What made you want to be a physicist?
Being the enlightened souls that they were, my parents told me I could study anything I wanted, provided it was a science. So I chose chemistry, because it was somehow in the middle between biology (which I tended to like) and physics (which I tended to find quite boring, at least at school) – but long term I had no intention of staying in science. Anyway, as things went on I realised that I hadn’t quite appreciated that a) chemistry is only in the middle if you imagine the spectrum between the sciences to be on a logarithmic scale (that is, physics explains A LOT more than I had initially thought); b) physics research is a lot more interesting than physics lessons; and c) I wasn’t very good at chemistry to begin with. I was lucky to work with a chap called Steve Bramwell in my last year of university: thanks to the project I worked on with him, I realised I liked magnetism. And in order to study that, I had to get a better grasp of fundamental ideas rooted in statistical physics and, ultimately, symmetry. This struck is very deep and very beautiful and it had the effect of helping me to start thinking like a physicist.
If you weren’t a physicist, what would you like to be (and why)?
I’m now beyond the age where it is even possible for me to cling on to my dream of being a footballer, but that was, alas, my burning ambition when I was growing up. I enjoy what I am doing right now a lot, but compared to football it is a very distant plan B. Had a pro football career come off, I would be now be looking at investing my money in property on the Mediterranean coast…and I can’t say I would be too disappointed with that. But you ask what I would like to be, and “property developer” is not something I ever aspired to be. The people I admire the most these days are, for want of a better description, practitioners: people that have dedicated themselves with passion and discipline to a particular art or craft. You can just tell when you meet such people – they might be famous artists or simply very good teachers that don’t get as much recognition as they deserve – but measured over time their influence over the people around them is huge.
Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with — and why?
I answered this question the last time I did this kind of Q&A, and I said Julius Cesar and Cleopatra. I’m going to stick with that.
What would be your (physics) superpower?
Without doubt it would be the power of flight. Am I aiming to low? Because that still strikes me as a cool thing to be able to do.
What’s your favourite (quasi-)particle?
Probably the magnon, as I worked with it while I was doing research. It’s a nice, simple quasi-particle with a distinguished history in the physics literature. And once you understand how they work, you understand how a lot of other quasiparticles work too.
Which physicist would you like to see interviewed on Interactions — and why?
If you could go back in time, I would suggest Ludwig Boltzmann. As you can’t, I’m going to say Philip Anderson