#MondayMaterials Episode 25 – Professor Philip Withers
Meet the Department 3rd October 2016
Hello all. Thanks for joining me for the 25th episode of #MondayMaterials, featuring Professor Philip Withers. Phil was officially named as our inaugural Regius Professor of Materials by Her Majesty the Queen this weekend, so we couldn’t think of a better person to be talking to on this chilly Monday morning.
On top of that amazing honour, Phil is also Director of the BP International Centre for Advanced Materials, Director of the Henry Moseley X-ray Imagining Facility, and Interim Chief Science Director of the Sir Henry Royce Institute for Advanced Materials. So it’s fair to say he’s a pretty busy man. I’m more than a little pleased that he could make the time to talk for us:
Hi Phil. Thanks so much for talking to us. We’ll start with the easy one; can you please describe your research, for the layman, in ten sentences or less?
I’m interested in understanding engineering materials. How they perform, how they fail, and what happens when they fail. So I’m really interested in making new materials that will last in demanding environments – whether that be in nuclear, or in aerospace, or in automotive – and to make sure they perform as well as they can.
To do that I have some really amazing tools to understand how materials work. In particular, we have x-ray imaging. This enables us to take x-ray images in 3D. Just as a doctor might take an image of a broken arm, we can see the breaks in materials.
And how can your research benefit the public?
In general, the public don’t like surprises. At least, not when they’re flying on aeroplanes or they’re taking power from nuclear reactors. So it’s really important that we have to knowledge to understand how materials behave and that we can make sure that any failures that do occur occur safely.
Can you tell us how you first got interested in your research area?
I guess I only gradually realised that I was an engineering materials scientist. I started as a physicist and I began to realise that understanding how materials worked is what really makes me excited.
My father died when I was very young, so around the house I had to sort all the problems out. And so looking back it was a good learning ground for investigating problems and finding solutions.
Thanks, Phil. Going back a bit further, then, could you tell us who or what first inspired your interests in science and engineering?
I suppose I was strongly affected by my teachers. I remember going to school and being told that I should go to Cambridge. And I had no idea what that meant – I had no idea where it was. But somebody told me that’s what I should do so I went off and did my very best to try and get there.
Once there I found that there was fantastic box of toys to understand how the world works. And I’ve been playing with them ever since.
And moving away from work for a question, could you tell us a bit about your other interests? What do you get up to in your spare time?
I’m mad keen on sports – all sorts of sports. I used to play a load of cricket but I’m getting too old for it, so I now focus more on golf. So I spend a lot of time on the golf course.
But I’m also interested in photography and a wide range of other things. And I never seem to have enough time to do any of them.
I know that feeling! So, for our final question, could you tell us how being here in Manchester has helped your work and research?
Manchester is a wonderfully entrepreneurial place. When I arrived I found that I really could get things done.
And we’ve really been able to build a whole range of scientific activities and endeavours that I couldn’t have done anywhere else. From the Henry Moseley Imaging Facility on the one hand, through the BP International Centre for Advanced Materials, and right through to our latest project which is the Sir Henry Royce Institute for Advanced Materials which will become a national hub for materials science right across the UK.
Brilliant, thanks Phil. It’s really exciting to hear about all the amazing projects you’re involved in. And huge congratulations of your latest honour.
To the rest of you – thanks for reading. We have some exciting content coming up on the blog, so please keep your eyes peeled.