From books to science festivals…an interview with Physics graduate James

From publishing a book to dressing up as an eighteenth-century astronomer, Physics graduate James (MPhys in Physics and Astrophysics, 2017) has certainly been busy both during his time at York and in the year since his graduation. We caught up with him to chat about what he’s up to.

You graduated in July – what are you doing back on campus?

I graduated on the Wednesday, and moved down to Cambridge on the Friday to start a job at the Cambridge Science Centre. I was there for six months before coming back to York for a winter internship that the Careers service runs. I was helping out with admissions and outreach. Now I’m doing some freelance work until hopefully starting a PhD at York next September.

I’d always planned to take a couple of years away from education, to see what was going on in the world of work. I very quickly realised that I want to continue learning… I want to do research.

You describe yourself as a freelance science communicator – what does that mean?

To be crude, whatever pays! I’ve written a book, I’ve got a commission on another book, I also organise events and popular science talks aimed at the general public. I got an email from a science communicator mailing list saying ‘hey, we need two people to write two books’. One was about chemistry and the periodic table, and one was about the history of physics. It was coming up to the summer of my third year, and the opportunity came up and I thought, yeah go for it. So I wrote some sample chapters and sent them off and got the job! So my summer job was writing a book.

It’s called Physics in 50 milestone moments. It’s (surprisingly) a book about the history of physics, told through 50 key moments, from the Warren Field calendar which was built about 8,000BC to measure the lunar year, all the way up to the detection of gravitational waves. So they’re the 50 moments that made physics, if you like.

Publishing is a weird business that I don’t understand – the book has been translated into Japanese, and the publisher didn’t tell me until the translator had an issue with something. They’d offered me a book on maths for adults, which didn’t really go anywhere. Then the publisher had a corporate restructure so I got in touch to say ‘hey, is this still going on?’ and the Creative Director was like ‘Fantastic – I have this idea for a puzzle book. Could you do a puzzle book?’. So I’m currently working on an idea for a puzzle book which will be getting pitched later in the year. Specifically they want lots of maths and science based puzzles so that there’s sort of an educational bent to it. I’m working on how that’s going to work. 

You mentioned that you do public speaking events as well?

One of my first public speaking events came about because Katherine Leech, the Physics Outreach Officer, was in a meeting with Treasurer’s House and they had an event coming up. They wanted to hire an actor to dress up as John Goodricke, who was an astronomer who lived in York in the 18th Century. Katherine was like ‘you know I think I’ve got a student who’ll do that’.

Dressing up I’ve only done twice – once as an 18th-century astronomer, tights and all, and once as a spaceman. But I’ve spoken at various events at the University, the Big Bang Fair, the Big Telescope Fiar, the York Astrocampus. I’ve also done things with BBC Radio, I’ve been up and down Yorkshire delivering talks to scientific societies. I’ve been up to Durham, down to Cambridge, given talks at the Cheltenham Science Festival and all sorts of bits and bobs. It’s usually astronomy – because everyone loves astronomy – and space. But I’ve also done talks on things like magnetism and Star Trek. Actually the third time I dressed up was for a Star Trek event at Cheltenham – they needed someone to dress up as a yellow-shirt so I jumped at the chance.

Where do you see your career going?

I really hope to do a PhD next year. My interests are really broad – perhaps magnetism, perhaps biophysics, perhaps nuclear…

I’m only looking at York for my PhD at the moment. I’ve done a lot here. I got involved with a huge number of societies – at one point I was running four of them and was in six more, while organising two big events. So I really like York – I love the city, I love the university, I know the Department very well. I have a lot of friends who are still here, so obviously that’s quite a big factor.

I was secretary and then later chair of PhysSoc, secretary of the Astronomy Society I also did HazSoc and Sci-fi Fantasy Society. I also got involved with the societies committee overseeing lots of different societies at the University. I organised and ran GeekFest, which was a big event bringing together people from lots of different societies, and the University of York Science Week which brought together all the science societies on campus. So I was involved with quite a lot. It’s been useful to me, certainly in terms of event organisation, which is a really handy skill as a science communicator. Also in terms of speaking and organisation and time-management skills, when you’re dealing with that much you’re forced to get good pretty quickly!