Helen Czerski

Thought bubbles

3 April 2013

Physicist. Oceanographer. TV and radio broadcaster. Dr Helen Czerski's CV is as diverse as it is impressive. But the one thing holding all the many strings to her bow together is science. And her ability to communicate complex ideas, simply, to a wide-ranging audience.

From an early age, Helen's regarded physics as her 'toolbox' for unlocking the most interesting aspects of the natural world. But her actual science career began following her BA and MSci in Natural Sciences and PHD in experimental explosive physics from the University of Cambridge - when she joined the Atmospheric Physics Department at the University of Toronto and Los Alamos National Laboratory in the USA.

There, she had her first brush with experimental atmospheric science. But it was specifically the study of small-scale phenomena that led Helen from experimental explosives to 'bubbles' - an important scientific area because of the huge impact they have on the ocean and the atmosphere.

She is currently a Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) Research Fellow at the Institute for Sound and Vibration Research (ISVR) at the University of Southampton. Here, her particular focus is on bubble coatings, bubble plumes in breaking waves and how bubbles influence air-sea gas transfer.

Bubbles in action

Bubbles affect the way sound and light travel through the water. So detecting and counting ocean bubbles can contribute to more accurate weather and climate models.

But measuring bubbles out at sea isn't easy. Helen uses high-speed photography and acoustic devices to pick up on the sounds bubbles make - which change according to their depth.

"We know that bubbles act like vehicles across the ocean surface. Carbon dioxide and oxygen from the atmosphere go down into the ocean and sulphur based compounds from ocean plants come back up, spitting particles into the atmosphere. It's examining the way these bubbles carry gas into the ocean that helps scientists understand how the sea and atmosphere link together to form clouds and control the climate."

Science for everyone

As well as frontline science, Helen also works as a co-presenter on programmes such as BBC2's Dara O'Briain's Science Club and Orbit: Earth's Extraordinary Journey. It's through her media work that Helen gets to educate and enthuse the general public about the natural world - something she feels strongly about.

One of her most recent programmes was Operation Iceberg, involving six gruelling weeks on the icy sea between Greenland and Canada. Working with a team of scientists, Helen and other presenters investigated the formation and break up of icebergs.

"I like showing the actual scientific process. All too often, documentaries take the 'rabbit out of the hat' approach, rather than analysing the data and then asking intelligent questions." In fact, Helen reckons they did some of their best research directly on the iceberg itself. Contrary to what many people might think, the age of satellites and advanced computer technology doesn't replace hands-on research when measurements are needed.

"When you're out at sea, you have to deal with floating about in a glorified tin can and, as in our case, have a polar bear staring at you! I think it's important to show how hard-won this information is to gather."

Ultimately, Helen believes that, "Science isn't somewhere else - it's here." She revels in her career's combination of physics and Earth sciences and, loves how it lets her "look up into the grey, rainy clouds and think about what's happening..."

"Because even a little bit of knowledge, makes for a better day."

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