Read, read, read and new ideas will come to you
30 August, 2022 science
We speak to a British Antarctic Survey Scientist on becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society…
Professor Richard Horne FRS is the former Head of Space Weather at the British Antarctic Survey and Honorary Professor at the University of Sheffield. He has published over 200 research papers on wave-particle interactions, wave propagation and space weather. Here we talk to him on becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society and what inspired him to become a scientist.
- Who inspired you to study science?
I was inspired by my father who read to me each night when I was a small boy in the early 1960s. He showed me pictures of a space station and astronauts in space. He told me that one day this will become true, and that people will go to the moon and Mars! Later I became fascinated with atoms and elementary particles that make up the whole universe and wanted to understand how that works. At university I studied physics and tried to do a PhD in high energy physics. But I couldn’t get a grant – I’m so glad I didn’t! In the end, I did a D.Phil in space plasma physics which was just as interesting and has led to a very successful career.
- Who inspires you most in your field of science?
People who think and do something fundamental. Einstein did his great work over many years, but his key contribution was thinking, and thinking differently. In my field of space plasma physics, I worked closely with the late Richard Thorne at UCLA for over 30 years. He was “larger than life”, great fun. We thought along similar lines, became best friends, and published 80 papers together. But the person who inspires me most is Bruce Tsurutani at the Jet Propulsion Lab, California. He understands theory, collaborates widely, and even now in his late 70s he publishes challenging papers that make you stop and think. We correspond almost every day talking about research, people, politics, news, international relations – all the things that make life so interesting.
- What does this recognition mean for you personally?
Recognition of my scientific achievements. Recognition by a wider audience that I must have done something good scientifically. I didn’t set out to achieve FRS, I wanted to understand, and to work on something interesting. But I think these things become more important as you get older and start to reflect on your career. It has certainly made me very happy, and I’m not done yet.
- What does this recognition mean for you professionally?
It’s enhanced my status. I’ve noticed how many more people come and say hello at meetings, especially in wider management type meetings in UK. I sometimes wonder how much of a surprise it was to them. It also opens new doors to get involved with Royal Society committees to influence policy and make things better. I want to do that. I’ve just taken over as Chair of the Space Environment Impact Expert Group that provides advice to government on space weather. I’ve been asked to serve on more committees, join satellite mission proposals, give more talks, attend more panels, review more proposals etc.. But I guard time for leading my team and our research.
- What (if any) emerging scientific discipline interests you?
Space Weather and the use of Artificial Intelligence, or AI. I think AI is going to make a huge impact across all fields. It already has in social media. I see it as a tool to be applied – not an end in itself. For example, we have been trying AI to forecast space weather which causes disruption to power supplies, satellites, and communications. AI cannot handle big events that only happen occasionally, but it has led to much better forecasts for smaller events where we have lots of data.
- Which scientific paper or publication are you most proud of?
My 2005 paper showing how plasma waves accelerate electrons close to the speed of light and play a major role in forming the Earth’s radiation belts. (https://doi.org/10.1029/2004JA010811). It changed ideas going back 40 years. I remember the moment when I first realised that the waves could accelerate electrons, it was a revelation, a special moment. But it’s not like the movies – it took years of work and a US satellite mission to convince everyone else around the world.
- Which past Fellow would you most like to meet?
I’d like a night out in Las Vegas with Richard Feynman. Nobel prize-winner, he was renowned for enjoying life. Drinking, talking physics, and much more. It would be great fun!
- Any words for aspiring scientists?
Do what you are interested in and what motivates you – then you are more likely to be successful. Look at the field and ask what the big questions are, how relevant are they, and in what way could you best contribute. Try to work out if the field is opening up with new opportunities. Make sure you work on something important and relevant, and work very hard. Challenge existing ideas, check the experimental evidence and understand their limitations. Try to work with the best scientists. Don’t be put off by titles or status, approach senior scientists with good questions and a genuine desire to understand and they will respond – the good ones will – and you will learn.
Make sure you are not the one putting up barriers. And read, read, read, and new ideas will come to you. Then discuss, see if there are gaps in your thinking, and do some more reading. Be open to challenge and discussion, don’t take challenge as a personal attack.