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Dr Nicholas Harrigan

 Name: Dr Nicholas Harrigan


Age range: 30-35

Research institution: University of Manchester

Research career length: 3 years

Research Council: Previously funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)

Location: Manchester, England

Salary: <22k

Brief summary of research: I am now undertaking initial teacher training to become a secondary school teacher. Prior to this I was employed at Imperial College London as an outreach officer, developing demonstrations and activities to inspire school children (I got to make lots of explosions!)

School qualifications:
A-levels: Physics, Mathematics, General Studies

Qualifications post-school:
BSc in Physics, University of Hertfordshire
Certificate of Advanced Studies in Mathematics (like a masters), Cambridge
PhD in Physics, Imperial College London
PGCSE, University of Manchester (ongoing)

Career path:
Physics and Mathematics Teacher, Nahnpei Memorial High School, Pohnpei, Federated States of Micronesia
Physics Outreach Officer, Imperial College London

What A levels did you study?

Physics, Mathematics and General Studies.


BSc Physics, Certificate of Advanced Study in Mathematics, PhD Physics.

Please give us a description of your job / research, and tell us what inspired you to do what you're doing...

I am a research student in Theoretical Physics. I work trying to figure out what's happening in our universe in places that are too small for us to normally see. Right now, I'm thinking about whether things are really there when you don't look at them. Most physicists think they're not, whereas I'm a bit harder to convince. Although worrying about these kinds of questions might seem like a bit of a waste of time, asking them allows us to get a really good understanding of the universe. Building on this understanding allows us to take advantage of how our universe works in order to design and build all kinds of new technologies. Ever since I was a little 'un I've kind of been caught up by the fact that I don't really know what I am – what stuff am I really made up of? I thought about it a bit but didn't really get anywhere. At school it seemed like Physics was trying to describe the things making me up, but it didn't look to me like it had it figured out. As for maths, I really couldn't see the point of it at all. Then a month before my GCSE's, the penny dropped and I realized that maths and physics were the tools that I needed to try and answer my 'what am I?' question. The reason that Physics didn't seem to have it figured out yet is because indeed it hasn't, but it seems to be gradually getting there and I hope to try and help it along the way

Describe your typical day...

I normally get into the office between 9am and 10am. After checking my emails and looking at what new research people have put on the internet, I'll start working on a problem. Ultimately the big problem I'm working on is trying to understand the behaviour of our universe on some of the smallest scales that we know about. It's on these scales that the most basic building blocks making us all up reside. Fortunately this pretty big problem can be broken up into smaller problems, each one giving us a clue about the answer to the big problem. It's one of these smaller problems that I'll be thinking about on a typical day. Sometimes I can think such problems through just in my head. If it's a bit complicated then I'll probably need to write it down in terms of mathematical equations. Maths gives you a way of checking that your brain hasn't tricked you into incorrectly thinking that you've got the right answer to a complicated problem. At other times, a problem might be so tricky that it's even too hard for me to write down in terms of maths. Then to try and see what's going on, I'll build a 'pretend', simplified mini-universe inside a computer, and watch it unfold and see what happens. I also sometimes help out teaching students who are still working on their Physics degrees.

Do you have a 'pet project'?

Very small things like atoms seem to be able to do some pretty funky stuff. For example, people have done experiments that they have only been able to explain if atoms somehow had the ability to be in more than one place at once! This is very peculiar, especially since we're all made up of atoms, and yet we're only ever at one or another place at once. For a long time people have thought that these experiments must mean that atoms are strange things, not like anything we know about, and that the reason that they can seem to be in more than one place at once is because under certain circumstances they're not really at any particular place at all! The first time somebody told me about this idea of something 'not being at any particular place at all' I really didn't have a clue what they were talking about. How can something not really be at any place at all? These experiments that people have done definitely show that something weird is going on with small things. I'm trying to work out whether saying that 'small things are sometimes not really at any particular place at all' is really the only way of understanding the weird goings on.

What do you love most about science / engineering or maths?

My job gives me the chance to learn about all the amazing hidden things that are lurking around us every day. Knowing about them feels something like that bit in The Matrix where Neo can see that everyone's made from green 0's and 1's. It's also really exciting to know that at some point in the future the abstract questions that I'm thinking about could help people develop new and useful technologies. My PhD has let me do a lot of travelling around the world and I've met a lot of amazing people with amazing ideas. As for the absolutely best thing ever, that has to be a cookie milkshake. Or maybe a cookie milkshake on a hover board. In the places where it works, science is awesome, because it lets you check whether something can really happen or not – or at least figure out how likely something is to happen. I also love the fact that no-one has found a place yet where science doesn't work. As for engineering, how else am I going to get a hover board?

Where I live...

I come from Bromsgrove, an extremely sleepy town just south of Birmingham in the West Midlands. Right now I live in London, but I feel most at home when I'm travelling.

What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

I find that the best way for me to relax after a day of problem solving is to find a big open space, set fire to my fire-staff (a long stick with special ends that you can set fire to) and spin it around. I go to gigs (mainly rock, indie and techno) when I get the chance, and I like playing the piano (although I'm not sure if the piano feels the same way). Y me gusta aprender Español!

About me

Subject: Quantum mechanics (very small weird things)
Job: Physics PhD student
Works for: Imperial College London


Fire spinning, playing the piano, playing computer games, pretending to be Spiderman

This career case study originally appeared on the NOISE (New Outlooks in Science & Engineering) webpage on the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) website. NOISE is a UK-wide initiative to promote science and engineering. Originally funded by EPSRC, NOISE is now an independent platform for early career researchers to engage with the general public about the importance of research and inspire your people to consider STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) careers.

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