Exeter pub serves up a Pint of Science

Dr Thomas Constant, Associate Research Fellow in Physics and Astronomy spoke at this week’s Pint of Science festival. He recalls his experience…

It was my immense pleasure to participate in this year’s Pint of Science festival that took place over three nights in Exeter, and concurrently in another forty-nine cities around the world.

The premise was for university researchers to give public talks in pubs, with an emphasis on casual and engaging talks in a far-less stuffy environment than the traditional lecture halls. As an additional incentive, for both attendees and speakers, plenty of beer was available throughout.

I presented at the Ship Inn, near Exeter Cathedral. A very traditional 16th century alehouse which Exeter legend would have you believe was a favorite of Sir Francis Drake. The conditions were intimate to say the least!

Due to the space requirements my colleague, Professor Roy Sambles, and I stood amongst the audience, as we extolled the benefits and the quirky physics that lies behind things as simple as colour, liquid crystals or fluorescent light bulbs.

Such a format was a wonderful catalyst for discussions and questions, and also an enjoyable challenge when demonstrating potentially dangerous experiments using things like lasers, tesla coils and the surprisingly useful and often overlooked scientific apparatus: a pint of G&T.

About thirty people came to listen, quiz and challenge the research I conduct at Exeter, which focuses on the science of light. The United Nations has declared 2015 the international year of light, chiefly to raise awareness of how research into light profoundly affects our everyday lives.

My primary research at Exeter is all about trapping light at the surface of materials. Since 1902, when a rather eccentric scientist named Robert Wood was playing with some scratched gold, we have known that if we shine light on a metal mirror that has some tiny grooves in its surface, sometimes the light doesn’t reflect but ‘hangs around’ on the surface, trapped their as a new type of quantized quasi-particle we call a ‘surface plasmon’.

The advances this discovery are leading towards are not yet fully realised, but we know enough so far to be confident that trapping light in this way will lead to some significant advances we will be seeing very soon in everyday life.

The best sensors in the world already use this effect, and we have now reached the point where just a single molecule of material on a metal surface can be detected. My favorite use of this is in Mexico, where they use sensors like this to detect bootleg tequila. Light hanging around a surface also improves solar cells, a technology at a tipping point of truly becoming a viable alternative to fossil fuels, if only we could push their efficiency a tiny bit further.

There are countless more applications that are just starting to bear the fruit of the global research in these areas, from stealth technologies, anti-counterfeiting products, light generation, quantum computing, and even in one case possible cancer treatments using just light and harmless gold particles.

Whatever the final products that result from our research, our goal is a simpler one: to understand the subtleties of how light behaves. It is a passion our research group shares with many others around the world and now, with a little bit of luck, an additional thirty or so Exeter pub-goers.

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