Julia Higgins and Melanie Windridge: Imperial adventurers

Photo of screen at Imperial College highlighting Melanie Windridge's ascent of Everest
Big vision: Melanie Windridge’s Everest adventures on display in the foyer at Imperial College London (Courtesy: Matin Durrani)

Physics World, which was founded in 1988, turns 30 in October and as part of our anniversary celebrations we’ll be publishing a special issue of our magazine. In that issue, we’ll be looking back at the key topics in physics 30 years ago, seeing where those fields are now and then contemplating where those endeavours will take us over the next 30 years.

In preparation for the special issue, I travelled to Imperial College London today to interview Julia Higgins, president of the Institute of Physics, which publishes Physics World. Higgins, who originally studied physics at the University of Oxford, went on to have a glittering career in polymer science, spending almost two decades as a professor in the chemical-engineering department at Imperial.

She has also served in a huge number of roles, including president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, co-founder of the Athena Project to encourage women into science and chair of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. She was even a trustee for the National Gallery

Sitting in her sweltering office on fifth floor of the department, I quizzed Higgins on everything from the highlights of her career over the last 30 years to her views on research funding, education, Brexit, diversity and more. You’ll have to wait for the October issue to read her views in full, but I don’t think she’ll mind me revealing here the role she enjoyed the most.

It was her stint as “foreign secretary” of the Royal Society, which saw her travel on numerous trips around the world. Now it’s no secret that foreign trips are one of the many perks of being a scientist, but as I left Imperial I spotted two mentions of another physicist from the college who’s also been on her travels.

That person is Melanie Windridge, who completed a PhD in plasma physics at Imperial in 2009 and is now an author, broadcaster, and fusion consultant for Tokamak Energy. Windridge, who in 2014 wrote a book Aurora based on a trip in search of the Northern Lights, earlier this year climbed Mount Everest. Her trip was covered in a recent issue of the Imperial magazine Reporter – copies of which littered the campus – and was also mentioned on a big screen in the entrance foyer to the college.

In fact, Windridge, who is a visiting fellow in Imperial’s physics department, has also written a full-length feature about her adventure for Physics World. Set to appear in the September issue of the magazineshe describes how science and technology are vital to anyone climbing Everest. She’ll also be writing for the 30th-anniversary issue, this time on the prospects for fusion energy.

Having myself once suffered from the effects of altitude while going to a height of 4600 metres to visit the Large Millimetre Telescope in Mexico, I can well imagine that scaling Everest, which is 8848 metres above sea level, is an energy-sapping and mentally gruelling undertaking.

Now I don’t know if this analogy has been made before, but I reckon there are lots of parallels between doing research and climbing a mountain. Both are big challenges. Both need careful planning. Both rely on team-work, communication and co-operation. Both require a good understanding of existing techniques and knowledge. And both are massively risky endeavours in which the end-goal is often visible but failure is ever-present.

But as both Higgins and Windridge I am sure will attest, the rewards of mountaineering and scientific research can be immense.