National Physical Laboratory

GCSE in Applied Science - FAQs

We have been asked the following questions by Applied Science students and are delighted to provide the following answers from our scientists:


Response from Higher Research Scientist, Acoustics Group

Response from Senior Research Scientist

How do you use science in your place of work?

I work in a scientific environment and my job title actually contains the word 'scientist'.

My actual topic is 'acoustics' in liquids. This means that every day I play with thermometers, burettes, microphones and a special kind of loudspeaker. I also use computers a lot, both to analyse data and to construct models. One of my teachers at school used to say that "it is always worth knowing in advance what the result will be before trying an experiment" - he was quite right. This is why I often find myself trying to predict results in advance using models.

Science is my 9-5 job.

I run the UK facilities for calibrating UV irradiance, gloss and haze, and am involved in committees dealing with the measurement and specification of colour.

Which different types of science do you use?

My particular subject of study is bubbles.

You would be surprised to hear in how many ways bubbles enter natural and technological phenomena! You can find them in volcanoes, stars, the food industry (you know Aero, don't you?), fashion, engineering, finance, and under the sea.

Right now, I am studying what happens to bubbles when they are shot with ultrasound (high frequency sound that humans cannot hear, but that constitute the language of dolphins). This has many applications, e.g. in new techniques to fight cancer, in designing safer ways to kill bacteria on dentists' instruments and to produce future fuels. I use acoustics, fluid dynamics, heat transfer, mathematics and a little chemistry.

An enormous range:

  • Computer science: I write/maintain software to control experiments.
  • Materials science: To develop suitable transfer standards for measurementVisual science, including the disciplines of physiology, psychology, chemistry, psychophysics and physics, in my work on colour.
  • Maths: Statistics and mathematical functions to examine how good results are, permit me to interpolate, model and describe my results.
  • Electronics: To build and maintain equipment
  • Detectors: For measurement
  • Scientific research: So I know what others are up to
  • Presentation skills: To help me help others understand my work.
How often do you use science?

Recently,  I bought a cookery book called "The Science of Cooking". I wonder if it involves bubbles...

Every minute of my time at NPL, though I do include in this the science of using spreadsheets, which seems to have become one of my major tools.

Work includes designing and building instruments, making measurements, discussing requirements with customers, reading others' scientific papers, writing my own papers and reports, trying to help my co-workers with their projects.
Do many of your colleagues use science? All of them.

Thinking about the past, I would say this applies to all the places where I have worked so far.

Most of them (except perhaps the cleaners and caterers – although they practice domestic science, don't they?).

NPL maintains and disseminates measurement standards, such as the metre, kilogram, second. There are about 500 of us engaged in measuring almost every physical quantity conceivable as accurately as possible, and ensuring that these measurements can be used by others by developing what we call transfer standards. In the case of temperature this would be a thermometer, though there are thousands of different types of thermometers - we are sent these different types and need to know how best to use them.

We intercompare with other National Metrology Institutes, such as NIST in the USA. We are involved in setting definitions for measurements, so participate on thousands of national and international committees, such as ASTM and BSI. And finally, with such a concentration of experts and amazing scientific apparatus, we are of value as a training centre for measurement techniques and for people to obtain solutions to their measurement problems.

Why do you use science?

Science is a way to describe and understand the world we live in.

If you want to produce new technologies, you first have to spend some time understanding the reasons behind them (like a journalist interviewing Mother Nature, if you like).

Also, science provides a way of predicting what will happen if you change conditions or pull things out of the box.

Science is useful for safety and it can be lot of fun.

Well, "because I have fun" is probably the most honest answer to your question.

Science = knowledge, by definition, and is essential to society. Even cavemen would have used science and technology to improve themselves. Arguably our first 18 months of life is largely a voyage of scientific discovery.

Society benefits enormously from medicine, clothing, transport, safety and art - which are all underpinned by scientific advancement. From the viewpoint of my workplace, I can see how measurement enables us to investigate the world in many ways beyond human perception in an exact way. Can people tell the difference between 37 and 40 °C? That's the difference between life and death for human tissue. Measurement is critical for trade and industry - only a few thousandths of a millimetre can make the difference between an inefficient jet engine and one that blows up.

