In awe of the aurora.

The textbook image of a physicist scarring the minds of school aged scientists is far from reality- we’re not (all) isolated wrinkly old white men playing with springs and light bulbs who never leave our messy poorly illuminated labs. Melanie Windridge breaks just about every stereotype in the book. She’s got a PhD in plasma physics from Imperial and works for a fusion energy start up called Tokamak. I can’t imagine Dr Windridge spending a whole day inside a lab or pouring over gigabytes of data. Fascinated by the high energy rocket launches she watched during an undergraduate summer placement, Melanie’s quest to unlock the secrets of the upper atmosphere has racked her up a lot of air miles. Following an artic science course in Sweden, Dr Windridge has spent a night with a reindeer herder in northern Norway, camped in Svalbard at -40 °C and ‘chilled out’ with some Canadian pilots in a brewery. Melanie started her journey trying to unravel the mysteries of the aurora, a polar light show that occurs when the highly charged solar wind interacts with the earth’s magnetic fields. Aside from building up a pretty sensational contact list and being able to give the world’s most qualified travel advice on ‘where to see an aurora’: Melanie’s book describes some pretty awesome science. She describes the complex processes of magnetic field line reconnection (which explains the observation of aurora on the ‘night side’ of the earth) in a way that her Sámi explorers can understand. During Melanie’s travels she saw a total solar eclipse, her eyelashes froze and the steam generated from cooking dinner inside her frosty tent caused it to snow under canvas. It was so cold she oscillated between “being okay and being in extreme pain”. Dr Windridge’s anecdotes manage to connect the religious experiences, science, folklore, spirituality and passion humans associate with aurora in a way that is accessible to all. For her Norwegian friend Knut the aurora was nature’s babysitter: ‘you have to come home or the northern lights will get you!’, for the Scottish landscape artists she met the aurora could not be contained to canvas, for the National Grid the aurora could trigger a UK-wide power cut. The aurora are much more than anything I ever learnt during a third-year plasma physics course.

Aurora also make for great photographs, which captivated the engaged audience. This was the perfect lecture for the IOP SE Branch and excited people at every stage of their physics adventure. I was lucky enough to catch up with some of the sixth formers in the audience: The talk was really interesting and easy to understand, as it related to topics I’d covered in my A levels. The lights were a real mystery for thousands of years, only explained by superstition until science provided us with an explanation, so even if you don’t study physics I still think it would be really interesting to attend and find out exactly how phenomena such as this occur.”

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