Dr Helen Czerski: The TV physicist on inhuman noises, being all at sea and turning raisins into lava lamps

Credo interview by Adam Jacques

Being called the female Brian Cox is a double-edged sword

On the one hand Brian is a fantastic communicator of science and being compared to him [after appearing on BBC series such as Orbit: Earth's Extraordinary Journey] is a compliment. But I don't see why a female physicist should be defined as some version of a male, rather than just an individual in their own right, and Brian's wife [the TV presenter Gia Milinovich] agrees with me on that!

We are arrogant in the way we look at the world

Many people assume that the world we perceive is all there is, but lots of animals can see, hear or touch things we can't. While filming [upcoming BBC series] Beyond Human, we looked a lot at the physics of animal senses. I found it extraordinary that an alligator can use its entire body as a subwoofer. By plunging its back below the water, it can put out a low-frequency infrasound that vibrates the water around it and attracts female alligators from a long way away; we wouldn't even be able to hear it.

Humans are very slow creatures

We are complicated beings that can do lots of things, but the physical world can do very simple things right in front of our noses that are too fast or small for us to see. When I did my PhD [in experimental explosives physics], I did a lot of high-speed photography. In particular, I remember an experiment using a gas gun that fired high-speed projectiles at pieces of metal. When metal gets walloped, it actually flows like a liquid, as it can't get out of the way fast enough.

It's hard to appreciate the planet's scale unless you've been at sea for a month

It sounds trite, but the longer you're bobbing on the ocean, the more you realise its vast scale, as planes are so quick. I remember after a month at sea in the South Atlantic [studying ocean bubbles and their effect on climate], we ended up in South Georgia for half a day, to visit Ernest Shackleton's grave. We'd been out at sea for such a long time that when this mountainous island loomed, it suddenly looked like a scar on the ocean, poking up from the sea where it shouldn't be.

Physics is not in a lab, it's in everyday objects

A beautiful illustration of this is if you take an unopened bottle of lemonade and add raisins to it. Initially they'll sink to the bottom, as they're heavier than water. But raisins are full of wrinkles, and bubbles like growing in V-shaped crevices. So while they sit at the bottom, each raisin grows itself a lifejacket and rises to the top, where it turns itself over until all the bubbles have fallen off, and it will drop back down again. They'll go round and round like a lava lamp for about 30 minutes.

Pompous language winds me up

It happens all the time in science communication: often you get famous scientists using long words and jargon in reports as they think it makes them sound clever. But I'm not into that elitist attitude; people who try to exclude others while inflating their own self-importance need to re-examine their world view.

I'm no longer afraid to walk into any situation

When I was a teenager, I was too shy to speak to people as I felt that everyone had better things to do than talk to me. Frustration made me change, as you miss out on stuff when you're shy; you're left out and feel lonely - and it took me until I was well into my twenties for that to change. *

Dr Helen Czerski, 35, is a physicist and oceanographer, whose work focuses on the optics and acoustics of ocean bubbles. Her new three-part TV series, 'Beyond Human', airs on BBC2 later this year. She will also be appearing at the Cheltenham Science Festival (cheltenhamfestivals.com), which runs from 3 to 8 June

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

£350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

HR Business Partner (Maternity Cover 12 Months)

£30000 - £34000 Per Annum 25 days holiday, Private healthcare: Clearwater Peop...

Project Manager (Procurement & Human Resources)

Unpaid: Cancer Research UK: If you’re a professional in project management, lo...

Geography Teacher

£85 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: We require a teacher of Geogr...

Day In a Page

Save the Tiger: Meet the hunters tasked with protecting Russia's rare Amur tiger

Hunters protect Russia's rare Amur tiger

In an unusual move, wildlife charities have enlisted those who kill animals to help save them. Oliver Poole travels to Siberia to investigate
Transfers: How has your club fared in summer sales?

How has your club fared in summer sales?

Who have bagged the bargain buys and who have landed the giant turkeys
Warwick Davis: The British actor on Ricky Gervais, how the Harry Potter set became his office, and why he'd like to play a spy

'I'm a realist; I know how hard this business is'

Warwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
The best swim shorts for men: Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer

The best swim shorts for men

Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer
Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

Meet the couple blamed for bringing Lucifer into local politics
Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup