My Early Hour: Philip Moriarty, Professor of Physics

“It’s that moment at 4am when you see something in the lab that no one in the world (or perhaps no one in the universe) has ever seen before…” We talk science, time travel and fatherhood with Philip Moriarty, Professor of Physics at Nottingham University…

Philip Moriarty, 48, is a Professor of Physics and undergraduate admissions tutor for the School of Physics and Astronomy at Nottingham University. He lives in Nottingham with his wife, Marie, twin daughters, aged 13, and son, aged seven.

What’s your home like?
Busy and messy! Along with our three children, Marie and me, our house is home to a miniature dachshund, Daisy, and four guinea pigs. I spend a great deal of time ensuring that the dachshund and the guinea pigs don’t get too acquainted…

What time are you up in the morning?
Ever since the kids arrived, I’ve got into the habit of getting up very early – typically 5.00am (or, if I can drag myself out of bed, earlier). I often get more done in those couple of hours before the kids get up than in the rest of the day.

What wakes you up?
The lack of coffee during the hours I’ve been in bed.

How do you feel?
Much better after I have a coffee. Or two. Or three.

More seriously, I certainly don’t leap out of bed full of the joys of Spring each morning – I groggily stumble to the shower and try to wake myself up.

What do you do first thing?
Shower. Then breakfast, then two hours on the laptop, then get the kids up and get them ready for school, which brings me to…

In three words, describe mornings in your home?
“Arrggh. We’re late.”

What’s for breakfast?
Usually, for me, a boiled egg and toast.

How might the rest of your day pan out?
The great thing – and the worst thing at times – about being an academic is that no two days are the same. I combine a variety of roles: teaching/lecturing, lecture and course preparation, tutoring, hands-on research (occasionally), writing scientific papers and writing grant proposals. I also write books, a blog (although this is more of a hobby), make videos, visit schools, travel, do outreach, national/university committee work, peer review of papers and grant applications. And I’m admissions tutor for the School of Physics and Astronomy, which means that, along with a number of my colleagues, I handle and assess applications from students who want to do a degree course at Nottingham.

I spend a great deal of time as a lone worker in my office, but I’m part of an experimental research team who works together in laboratories

This variety is fantastic but sometimes, I’d like to be able to focus exclusively on just one aspect, and that really isn’t possible. But I’m not going to moan – I love being an academic. There’s nothing better than teaching the next generation of physicists – they’re a bright, enthusiastic bunch and they keep me on my toes!

What’s your workspace like?
There are a number of different places in which I work. I spend a lot of time in my office, and not enough time in the research labs. Both the office and the lab can be seen in this video.

I also spend a great deal of time in lecture theatres, undergraduate labs, and workshops in the School here in Nottingham and in other universities (when I visit to give seminars and lectures).

And part of my working life as a physicist is also spent in the pub.

Where are the kids when you’re working?
Generally at school. If not, they’re at home/dancing or piano lessons/ Girl Guides/the cinema…

Tell us about your role as an academic: what does it involve, how did you decide this was the route for you?
Being an academic means combining at least three key roles: teaching, research, and admin/management. The latter I could do without but I love both teaching and research. I’d also add public engagement to the list – we academics are generally funded by the taxpayer so, as I (and many of my colleagues) see it, we have an obligation to explain what we’re doing with the money in as engaging a manner as we can. This is one reason I got involved with Brady Haran’s YouTube projects – Sixty Symbols, Numberphile, Computerphile, PeriodicVideos etc…

I wanted to become an academic from about the first year into my PhD. I wasn’t a great undergraduate student – I was too focused on music and, um, related activities. Failing my exams in the third year of my four year degree course was the best thing that happened to me, for the reasons discussed in this blog post. Without failing those exams, I’d have drifted through my fourth year and graduated with much lower marks.

My PhD supervisor was great and he made a huge difference in my decision to go for a career in academia – he provided just the right level of independence and direction throughout my PhD.

It’s rare that I do hands-on research these days. PhD students and postdoctoral researchers carry out the majority of the research

What’s the greatest challenge of being a physics academic?
Oh, that’s a big question! The answer will be different for physicists at different career stages, but I’d have to say that the greatest challenge is also the most enjoyable part of the job: the diversity of the tasks and roles. Balancing research, teaching, public engagement and admin, and being at least passable in each, is always a major challenge.

What makes it all worthwhile?
I love this question. On the teaching side, it’s when a student’s confusion gives way to an understanding of a conceptually challenging topic. As teachers, we’re too often reluctant to admit that confusion has played a large role in our learning – we forget that a major part of developing understanding is when we feel stupid; really stupid. (On a side-note, I’ve long worried that the bite-sized YouTube approach to “edutainment” can be detrimental to learning.

On the research side, it’s that moment at 4am when you see something in the lab that no one in the world (or perhaps no one in the universe) has ever seen before…

Are there aspects of your role that you delegate to others?
A lot of the research is “delegated” by senior academics – it’s rare that I do hands-on research these days. PhD students and postdoctoral researchers carry out the majority of the research. This is a real shame but it’s how academia has evolved. I was on a research fellowship a few years back and that allowed me to spend much more time in the lab – that was a great deal of fun.

I certainly don’t enjoy marking exam papers!

Are you a happy lone worker, or do you enjoy the buzz of a shared workspace?
Both, and the great thing about academia is that both types of work environment are part of the job. I spend a great deal of time as a lone worker in my office, but I’m part of an experimental research team who works together in laboratories.

There’s a particularly strong buzz when we do research at a synchrotron. This is a particle accelerator something along the lines of CERN (although much, much smaller) but what we’re interested in is not the particles themselves but the radiation they give off when they’re accelerated around a ring at close to the speed of light. I’ve always loved the “big science collective” aspect of working at a synchrotron.

What’s the secret to career success?
Loving what you do. From that stems enthusiasm and tenacity, and those will always drive you forward.

Is the juggle real for you… do you find it difficult balancing fatherhood/relationship/me-time/time for friends/career?
It’s hugely difficult for me. I basically muddle through and attempt to balance my time as much as possible, but I’m not going to pretend that I have a five-step plan for getting this right. I screw up all the time.

If you could wake up anywhere tomorrow, where would it be?
If it’s anywhere and ‘anywhen’ – I’m a physicist so space and time are part of one integrated whole – then I’d say it’d be at Music City Hall in New York on 18th September 1983 to see Rush, supported by Marillion. Or the RDS Arena in Dublin on 9th April 1983 for Thin Lizzy’s last gig in Ireland.

Any future ventures?
I’m writing a book at the moment on the deep and fundamental links between heavy metal music and quantum physics, so I’m very much looking forward to that being (a) completed, and (b) published next year.

Some of the research within the group at the moment is focused on attempting to develop strategies to build structures by picking-and-placing single atoms, a type of 3D printing with atoms. If that’s even partially successful within the next decade or so, I’ll be over the moon!

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