Professor aims to change our views on science perception

Prof Andrew Harrison at the Diamond Light Source in Harwell. Picture: OX67770 Antony Moore

Prof Andrew Harrison at the Diamond Light Source in Harwell. Picture: OX67770 Antony Moore Buy this photo

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ALL scientists want the best equipment, so imagine how good it must feel to be Professor Andrew Harrison.

He’s the man in charge of Diamond Light Source at Harwell, a giant microscope which uses the power of electrons to produce a light ten-billion-times brighter than the sun.

He described it as “the best job in Britain” when he took over as chief executive in January.

Before coming to Oxfordshire, Prof Harrison spent eight years at the Institut Laue-Langevin in Grenoble and has worked as a research fellow in Canada and visiting professor at Tokyo university.

Prof Harrison, 54, was born at the Radcliffe Infirmary and spent the first few years of his life in Oxford while his father completed a doctorate in social science.

His teenage years were spent at a state grammar school in Staffordshire, where he describes himself as “a real swot, top of everything”.

But it was back to Oxford he came, to study at St John’s College where he achieved a first-class honours degree in chemistry.

He stayed on to do a DPhil, then became a junior research fellow, scooping a much-coveted Royal Society Research Fellowship award along the way.

He believes chemistry is overlooked and says that while the likes of Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Universe and Iron Man have made physics sexy, chemists don’t tend to attract the same interest.

He said: “Turn on the TV and you see things like Brian Cox’s series or Big Bang Theory and what does chemistry get?

“Breaking Bad, a series about a chemistry high school teacher who uses his knowledge to make illegal drugs.”

Unusually, Prof Harrison is scientist with the ability to communicate without using jargon or dumbing-down. That was a skill that came in extremely useful in a previous role as professor of solid state chemistry at Edinburgh University.

He said: “Most university lecturers have to think very hard about how they explain scientific concepts to students who may not be really that interested in the sector of thermal dynamics, so you quickly learn what works and what doesn't.

“Actually, if you sat down in the pub with most scientists you would probably find they are good communicators.”

As a joint venture between the Government and pharmaceutical big-hitter Wellcome Trust, Diamond employs almost 500 people and is used by scientists to study anything, from bacteria to works of art.

But there is no ivory tower mentality, as it is a central plank of research for many commercial companies, including Unilever, Johnson Matthey, Rolls-Royce and Infineum, based at Milton Hill.

Proof of its relevance to everyday life came recently when a team from the University of Anglia used the synchrotron to make a breakthrough in the fight against hospital superbugs and antibiotic resistance, thanks to being able to study the bacteria in greater detail.

Prof Harrison wants more people to share in the excitement of Diamond’s work through open days, placements and school visits.

“I think one of the tricks is to show the public science is all around them, in the natural world, in the products they use in their everyday lives and to give them an idea about how stuff around us works.

“Those of us who do science, do it because it is a constant challenge to test the boundaries of your understanding of the world around you.

“It’s always been about challenging the received wisdom about the way world works.

“Otherwise, we’d still believe the world is flat and the sun revolves around the earth.”

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