Capioca speaks to Dr Christopher Chen, a Junior Research Fellow in Imperial College London’s Space and Atmospheric Physics Group, Department of Physics and a visiting researcher at the Space Sciences Laboratory, University of California, Berkeley.
His research area is space plasma physics, in particular the solar wind, the variety of processes that occur within it, and the wider impact these have within our solar system.
What is plasma?
Plasma is one of the four primary states of matter (the others being solid, liquid and gas), and while not so common on Earth, is by far the most common state of ordinary matter (i.e. excluding dark matter) in the universe. It can be formed when a gas is heated so electrons separate from their atoms creating a sea of positively and negatively charged particles, which display a rich variety of complex behaviour.
What’s fascinating about plasma?
Because plasma is made of moving charged particles, it responds to and creates electric and magnetic forces, leading to a set of interesting phenomena not present in other states of matter – it’s a real challenge to understand. Also, plasmas are involved in some of the most spectacular events in the universe, such as supernova explosions and astrophysical jets. Closer to home, plasma emitted by the Sun can interact with the Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere, creating phenomena such as the aurora. But they are fascinating mainly because there are many aspects of their behaviour we still don’t fully understand.
What research are you working on?
I study the solar wind – the continuous stream of plasma emitted by the Sun which fills our solar system. We have a fleet of spacecraft at various places throughout the solar wind, measuring it’s detailed properties such as electromagnetic fields and particle distributions. I analyse this data to help us understand the basic physics of how plasmas behave, for example the complex nature of the waves, turbulence and structures that form in such plasmas.
Why is funding research important?
There are many reasons, but perhaps most importantly, scientific research and discovery is a fundamentally important aspect of human culture. Basic curiosity-driven research also leads to direct benefits to the economy, inspires future generations, and as history has shown countless times, provides the necessary knowledge for future advances in technology unimagined at the time. For example, our basic knowledge about plasma physics is now enabling us to make fusion power a feasible clean power source, to overcome our upcoming energy and environmental crises.
Why did you get into this type of work?
I’ve always had a desire to understand how the universe, and everything in it, works, and physics seemed to me the best way to achieve this. After my undergraduate degree in physics, I decided to pursue space plasma physics for my PhD and research career. To me, this seemed to be a field of research that dealt with fundamental physics, with many open questions, but was not too saturated so that my day-to-day work would remain interesting and I could make an impact with my research. I was also attracted by the idea of using spacecraft in our solar system to learn about physics relevant for understanding the universe at large, as well as applications such as fusion power.
If you weren’t doing this what would you do?
I’ve been playing music since a young age and if I wasn’t doing physics, I’d probably be trying to make a career in that. I play the piano and saxophone, and have spent a lot of my time playing in a variety of music groups of different genres. It’s definitely something I feel the need for in my life and can’t go for too long without.
Find Chris on Capioca here.