Thursday, 15 September 2016

Laurie Winkless - Four Way Interview

Laurie Winkless is a physicist with an undergraduate degree from Trinity College, Dublin, and a master’s degree in space science from university College London. Laurie has been communicating science to the public for more than a decade, working with schools and universities, the royal Society, Forbes, and the naked Scientists, amongst others. She’s given TeDx talks, hung out with astronauts, and appeared in The Times Magazine as a leading light in STeM. Her first book is Science and the City.

Why science?

I guess part of the answer is that I was a curious child, full of questions on everything from how we make paint, or how a fridge works, to how car engines turn petrol into motion. Luckily, I have a very supportive family, so no matter how random the question, finding the answer was always encouraged. I've also always enjoyed doing things with my hands - learning through experimentation - and have been obsessed with space exploration for as long as I can remember! At school, English, science and maths were my favourite subjects, and I genuinely, briefly, considered studying journalism at university. But once I got into my physics degree, I knew I'd made the right call. That led to a summer scholarship at the Kennedy Space Centre, and a masters in space science. My years at the National Physical Lab were hugely eye-opening for me - I felt as if I was finally doing science 'properly' - and I loved the process of research. Asking the right question is key to that - half of the scientific process, I'd say - and the best ones lead you  down a path you might not have expected. They were my favourite days in the lab - when I had a result that didn't make sense! I  see myself as a 'lapsed physicist', taking time out to explore the other side of my interest - writing about science  for the general public. I hope to find a way to combine the two eventually!

Why this book?
Firstly, because I'm an adopted Londoner - I moved here from Ireland in 2005, and I fell in love with the living, breathing metropolis that is London. But as a physicist, it was understanding how it all worked that really drew me in. And then I read a report that said that more than half of our global population - 54% - now lived in cities. I found that extraordinary. With that proportion showing no sign of stopping, I wondered about how our future cities would cope with the challenges that would bring. How we would  deliver power to people, provide water, remove waste, build transport networks... all in the face of a changing climate and unprecedented population growth. Science and the City gave me opportunity to explore all of those questions and more, and importantly, to introduce them to non-scientists.

What’s next?

Well, I'll be leaving London in a few months - off on a new adventure. I'm hoping that it'll come with lots more inspiration, and plenty of 'I've never done that' moments! I also have the beginnings of an idea for another book - a little different from Science and the City, but still physics / engineering / materials-y. I still need to convince Bloomsbury to let me write it... so we'll have to wait and see!

What’s exciting you at the moment?

Oh all good science/tech/engineering excites me! But if I were to pick a few, I'd say the use of waste products in new and interesting ways - human faeces as a transport fuel, and landfill plastic that is being transformed into roads and bricks for homes. Also, developments in batteries, and a smarter approach to energy harvesting, such as perovskite solar cells and Power Over Wifi.

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