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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
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

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Have you been doing a brilliant job in an admi...

Recruitment Genius: Interim Head of HR

£50000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you an innovative, senior H...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources and Payroll Administrator

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client, a very well respect...

Recruitment Genius: HR Consultant

£25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An HR Consultant is required to join thi...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable