Roy Sambles discusses his work, his life and being the next IOP president

27 August 2015

Despite asserting that he is “not a political animal”, Prof. Roy Sambles is conscious of several pressing issues facing the physics community as he prepares to become the Institute’s president on 1 October.

Roy Sambles

Having been president-elect for the past two years, he is about to begin a two-year term in office, helping to implement the IOP’s new strategy and to set the agenda for further progress.

Three issues are of particular concern to him, though he is appreciative of the work that the IOP is already doing in these areas. “I hate the fact that nearly half of our population are not seriously considering doing physics, simply because they are female. The IOP’s engagement with industry is not yet as good as it could be, and I am concerned that physics teachers should be properly recognised and rewarded for the amazing things that they do.”

He is intrigued by some research seeming to show that girls are particularly affected by negative criticism from science teachers in their teenage years, and has been discussing the implications with teachers as well as some education staff at the IOP.

He also believes that the Institute's awards for physics teachers should be seen to be just as important as those it gives to academics, and says that the IOP's awards committee has been looking at how best to find and celebrate outstanding teachers.

The needs of industry also have to be better understood, he says. “Industrialists don't have a lot of spare time so the Institute has got to provide them with the things that they want rather than the things we think they want.”

Much of his research at the University of Exeter underpins technological developments at companies such as DSTL, Qinetiq and BAE, and he is the co-author of a number of patents, though he is not directly involved in work on applications. “What we do is very much pure science,” he says.

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He is Professor of Experimental Physics and academic lead of the electromagnetic and acoustic materials research group at the university. The group’s work includes the exploration of the interaction of microwaves and sound with metamaterials on metasurfaces. “We are making structures that have elements, ‘meta-atoms’, smaller than the wavelength of the wave that is probing them. This opens up the possibility of better control over the propagation and absorption of sound and microwaves.” The construction of such metamaterials has allowed the realisation of novel transformation optics-based structures as well as the demonstration of cloaking devices.

He has published more than 520 scientific papers, his research having covered several areas including the fundamentals of melting, resistivity of thin films, liquid crystal optics, plasmonics, molecular rectifiers, structural colour in nature and spin waves in alkali metals. But he has moved on, in several cases leaving others to take the ideas forward. “I become bored quite quickly and I am always more interested in the research I am going to do tomorrow rather than what I did yesterday,” he says. “We’re currently looking at fluid dynamics on patterned surfaces. It could lead to a method for extracting energy from the ocean. I don’t know if it is going to get anywhere but it could be interesting.”

He has supervised more than 80 PhD students and in addition to his other roles he leads the very large Doctoral Training Centre in Metamaterials, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and based at Exeter, which opened last year. Although he loves lecturing and tutoring, the university has “banned” him from teaching as his workload already exceeds allowed limits, he says. “Realistically, physics has been my hobby and I have never got up in the morning and thought ‘I don’t want to go to work today’.”

He has given talks to a wide spectrum of audiences, including Women’s Institutes, Brownies and many schools, and has recently delivered a “Pint of Science” event and addressed a University of the Third Age audience, and would do more outreach if he could. His own entry into physics is evidence of the difference that good teaching can make. He grew up in a rented property in rural Cornwall where there was no mains water or electricity and the children wore hand-me-down clothes. “My parents were very good and they did their best, but it was a relatively poor community. I didn’t really miss anything except when I got older and we didn’t have TV.”

At a junior school with a total of 25 pupils his headmistress noticed his ability in maths and encouraged him. “Her aim was to get as many of us as she could into grammar school and just two from my age group went there. The physics teacher at my secondary school, Eric Green, was the main cause of my interest in physics. He worked on radar during the war so his physics was pretty sound. I applied separately to do physics and maths at university. The maths interview went so badly that I did physics.”

Even during his undergraduate studies, at Imperial College London, his passion for physics had not been ignited and his main goal was to get a good degree, he says. He had a job lined up with the Central Electricity Generating Board on graduating, which he did with first-class honours. He also had two possibilities for doing a PhD – one was at CERN and the other at Imperial College. He had married at the end of his second year and his wife had a job in London, so he went for the PhD at Imperial, which was in condensed matter physics. “It was only then that I realised I was really excited by physics,” he says.

Following two years as a postdoctoral research associate at Imperial, working on surface physics, he was appointed to a lectureship at Exeter in 1972 and was promoted to a chair in physics in 1991. Since then he has been made a Fellow of the Royal Society, received the George Gray Medal of the British Liquid Crystal Society in 1998, and been awarded the IOP’s Thomas Young Medal in 2003 and its Faraday Medal in 2012.

As a junior lecturer he went to meetings of the IOP’s South West Branch and served on its committee (“I thought it was right to be involved – I thought everybody did” he says), and later organised the UK’s first one-day meeting on plasmonics for the IOP. He has also served on the Thin Films and Surfaces Group and the Quantum Electronics Group committees. He has been on the editorial boards of several journals and continues to be a member of IOP Publishing’s Scientific Advisory Committee. He has been a member of the EPSRC, having chaired for three years its Resource Audit Committee.

Despite maintaining that he is not particularly gregarious, having grown up so far from other people, he is heavily involved in his local Methodist Church and is a lay preacher, and says that his Christian faith has a big impact on his life.

Although he believes that the government understands the importance of physics to the economy, the short-term nature of government causes difficulty. “The developments that flow from physics have a huge impact on society but it doesn’t always happen tomorrow and if we don’t invest a higher percentage of GDP in science and technology then in a few years, as a nation we are going to be struggling in the highly advanced technological world in which we find ourselves.”

He was elected unopposed to his current office and is prepared for the challenge ahead. He says, however: “I am not a political animal and never have been. Physicists are good at being definite, often with yes or no answers, and politics is not. It’s not my style, which is to go straight to the point, and not to think too much in advance about what I am going to say.”

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