Greetings from the School of Physics and Astronomy

This is my first Alumni Newsletter as Head of School after taking over from Martin Freer in July.  I’ve been part of Physics and Astronomy since the 1990s, and even did a previous stint in this seat, so will have come across many of you over the years.  For those I’ve not had the pleasure of meeting yet, I hope to do so soon.

Successes in research in the School over the last year cover a range from astrophysics, through ultracold atomic physics to the use of physics shaping the consumption of energy in Birmingham.

Ultracold gases are formed when the atoms are frustrated in their desire to form a liquid and solid and remain gaseous. At the coldest temperatures almost all the atoms are in the same quantum state. The resulting gases are very sensitive and can be used to measure very small forces and accelerations.

This sensitivity allows quantum sensors to be built for use in measuring gravity with uses including surveying buried pipes and infrastructure before roadworks (minimising their duration), inertial guidance by using the gases as accelerometers and since most of the atoms have an unpaired spin one may measure very small magnetic fields including those driven by the weak currents in the brain, aiding in medical diagnosis of dementia and schizophrenia.

The strength of the work here in Birmingham has led to the award of £23.5M to the second phase of the Quantum Technology Hub, ked by Prof Kai Bongs. The Hub involves collaborative work with the School of Engineering and building an “intellectual supply chain” through this collaboration to industry and commerce, with 200 industrial partners involved.

The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) was launched in April 2018, and is NASA’s new exoplanet and stellar astrophysics mission. It is surveying the brightest stars across the sky to detect thousands of planets orbiting the stars, and to study the stars themselves. TESS will as such provide a unique census of stellar systems in the local solar neighbourhood, our own cosmological back-yard.

Prof Bill Chaplin leads the Birmingham group who are playing a leading role in the asteroseismology programme of TESS. Asteroseismology is the study of stars by observation of their gentle oscillations, the natural resonances of the stars. It provides a unique window on the interiors of the stars and their life cycles, and an ability to paint an exquisite portrait of the properties and characteristics of the stars, and any planets they may host.

While particular stars or planets may be of especial interest, the utility of TESS is also to build understanding of which types of planetary systems may surround which type of stars, i.e. a survey. Clearing the longer the TESS mission lasts, the more survey data to be modelled.  Professor Chaplin led the asteroseismology component of the NASA Space Review to persuade NASA to double the length of time TESS may operate.

The Birmingham Energy Institute involving 200 researchers and £200M grant income, is led by Professor Martin Freer. It spans a wide range of research from science to engineering and from nuclear energy, which is based in physics, to energy storage, smart grids, hydrogen and fuel cells, waste to energy, cold and cooling, transport and energy data through to the development of energy policy, regulation and the environment.

There have been a number of critical successes which include the development of large-scale energy storage projects in China, through to the creation of a new National Centre for Nuclear Robotics, which is developing new approaches which will help in the decommissioning of nuclear facilities, including Sellafield whose decommissioning costs are expected to reach £100b. The Birmingham Energy Institute is also co-developing an energy park within the City of Birmingham which is to provide the City with hydrogen and electric vehicles, heat for the district heating system and the opportunity to embed next generation energy technologies in a living industrial scale energy system.

Finally, I’d like to say a big thank you to the 44 Physics and Astronomy alumni who have kindly volunteered with the School over the last academic year. This includes 17 mentors, at least 14 who offered careers advice and 5 graduates featuring at Open Days or outreach events. Thank you, you've made a real impact here. If you'd like to get involved too, please get in touch with our Alumni Relations Manager, Grace Surman on

I hope to see you at our Alumni Reunion next June and share further details on these exiting projects.

With best wishes

Prof Mike Gunn
Head of School

Read the 2019 Physics and Astronomy Alumni Newsletter here.