Dr Melanie Windridge is nothing if not inspiring. A globetrotting scientist who has led expeditions to Peru, the Himalayas and the Arctic, bravely skiing out across Svalbard to research her book, Aurora: In Search of the Northern Light; she's also busy trying to arrest climate change, working as a consultant with science and technology start-ups to accelerate the development of sustainable energy for the future.
I suppose the first question ought to be: why plasma physics? To a layman, the scientific world is vast; what drew you to this area in particular?
Plasma is the most extreme state of matter in the universe. We live in a world of solids, liquids and gases, but out beyond our little sphere 99.99% of the universe is plasma – an electrically charged gas. The electrical charges mean that plasmas behave very differently to gases, they are turbulent and chaotic and their behaviour feeds back on itself. Plasmas are also luminous and very beautiful and actually more familiar than you think – the sun, lightning, flames, neon lights and the aurora.
But what drew me to plasma physics wasn't the beauty or the extreme nature of plasma - it was climate change. I was worried about the energy problem and what the clean, safe future of energy could be. When I learned about fusion energy (the reaction that is keeping the stars alight) and how it could be the answer to all our problems if only we could harness it, I knew that was what I had to do. For my PhD I studied the movement of plasma in tokamaks, the machines that we use to do fusion on Earth. I still work in fusion energy, but I became interested in plasmas in general, particularly the beautiful aurora or northern lights.
You’ve travelled extensively: which has been your favourite country and where would you like to go next? And what’s the most remarkable thing you’ve seen?
I love the mountains. I’m always very happy and relaxed in mountain environments, wherever they are in the world. Over the past few years I have been challenging myself by climbing higher and I'm fascinated by “extreme medicine” and how the body adapts to altitude. Next I’d like to go to Everest and Antarctica (that's long term, professional “next” rather than holiday - I'm going to New Zealand at Christmas!). I’m interested in the way that science makes exploration possible, and that at the same time we learn more from that exploration. There are always benefits to society. The most remarkable thing I’ve seen recently was probably the solar eclipse over Svalbard in March 2015. What a fortunate, glorious treat!
Now, there are plenty of people who go on package tours to see the Northern Lights, but you’ve trekked the Arctic tundra. How was the experience?
Towards the end of my PhD I wanted to see the aurora. I thought, “as a plasma physicist I have to see the most spectacular natural plasma event.” I was also getting interested in the Arctic and polar exploration, and I wanted to combine my science with adventure (I am a keen skier and climber), so the Arctic seemed the natural place to go. I decided that I wanted to experience the aurora in the Arctic wilderness, in the way old polar explorers may have done. So I went to ski out across Svalbard – in winter so I could see the northern lights – just me and a guide. It was remote and beautiful.
Did you have a point when you felt at a nadir or – on the flip side – a ‘this is the dream’ moment?
Once we were out of the first valley, where the tourists took dog sled rides, we didn't see a single other person for a week. And I have never experienced anything like it, never been so cold. It requires such focus just to survive in those places – the routine of eating, moving, keeping warm. Temperatures got down to almost -40 degrees and the winter sun had not yet risen above the horizon, so we skied through a milky blue twilight. It was intense and tough, but it was also wonderful in its own way. And we did see the northern lights! However, I wouldn't necessarily recommend camping in the Arctic as a good way to see the aurora – you don't want to get out of the tent!
There are still too few women working in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics). than is ideal - what would you say to encourage young women into science?
I would say that science is so broad and the options so varied that you just have to find the question or the challenge that means something to you. Science, math, engineering are the tools we use to make the impossible possible, whether that's solving the energy problem, curing disease, improving virtual reality so we can play Pokémon Go, finding life elsewhere in the universe, 3D printing artificial body parts… Find your question.
For some people, the issue with science is it makes the brain boggle! What would say to encourage everyone to embrace the wonders?
When it comes to science, people can contribute on many levels. It's not just for the super-brainy. Just because I won't win a Nobel prize doesn't mean I can't do something meaningful. There are many jobs that use science and maths skills in industries throughout the economy. Anyway, even if you don't want a scientific career it doesn't mean you can't share the wonder of the world around us – both the natural world and the technological world. Some concepts make everybody’s mind boggle – even the physicists! Take quantum theory. Niels Bohr, who won the Nobel prize for contributions to quantum theory in 1922, once said something like, “Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it.”
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
“Slow it down and you can do anything.” It was about running, actually, but I kind of like the sentiment. Either that or my father telling me that we only get to play our hand, we don’t choose the cards.
What would you tell your 18 year old self?
Failure is healthy. Learn. You'll be ok.
You get to choose six women – dead or alive – to spend the evening with. Who? Why? And where do you go?
Oh goodness, I need longer to think about the list and even things out! I would go for figures that were always pushing slightly ahead of the norm, who perhaps were viewed askance by society. Women who were pushing into the “man’s world”: like authors Jane Austen (or Charlotte Bronte); pioneering Alpine climber Mary Isabella Charlet-Straton, or first woman up Everest, Rebecca Stephens; a business woman like Sheryl Sandberg; Taylor Swift because I identify with her; a politician like Margaret Thatcher or Angela Merkel. We could all go somewhere nice for afternoon tea and have a good chat, with the option of moving into the bar for cocktails later.
We think female friendships should be treasured – what one quality do all your friends share?
Who inspires you/who are your (female) role models?
I am inspired by both men and women, particularly explorers and scientists – people who venture into the unknown and do something extraordinary – like the old polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen, or Felicity Aston now. The ultra-runner Lizzy Hawker (with whom I once shared a mountain tent for a few weeks) fills me with admiration. I also like words and people who can craft them beautifully, like Robert Macfarlane. But I’m also inspired by kindness and generosity – I always smile at the Good Deed Feeds in magazines. Oh, and my mother is amazing! Independent, intelligent, efficient, dependable and great at organising parties!
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Gosh, I don't really think of things in that way. I guess I'm pretty pleased with the way my book, Aurora, turned out, though I'm wary of measuring success in ‘things’.
And what would you like to achieve next?
Fusion energy. We have to get that done. We owe it to the future.
When were you happiest?
With family and friends in beautiful moments. Or looking out over a wonderful view and feeling at peace.
What did you want to be growing up?
I don't think I ever really knew what I wanted to be, but I knew what I liked and just followed my interests.
How do you unwind?
Walk, climb or ski. Or read a book in the garden.
What are you reading/watching/listening to at the moment?
I'm reading books about Antarctica, Everest and innovation mostly, though I have books by science communicator friends (Timandra Harkness and Lucie Green) that are in my pile. And I'm in love with John Green’s A Fault in Our Stars, which I think is beautiful and thought-provoking and makes me crave simplicity.
Night in or night out?
Dressed up or dressed down?
Spring or autumn?
Over or under packer? And how about when scaling a peak/trekking the Arctic tundra?!
Over. A little bit fussy about little extras.
Last time you laughed out loud?
Skiing or mountains.
Profiteroles at Cheltenham Science Festival.
Sunrise or sunset?
Book you wish you’d written?
None. There are many books I love and admire, but I’m just happy to read them!
What word do you overuse?
What is the one thing people would be surprised to know about you?
I have different colour eyes.