Martin Zaltz Austwick
Ah! Lovely cup of tea
Adams Grammar School 1989-1996
Oxford University 1996-2004
Motability 2004-2006; UCL Department of Surgery 2006-2010; UCL-CASA 2010-
Favourite thing to do in my job: I really enjoy programming! It sounds super-nerdy, I know. But you can make some beautiful animations and images with programming, as well as understanding and analysing data. When you get things to work it feels a bit like magic.
I try to use physics and maths to try understand how large numbers of human beings interact.
Human society is a really complicated beast! It’s pretty much impossible to predict how one person behaves (I’m a physicist, not a psychologist!), but when a lot of people get together you can start to simplify things. You can make assumptions about how people act, for example, when they’re crossing the road, or when they’re planning a train journey, because they don’t have many options really. I try to understand networks – how people move and communicate, essentially. One of things I’m currently studying is Boris Bikes – the bikes that people in London can hire for a few minutes and drop off at their destination. Studying how people use these at different times of day is teaching me how to understand the flow of the city, and more general things about how to tackle these sorts of questions.
This is a video I created to show some of the journeys on a busy day for the Boris Bikes:
I call myself a “social physicist’ now because I use physics to study society – but before I was a social physicist I was a medical physicist, using lasers to treat patients. Before THAT, I was quantum physicist, and I was trying to understand materials that we might use to make a quantum computer. Quantum Computers are computers that use some of the more surreal aspects of quantum physics to speed up certain kinds of computation – codebreaking is one way they could be used. I spent a lot of time looking at atoms trapped in tiny carbon cages and seeing the effects of putting them in magnetic field. I got to visit the National High Magnetic Field Facility in Florida, which was good fun.
I’ve really worked in different kinds of science since I finished my degree, and I’ve really enjoyed the variety of all of these different fields. I’m also a musician, and I do songs about science like these:
My Typical Day
A lot of sitting at a desk drinking coffee and eating cakes
Most of my actual work is computer-based, or pen and paper if I’m doing calculations or algebra. But I do quite a bit of teaching, so today I spent the morning working through the examples I’d be teaching and the best way to explain them, and then the afternoon teaching. Being a lecturer means there’s a lot of stuff around the research – making sure our students are getting on ok, setting and marking work, writing blogposts about what I’ve been up to, meeting up with other people in the department to check in and plan for the future – so I’m pretty busy most of the time. I do quite a bit of public “engagement” too – talking to the public, or even playing songs about science for the public, so I’m often preparing for that, or to give talks at seminars.
I try not to go home too late, because I don’t want to spend all my time in the office! I also spend a lot of time playing guitar and writing songs, some of them sciencey, others not so much. So that can take up a lot of evenings. The rest of the time I hang out with my wife or friends, or play PS3 and watch bad police procedurals like CSI. Oh, and I record podcasts too. And I’m learning to bake.
What I'd do with the prize money
A scientific online “Battle of The Bands”
I write and perform a lot of songs about science, so it would be great to do an online “Battle of The Bands” for aspiring science musicians across the UK. People could submit their own songs and we could get some sciencey musicians to judge it, and people to vote. I could either use the money to fund a prize (like some recording gear), or travel if we decided to organise an event. But it could be fun either way!
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
fun, creative, musical(!)
What's the best thing you've done in your career?
Treating people with illnesses when I was a medical physicist.
Were you ever in trouble at school?
Not really. I was a goodie-two-shoes.
Who is your favourite singer or band?
Probably Pixies. Also a big Tom Waits fan, and Jeff Buckley for the voice.
What is the most fun thing you've done?
There’s a waterslide at Butlin’s Minehead which is like a giant toilet bowl. You whizz around the edge of it and then plop through a hole in the bottom. It sounds terrible but it’s really, really fun.
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
I’d love to be able to play the piano – I can play guitar but I’ve never been able to learn piano. To fly. And to win the lottery.
Tell us a joke.
A purple man wakes up in a purple house. He gets out of his purple bed, brushes his purple teeth with his purple toothbrush and his purple toothpaste, and gets dressed in his purple clothes, closes and locks his purple front door, and sits in his purple car. He drives to the purple marina, where he gets onto his purple boat, unfurls the purple sail, and sets out across a purple sea. After a few hours of sailing, he reaches a beautiful tropical island, and lands, lying down on the purple beach in the purple sunshine. He drifts off to sleep, dreaming purple dreams of purple things. When he wakes up, he realizes that the purple anchor from the purple boat has been dislodged and his purple boat has drifted off across the purple sea, leaving him alone on the purple beach. “Oh my God!”, he shouts, “I’m MAROONED!”