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We spoke to Jena Meinecke, a laboratory astrophysicist in the Department of Physics, about her research, Oxford Sparks and the International Year of Light.

Supernovas and sparks

Laboratory astrophysics is a relatively new branch of physics that has emerged in the last few decades thanks to the advancement of high power lasers. In the lab we create scaled astrophysical objects, like supernovas that could fit in the palm of your hand. We recreate events that happened in the early universe in order to understand how magnetic fields came into existence and have developed over time.

As a physicist, I’m the person who goes into the laboratory and prepares experiments. On a typical experiment, I set up large equipment, carefully align optics, and take multiple laser shots over a period of several weeks. This is why I became a physicist. It's incredibly exciting to see a supernova explosion or the expansion of galaxy clusters on your table! From this work, we have a lot of data about how astrophysical objects behave and generate magnetic fields. In one experiment we recreated Cassiopeia A, a supernova remnant whose light reached us 300 years ago. We no longer have to wait hundreds of years to see how a supernova develops-- we can create one within a fraction of a second. It's beautiful to look up at the night sky and know that you are creating those same objects on Earth.

I have just made an animation with Oxford Sparks for the International Year of Light to raise awareness of the importance of light. For us, we harness the power of visible light to bring the cosmos to life in the lab. However, light be used for so much more. Working with Oxford Sparks, I was able to learn how x-ray light can be used to examine fossil samples and microwave light can reveal secrets about the Big Bang. It's important for researchers to communicate their work to a general audience and Oxford Sparks is a great venue for this. Ultimately, science funding can benefit from the support of the public, and science outreach encourages the next generation of scientists. I hope the podcast will appeal to younger students and show them how exciting physics research can be.

Oxford Sparks is truly amazing. The website has a lot of exciting videos. Even as a professional physicist I like watching the videos because you get to learn about various people’s research in an accessible way. The videos are short and give you enough information to get interested. Then you can use the associated resources available online to investigate a field of research further. While the cartoons are accessible to younger audiences, the written material is accessible to everyone including parents, teachers, and professionals.

In addition to working with Oxford Sparks I have been participated in the Department of Physics' outreach programme about the electromagnetic spectrum. Each section of the spectrum is represented by workshops where school children can find out more about how the spectrum works. For example, students melt cheese in a microwave to measure the wavelength of microwave light by looking at the melted portions of cheese. This is a fun activity!

I feel like physics has a reputation of being very hard subject. It's sometimes intimidating to walk in the footsteps of some of the most brilliant minds. When I was at school, physics was the only course I did poorly in. It's important to challenge yourself in life, so I pursued a degree in physics. Eight years later, I am now a Junior Research Fellow at Oxford conducting research into the origins of magnetic fields in the universe. I love each day and look forward to the next. My work allows me to travel often, make my own schedule, and pursue topics of interest. As a physicist, I ask important questions, investigate them through experiments, and formulate answers to better understand our place in the universe.