Personally, I work in science because it gives me a buzz to know how things work and to see beyond the visible, and beyond speculation. Science is about trying to find the truth.
How much does science affect your work place? A lot.

From the choice of lighting sources to protection against noise.

Also, my workplace is shaped to facilitate the work of scientists, e.g. there are areas insulated from outside vibrations and areas shielded from electromagnetic radiations (like the ones produced by mobiles), locations which are completely dark (for people who use lasers) and others where you cannot enter without a special permit.
My lab walls have no windows and are black to reduce the amount of light scattered, which would affect my results. The laboratories are air-conditioned to make sure the temperature doesn’t vary by more than one degree, as the apparatus I use is affected by temperature, yet generates a lot of heat which has to be removed.

For safety reasons, I have to wear UV protective clothing. Some lamps I use could give a nasty sunburn in just a few seconds. I have to keep the  gloss and haze samples I work with clean, as a greasy finger mark on a sample would wreck it. It would be insane to have food and drinks in any of the labs. Luckily there is a free coffee vending machine fairly close by. I have largely automated the experiment in the dark room and it can be monitored remotely, so I don’t have to spend ages in there.
What qualifications do you have which led to your present position?

I believe that the most relevant qualification is my curiosity. Since I was a kid I wanted to understand how things worked and was fascinated by science.

I started an undergraduate course in Physics because I wanted to be an astronomer, then I realised that I liked particle physics more (searching for the building blocks of reality... working with special lenses to see the very small, like being Sherlock Holmes with a lab coat! Too cool, I thought....).  I ended up studying the physics of very cold atoms: atoms that slow down under the menace of laser guns.

This subject was very popular while I was studying for my MSc, so popular that some of my colleagues won the Nobel Prize working in the area.

Meantime, curiosity had driven me down other paths: I had started a PhD on bubbles in absence of gravity. This included some zero-G work - how could I resist?

I then worked in different places, including teaching science in schools and university, working for the Environmental Agency (listening to people complaining about noisy neighbours or checking mobile antennas) and at Imperial College London (where I tried to squeeze energy out of bubbles). During this time I obtained another qualification: a diploma in Acoustics and some training in health and safety...and finally reached NPL, where my learning continues. Once one gets the knack of learning, I say, it is like going downhill on a bike without brakes: one cannot stop.

I started life pretty certain I would be a professional artist, but couldn’t decide whether to go for the lifestyle of a penniless fine artist or mercenary commercial artist.

Then I met a scientist and began to think that science would really be more beneficial to humanity than art. Interestingly, both art and science careers can build upon the work of others and involve creativity in building things and finding solutions. Armed with the wrong A-levels, I took more in a year out between school and university - with a professional botanist day job. I studied Applied Physics and Electronics at university. I even hoped I could build art into my studies, though the timetable was packed full already. I did sneak into psychology and geography lectures as most of my female friends studied these subjects rather than physics! NPL seemed the best place to do Physics and I have been here ever since. In the 23 years since joining, I have been involved in some form of continuous training such as safety, management, presentation skills… I turned down the chance to obtain a Masters or PhD as part of my work.

