibility to what we're saying. I’m a physicist, but I can’t speak in any way credibly about [say] particle physics, or astrophysics.

Do you think that the project’s popularity dispels any perceptions that physics is impenetrable?
A lot of its [perceived impenetrability] is to do with the language. Many think that because maths is the language of physics, if people don’t get maths, they are going to struggle with physics. That’s a real shame. Also, there is an assumption with physics that you have to be exceptionally bright. I’m certainly not exceptionally bright, but what I am is incredibly pig-headed and tenacious. That willingness to bang your head against a problem until you see some way through gets you a long way in science. 

Do you still have reservations about certain symbols used in physics?
Yep. The key one in physics is the Greek symbol Psi (Ψ), which represents something called the "wave function" in quantum mechanics. We still have a long way to go in terms of understanding what the heck that’s all about.

What has changed most in higher education in the past 10 years?
University marketing departments and branding. That whole sorry corporatisation of academia. We’re so corporate and becoming ever more so. Before I killed my Twitter account, a hashtag I liked to use was #CorporateUniBollocks. That really sums it up.

What is the worst thing someone has ever said about your academic work?
I’ve been fairly lucky that my academic work hasn’t been that slagged off. My public engagement activities have. An email I received about Sixty Symbols ended with: “you’re a professor at university, for fuck’s sake. Stop wasting your time on YouTube and do research.” You occasionally get those types of emails where it’s not the done thing to be an academic stepping out of the ivory tower and trying to communicate. You’re supposed to be monastically devoted to research.

What advice do you give to your students?
PhD students: look outside the lab occasionally and think about what you’re going to do. It’s exceptionally difficult to secure an academic career nowadays; don’t assume that the natural route is an academic career. The success rate is astoundingly low. Undergraduates: an awful lot of physical science students are very sniffy about social sciences, arts and humanities. Don’t assume that science is as wholly objective as you might think it is. It’s a social enterprise as much as any other (although I have no time for the cultural relativism expounded by some social scientists).

What kind of undergraduate were you?
I wasn’t great. I failed my third year badly, I had to repeat it. Having said that, that was the best thing that ever happened to me. I’m not suggesting that failing exams is a good life strategy, but if I hadn’t done that I would’ve drifted through my fourth year [and], probably got a third. It kicked me in the arse, and I got a 2:1, which meant that I could do a PhD.

If you were the UK higher education minister for a day, what policy would you introduce?
You’re probably not going to like this as a Times Higher Education journalist: get rid of league tables. The whole nonsensical, pseudo-statistical, pseudo-quantitative league table thing gets on my nerves.

john.elmes@tesglobal.com


Appointments

Gillian Murray has been appointed deputy principal, enterprise and business, at Heriot-Watt University. Dr Murray will be charged with enhancing and embedding enterprise culture both within the university and with key people across the research, knowledge translation, innovation and partnership agendas. She moves to Heriot-Watt from her position as director of the Virtual Engineering Centre at the University of Liverpool. “Experience has shown me that partnerships and an entrepreneurial approach are fundamental to achieving ambitious strategic goals and I am looking forward to working with a team committed to developing real-world solutions through these key mechanisms,” Dr Murray said. She takes up her position in October.

David Rogers, chief executive of mobile phone software company Copper Horse Solutions, has been appointed visiting professor in cyber security and digital forensics at York St John University. Professor Rogers is an adviser to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport on cyber security. He chairs the device security group at the GSM Association and sits on the executive board of the Internet of Things Security Foundation. He said that York St John was “uniquely placed” to take a leading role in educating students on cyber security “because they put ethics and social inclusion at the heart of their work. I am proud to play a small part and to give something back to my native county, North Yorkshire.”

Richard Catlow has been elected foreign secretary of the Royal Society.

The Council for Advancement and Support of Education has named five new trustees for the 2017 financial year: Craig Considine, headmaster of Millfield School; Salima Virji, development director, Highgate School; Lee Fertig, director, International School of Brussels; Serge Sych, vice-president for enrolment management, career services and alumni relations, Central European University; and Jean van Sinderen-Law, associate vice-president of development, University College Cork.

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