Interview with Dr. Simon Clark

📷 Simon Clark

Journalist: Haleema Ahmed

Haleema: Hello everyone. And welcome back to SciSection. I'm Haleema, your journalist for this week and today we are delighted to have Dr. Simon Clark. Simon is an atmospheric physicist and content creator on YouTube originally providing insight on how to apply to Oxbridge. And now he discusses science research books amongst a bunch of other things. Thank you so much, Simon for joining us today. So I guess to begin so our viewers can get a little bit of an understanding of who you are we have a couple of rapid fire questions for you you could say. So firstly, what is your favorite planet?

Simon: Ooh. Oh God, give me an easy one to start with. Why don't you? Earth is the only habitable planet. It's incredible. It's the more we learn about the universe and the more we realize we're very lucky to have the planet, the way that it is. So I'm a boring as it is. I'm an earth scientist. I'm gonna say earth.

Haleema: Okay. I guess, related back into earth, what is the weirdest climate denying claim that you've ever heard? The weirdest?

Simon: Ooh. that's another interesting one. I think probably the Antarctica is a myth and that it's like the UN has a Navy patrolling the Southern oceans. That's constantly stopping anybody from trying to reach quote unquote Antarctica, quite why that UN would do this. So what benefit it would have? I don't know, but that's probably the strangest one.

Haleema: Yeah, that definitely is a little bit strange. So you're a scientist. Who is your biggest inspiration as a scientist?

Simon: Probably James clerk Maxwell. I feel like he's the physicist physicist and I mean, that was my training. I did a masters in physics and everybody always looks up to Einstein and to people like Feinman, but to me, Maxwell did not think short of magic. He combined all the disparate observations about electricity and magnetism into just four laws. And apparently he was a top notch bloke at the same time. Apparently he was really nice. He wrote poetry, he owned a dog, he played the guitar. He's that example of you can do amazing world changing science and also be nice about it, which I feel like you often lose. And a lot of famous scientists.

Haleema: That's very, very true. So if you could go back in time and meet one scientist, do you think it would be Maxwell or somebody else?

Simon: That's an interesting thing. Because when you going back in time as the angle of you can pick their brains about how they look at the world, but also who do I think would be most excited to be brought up to speed. Like if I could tell them all these things that are possible. If I, I think on that angle, it would be Archimedes Archimedes. Was this an incredible polymath? And I had, would have so much delight in basically sitting down with him and offloading a physics degree to him and sort of explaining everything from Newton onwards. I mean, that'd be really, really cool.

Haleema: No definitely would be. So you wouldn't necessarily want to go back and meet Maxwell, but just kind of appreciate him from the future.

Simon: I think there's a certain angle of you shouldn't meet your heroes. I thought I could meet him. I'd be so worried about getting tongue tied or just looking like an idiot. Cause there are so many physicists in history like Newton or Maxwell or Landau or Dirac that you'd meet. And I know that I would feel incredibly stupid by comparison, whereas at least with our committees, like I have the benefit of a few millennia of, you know, improve science and I can rest on that and not feel so inadequate.

Haleema: That's definitely true for sure. Maybe if we get the chance to time-travel we could go see our communities together and do that would be cool. And lastly, I think on your YouTube channel, you talk a lot about books and different books that you like. So when is your all time favorite book one that you would read over and over again and recommend to like anybody on the street?

Simon: You really aren't picking easy questions, aren't you? If I had to pick one, it would probably be My family and Other Animals by Gerald Darrell. It's always in my top three, I would say ontop of that, Brave New World and Zen in the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. And I think the other two are a little bit more difficult. They're not for everyone. Whereas I think My family and Other Animals has something for everyone. It's just a delightful story about somebody falling in love with natural world and lots of interpersonal friction and comedy. I just it's delightful.

Haleema: I'll definitely have to search that up on books soon, I'm gonna read it because I'm definitely in book worm as well. So now I guess segwaying more into you and the work that you do and your research and all of that. Where did your bloom for physics and physics education really begin?