How does Health and Safety fit into your job? One day I read the following statement on an advert in a bus: "I love my work, but not enough to die for it". This was the penny-dropping moment when my view of Health & Safety changed. I knew it was important to wear goggles and a lab coat while working in a lab, I knew that putting my fingers in the mains could be dangerous (even if I tried when I was younger, according to my parents), but exactly how important? How could these things happen to me? Working for the Environmental Agency helped me to risk assess all my activities and sometimes help others assess theirs. Health and safety is no longer just "boring": it is saving my life. As such, it is part of my work. Despite the range of potentially dangerous things we do, NPL has a very good record for Health & Safety because it manages risk extremely responsibly. Risks of things we build, buy and do are assessed: every PC workstation we use is checked to be fit for purpose and each laboratory has a risk assessment. A part of assessment is risk reduction – we are encouraged to manage leads carefully to avoid trip hazards and keep workplaces tidy. Our job descriptions include permissions to work alone and designated facility access according to experience. One of my labs has a door lock system that shuts down potentially hazardous equipment (powerful laser) if the door is opened without entering a special code. Work/llfe balance is taken seriously – several social clubs are organised from work (such as yoga, music, and sports), and there is even an on-site doctor and physiotherapist.
What does NPL do? We are the UK's National Measurement Institute. This means we are responsible for ensuring that things are measured accurately. Among many other things we have atomic clocks for measuring time and laser systems for measuring length. Our staff are internationally renowned experts and we have so much amazing equipment and expertise on site, measuring so many different parameters, that we also offer consultancy and training to industry on measurement issues.
Why is your place of work where it is? In late 1890s, the Physical Society was charged with setting up the first National Physical Laboratory. A number of properties were offered as a suitable location. The founding committee looked at all of these and chose Bushy House in Teddington. Bushy House had been empty for a number of years since its former incumbent had passed away and its owner, Queen Victoria, did not intend to make use of it. The house is away from the bustle of the city, enabling experiments to be carried out in a peaceful environment, and set in grounds that allowed for any necessary expansion. We still do experiments in that building today - those very sensitive to acoustic and electrical noise. Particularly during the wars, many additional buildings were constructed on the (quite large) site leading to a collection of over 100 buildings of various sizes. In the 1990s, a migration to the Midlands was considered, but a decision was made to remain on the Teddington site and mostly decant into one new big (36,000 square metre) building. That building was officially opened in 2008 and it is one of a kind. Most of the older buildings (though not Bushy House) have been demolished.
Although Teddington was engulfed by the greater London sprawl and is now in the city-worker commuter belt, located on the edge of a Royal Park it is still a good, calm place to work. Easy access to London is an advantage as we are a government-owned laboratory. Being close to Heathrow airport is valuable for our international work. Our customers are everywhere so it would be hard to find an better place to be.
Do you have any information on the effect NPL has on the environment (including things such as transport, waste disposal, radiation, etc)?

NPL is a scientific institution and, like any human activity, its day-to-day activities have an effect on the environment. On the other hand, several of its activities relate directly or indirectly to the reduction of human impact on the environment.

NPL is committed to providing a quality service to all our customers, taking due regard of environmental issues and a safe and healthy working environment. We are trying hard to reduce our carbon footprint by careful reduction of our energy use. We have a policy or recycling and sensible disposal of waste materials. In the longer term we are looking into geothermal energy generation. We try to encourage car-pooling and cycling/taking public transport to work. Several workers deliberately use trains instead of planes to get to meetings. We are also promoting a better understanding of environmental impact through our Protons for Breakfast science course for the public, which has now had over 600 attendees; and we know its course materials are used by teachers throughout the UK.

Scientifically (and this is not a complete list), ways in which our work is trying to help reduce human impact on environment include:

  • A proposal for a satellite system to ensure accurate absolute measurement of the sun's output (we only really have relative data at the moment) for the climate model.
  • Involvement in developing many new materials with lower environmental impact for manufacturing industries such as lead-free solder and carbon nanotechnologies.
  • Involvement in environmental monitoring of pollutants, gases and even noise (sound).
  • With so many UK nuclear power stations now being decommissioned, we help in checking radiation levels of the process. We will similarly be involved in the building of replacement stations.
  • A facility to measure the transmittance of heat through building materials. This should help reduce the waste of energy (presently 40% of UK energy) through buildings to the outside world leading to energy consumption reduction.
  • Involvement in the development of alternative energy sources from the measuring of environmental impact of wind farms to the workings of fuel cells, solar panels and biotechnologies.
  • Representing the UK on many international committees, which relate to environmental and climate change issues.
How many staff are employed at NPL? The number varies but it is about 600 including 450 qualified scientists (physicists, chemists, engineers, mathematicians and many other disciplines). The rest are support staff including cooks, cleaners, gardeners, financial people, workshop engineers, human resources and reception staff)
What is the impact of NPL's scientific research? Official reports state that for each pound invested in NPL, at least 30 times that amount is returned through UK's businesses.


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Last Updated: 14 Apr 2010
Created: 14 Apr 2010


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