Once a physicist: Chris Rapley

Chris Rapley is the director of the Science Museum in London, UK. Prior to taking up the post last September he was the director of the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge.

Chris Rapley

Why did you originally decide to study physics?
I was very interested in science and it was a toss up between physics and chemistry. In the end, somebody I used to compete with at school decided to do chemistry, so I chose to study physics at Oxford University.

How much did you enjoy it?
For a time I didn’t actually enjoy it as much as I hoped I would because I found some of it a bit dry (this was in the days before you could take mix and match degrees such as physics with astronomy). Thankfully my tutor organized some astronomy lectures from the wonderful Madge Adams. The mixture of physics and astronomy, and later natural history, was what I found really interesting.

What did you do after you graduated?
I did an MSc in radio astronomy at Jodrell Bank in Cheshire. I then went on to do a PhD at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory (MSSL) at University College London on the origin of the cosmic soft X-ray diffuse background, which was brilliant because at that point X-ray astronomy was in its infancy and virtually everything we did was a new discovery.

Where did you go from there?
Part of my PhD involved developing a new type of crystal spectrometer for observing solar flares. Thanks to this expertise, I spent the next six years working on a NASA space mission called the Solar Maximum Mission, which studied the active Sun. It was developed and operated as an international, multi-instrument observatory, and the experience taught me about the power of working in a multidisciplinary team. When that ended in 1981, I wanted to do something different. At the time, Earth observation was just coming to the fore and I thought it would be more useful to society to study the Earth rather than the cosmos, much as both are very interesting. The MSSL was looking for somebody to set up an Earth-observation group, so I went back there for the next 10 years.

How did you become interested in climate change?
At the MSSL we worked closely with the European Space Agency on their Earth-observation satellites, which got me interested in climate change. When I finally felt I had done enough of that, I applied for and got the job of directing the International Geosphere Biosphere Programme (IGBP), which coordinated the research efforts of 79 nations that were looking at how the Earth works and how it is responding to human influences. I ran the IGBP for four years, after which, in 1998, I was appointed director of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS).

Are there many roles for physicists within the BAS?
Yes. BAS science covers a whole range of fields in geology, biology, physics and chemistry so it has physicists working on everything from the magnetohydrodynamics of the Earth’s upper atmosphere to the physics of glaciers.

Why did you decide to move from there to your new role?
I’ve always been really interested in science communication. I think that it is a shame that nonscientists appreciate so little about what they don’t know — they’re missing out because science adds an amazing set of insights into the world. Also, after I had been at the BAS for 10 years, it had more or less achieved all the goals I had originally set. It seemed the right time to move on, and then the job at the Science Museum came up. I thought that I had the best job in science as director of the BAS, but now I’ve got an even better one. The Science Museum is an amazing institution that has more firsts in science and technology in its collection than any other similar organization [including the first MRI machine and the first jet engine].

What are your plans for the Science Museum?
It does a pretty brilliant job at present, but there are still things that it could do better. For example, it still tends to look backwards through its historic collections when we really want to emphasize contemporary science issues — especially climate change — and consider what the future might be like.

How are you going to achieve that?
For one thing, we’re planning a major new exhibit on climate change and decarbonizing the world’s energy supply. The idea is that a tailor-made narrative will be delivered to visitors as they navigate their way through the objects on display, rather than just having to read little cards stuck on the side of tables. We’re looking at ways that mobile phone or iPod technology might be able to help us with that. We also want to make it a wiki museum, so that as people go through they can leave their own comments or additional information about objects that they may know more about than we do.

Do you still keep up to date with any physics?
I always read Science, Nature and New Scientist — I still find contemporary science extremely fascinating and rewarding. I’m also seen as something of an expert in communicating the issues of climate change and so it’s very important for me to keep up with research in those areas, but I don’t restrict myself to just the physics.


This article originally appeared in the February 2008 issue of Physics World

last edited: March 28, 2014



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