Simon: So when I was a kid, I originally wanted to be a movie director that was the earliest dream I remember having. So funnily enough, I've sort of come full circle really. And then that became astronauts because I was, I think like all children are just fascinated by space. The immensity of it, there's a certain wonder to it. And I'm learning that there are definite rules that can describe how something, the size of a planet will move. And those be exactly the same rules that describe how apples Apple's to worth or more frequently I fall to earth. That was amazing to me. And I think there, there are so few people in the world that could, could, could sort of come to that realization and not want to study physics. So it's definitely, definitely from quite a young age. Being interested in space was a huge thing. And then when I was in school in high school, in the UK, we split science between maths physics and physics, chemistry and biology. And when that happens at about age 13, I just realized that all the cool stuff was in physics. And so that was the subject that I wanted to study.

Haleema: And so now a lot of your work is related to atmospheric physics, which I just think, I don't know too much about it, but earth and whether there's a lot of what it's about. Could you give us a little bit of a rundown of your PhD work and why you were attracted to atmospheric physics compared to other kinds of sub fields?

Simon: So why I became attracted to it was a moment in my third year of my undergraduate, when we were doing fluid mechanics, there was this fascinating module on a, I think it was called fluids flows and complexity. So looking at the equations that cover and how fluids move, but also stuff like chaos, strange attractors, that sort of thing. And there was just a moment when I was doing a problem sheet when you were calculating velocity in a fluid between two plates and one of them was being heated. And I just realized that everything in physics up until that point, you're dealing with point particles, you're dealing with these abstractions of, you know, like a billiard ball and a smooth, smooth, infinitely, smooth, infinite billiards table. And that never really happens. Whereas with the fluid example, you'll, it's not disc retired, it's continuous, you're calculating the flow and the temperature for out the entire fluid. And that to me was an incredible that you could do that with just a couple of equations. And specifically there was an extension to the question that we were told not to do. And I thought, I really want to try this. I want to try, you know, let's vary the temperature and see what happens at a time dependence to the solution and being able to do that. It was that wonderful feeling of, I suppose, power. It was that feeling of, I can describe this stuff. I can work out what this stuff will do in the future using these simple equations. And from that moment on, I knew that was what I wanted to do. It was that combination of the natural world and physics, which has sort of two things I've always been incredibly interested in. One comes from my family and other animals. And yeah, it was the Venn diagram with those two. And then without getting too boring, my thesis was on stratospheric dynamics were specifically, it was on a stratosphere troposphere coupling. So that means looking at how two layers in the atmosphere cause the atmosphere like Ogas like onions has layers and they communicate with each other. They behave in slightly different ways. So I, in my thesis was looking at how the stratosphere, which is the middle layer. If you like at the, kind of the true bit of the atmosphere interacts with Arla, the troposphere, and specifically looking at the Altima for these events called Southern stratospheric warmings which became famous a couple of years ago because the polar vortex broke apart and there was a huge cold snap over most of North America that was caused by the polar vortex. And there was a lot of terrible science reporting about the name and it gets very confusing, but yeah, basically I was studying the polar vortex and the maths of how it affects the surface.

Haleema: I think for something as complex as you explained it really, really easily. And I, I think I really grasped what you were trying to gain with that, with that application of your thesis, where is that information or that kind of academic studying applied to in the real world, how would you take your thesis and the research that you created from that and then contribute to the science community or the tech community, or what have you.

Simon: The main thing that that's useful for is a weather prediction and in particular stratosphere stratosphere is interesting for a whole variety of reasons. I could write a whole book on it. But specifically when it comes to weather forecasting, it varies on much longer timescales. So on the surface, we don't know what happens more than maybe a week or two weeks in advance, whereas in the stratosphere, because it varies much more slowly, you know, what's going to happen. And if you know that there is going to be a sudden warming event, knowing how that information is communicated to the surface is valuable because it allows you to predict the surface where the further in the future, then you would be able to just using surface data. So specifically in my thesis, we found that the interaction between the two layers was nonlinear. It's not enough to just consider the two influences on the strategy on troposphere and vice versa in isolation, you have to consider them together. And that's the kind of thing which can go into, for example, weather, forecasting models making sure that you have, for example, a well defined stratosphere with a high resolution making sure that you have a lateral resolution that's sufficient to capture the, the Eddy fluxes, sorry, I'm getting ready to technical, but basically, yeah. So you can apply the, you can apply the ideas from that to weather forecasting and use that to make better forecasts, particularly in the winter season when these big events, these Southern stratospheric warnings happen.

Haleema: I don't think you were necessarily able to kind of jump to the stratosphere and do this kind of research. So how exactly does physics research work? I know that like with biology, you're, I dunno, you're dissecting things in chemistry, you're in the lab. So like physics, how exactly are you able to come to these conclusions?

Simon: So I hoped that it might be able to revisit the polar stratospheric cause specifically we're looking over the poles and I didn't get to leave any last. Now I went to the, I did go to San Francisco for a conference, but I didn't get to go to anywhere near as exciting as the North pole. Basically you do it entirely and computers. So you, you derive the maths of what you're doing on pen and paper. And we were able to derive some results that were kind of cool, I think, quite elegant using that method and then effectively the actual science is testing that. So you have your hypothesis, this equation that you derived and then you test it using a computer. It's not actually a computer model, it's using the sort of observations that we have using satellites and basically manipulating those results in such a way that you can check if your result is verified by that data. So I'd say that my PhD was probably about 10 to 15% pen and paper manipulating equations, and about 85 to 90% programming and failing to program.

Haleema: So it's physics research and technology kind of go hand in hand with the work that you do.

Simon: Absolutely. Yeah. And I don't think that's particularly, I mean, perhaps it is particularly true for atmospheric physics, but also definitely true for things like astrophysics. There are certainly aspects of science, which are very experimental and I have friends who did atmospheric physics, who for example, were investigating the monsoon over India and they got to fly planes through you know, rainstorms with measuring equipment that they built and designed. So there is that practical aspect to it. And in which case, that's the link between science and engineering, but certainly when it comes to my neck of the woods and would definitely be the case quite broadly technology and in particular computer science has a real link with, with modern physics.

Haleema: Hmm. That's very, very interesting. And I guess the subject of physics, I find this kind of the bane of existence for a lot of students. Why do think that is you are able to be, I guess, so different from that.

Simon: I think people find it so frustrating because it is so mathematical. And I actually think that my personal motto when it comes to maths is it's only hard until you realize it's not there's a lot of cultural factors that go into and social factors that go into people thinking that math isn't for them and the, they are unwilling to be good at it. Basically. It's not that they are incapable of being good at it. They're almost unwilling to, and as long as they have that attitude about maths, they will have an attitude about physics because physics is the the grammar of the universe. Whereas maths is the vocabulary, it's the language. And so I think it is that a failing in, so certainly in the UK of our education system to turn people onto maths, to make them realize they can do it. You know, that, that, that, that translates across to physics. So it's actually, it's a delightful subject. You just have to sort of look past those misgivings. You may have about algebra and equations and calculus and realize that if you're just pigheaded enough, like me, cause I'm not particularly bright. I just, I just don't give up really. And so I just kept going with the math center that eventually clicked, and it does happen. I'm proof that it can happen even to people that aren't especially bright.

Haleema: I don't think that's true. You're definitely very, very intelligent with the work that you do. And also being able to take this knowledge that you have and make it understandable for people on YouTube. So could you talk to us a little bit about starting content on YouTube and how you kind of segwayed from talking to people about education and Oxbridge to now with more of your research kind of thing in science?

Simon: So that's, that's an interesting one because when I started out, as you say, I was doing content about Oxbridge and the key thing that I was trying to get across was it was experiential. It was to do with my lived experience with it, the goal being that it was a boots on the ground perspective. It's like, this is what my life is like. And you know, so I am just a normal kid and my parents didn't go to university or anything like that. And yet I'm here. It's about the point being, you're seeing the experience through my eyes and you can sort of feel connected to it and think, Oh, well, if he can do it, I can do it. And when you make content like that, that is inherently based on your personal experience. It changes as you change in life. And so when I started doing my masters at Oxford, I did a video on sort of what my research was about. And I found that kind of rewarding to do, but also it was representative. This was the stuff I was doing with my time. And then when I started the PhD, I started making content about what it was like to do a PhD. And that necessarily started being about the science I was doing. And I found that when I was talking about my research and I actually needed to fill in some groundwork and sort of made some videos with some more basics on the subject. And then I kinda just got the bug for doing that. So it went from being this thing of, this is what my experience is like on a day to day basis to, Oh, well, you know, you're interested in this thing and I'm interested in this thing. So here's a cool thing. I did. I think the first science got a standalone thing I did was about time dilation and this very simple clock that firemen came up with. So sort of, you could derive it basically just using Pythagoras theorem which is, you know, one of the central results of special relativity just using Pythagoras, which I was like, Oh, this is a neat thing. I'll make that. And you know, people seem to like it. And so I just sort of got the bug really. I just, I just kind of started making more and more videos that were about less about me and more about the science. And then by the time I graduated, I had a large enough audience that I definitely wasn't guaranteed success by any means, but I figured I would regret not trying to do it as a career because I enjoyed it so much. And fortunately I people kept watching the stuff I make. And yeah, but here we are now.

Haleema: Have you found that a lot of your audience is kind of people interested in physics or is it all over the place?

Simon: Sort of all over the place? Because my earlier content was not so much about physics and there are certainly loads of people that carry, have carried on watching my stuff for reasons, best known to themselves. And so they could have been drawn in by me talking about being a student or me talking about being a musician or talking about Warhammer, because I've done several videos about that now. And you know, so that they're infested all over the place. It also depends though on the kind of content that I'm trying to make, cause there's this concept called science capital, where you are effective, the trying to reach the audience of a particular science capital, meaning how engaged they feel with science, how much skin in the game they have in the sort of the Scientifics fear. And there's a lot to be said for engaging with people with a high science capital, in which case the audience is already interested in science. They just want to know about a particular thing. But there's also a lot to be said. I think for people with a low science capital, those are the people that you could argue. We make the biggest difference to, by getting them interested in science via something else they're interested in. So one of the most popular videos I did was on the planets in star Wars which ones could really exist. And that's really a video about this is sort of the basics of planetary science. This is how we think about, you know, modeling planets. But if I'd made the video called that nobody would have watched it, it would have been the high science capital audience, but by making it about star Wars, you bring these people in with huge range of interests, but unified by that interest in star Wars. And I've done that a couple of times now. And so sort of the, the, the regular audience now is definitely trending towards being more science, literate, and higher science capital. But I think you fail as a science communicator, if you exclusively target those people, you've got to start bringing more people in. And the way of doing that is by making stuff it's not explicitly about.

Haleema: And I think this question is kind of loaded, but why do you think it's important for every people to be interested in science and do want to know more about science when not, they're not necessarily in those fields, what's the importance behind it.

Simon: So I think people's lives are improved by education, more than anything else. And education is all about making the most of people's potential. And if you have a training in maths or in science, you have the ability to analyze situations with a more analytical quantitative viewpoint than if you I've never studied science or never studied maths. I think that you can make the argument that the learning, how science works, not actually the sort of scientific knowledge per se, but how the subject works is a valuable addition to someone's life. Cause it improves how they go about their life. I, you could also say though, that there is value in teaching people, the scientific facts, because that those facts will inform people's decisions. So particularly when it comes to that global warming I have an interest, a vested interest in making sure people know the facts about climate change, because if they do, they will vote in a way that will hopefully do something about the problem. If they don't know anything about the problem, they can't be expected to vote in a way that will fix it. So, you know, society benefits from people who, who think in an analytical way, even if they don't go on scope to do science, it's not for everybody. We don't need an entire planet of scientists, but I think we do need as a people, a planet of people who can think like scientists when they're required to and have the knowledge required to engage with and overcome problems that we face in the world. And that's something that we are definitely still lacking. And I think it's definitely something that we need to keep doing is improving. People's scientific, if not education, that scientific literacy, their ability to look at facts, disseminate them, draw their own conclusions, using a scientific method, especially related to climate change. There's such an importance that with upcoming US election, amongst other things, so keeping informed on science is definitely essential. On that note, thank you so much, Simon for joining us today, where can our listeners kind of find you?

Simon: So I'm on YouTube at Simon Clark, if you just search for me. And then I'm also on Instagram and Twitter at SimonOxPhys.

Haleema: Alright, thank you so much, Simon for joining us today, it was such a pleasure to have you.

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