Professor Philippa Browning

As part of our Women of Wonder series, we spoke to Philippa Browning, Professor of Astrophysics at the School of Physics.

Professor Philippa Browning: "One of the major problems facing society is the need to find alternative sources of energy."
Prof Browning has been at the University of Manchester since 1985, when it was the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology. Her research focuses on solar physics and she acknowledges that it’s a subject that fascinates her because there’s still so much we don’t understand. In her lectures, Prof Browning shares her own research to help her students relate their academic studies to current findings.
Listing Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, as one of her earliest inspirations, Prof Browning spoke to us about what else inspires her, and how she thinks her work impacts on society.
Can you tell us a bit more about your work at the University of Manchester?

My research, which involves mathematical modelling and computer simulation, is concerned with plasma – the fourth state of matter – and its interactions with magnetic fields. I’m especially interested in the plasmas in the sun’s corona (outer atmosphere), and the origin of solar flares – the most powerful explosions in the solar system. My work also sees me investigating magnetically confined plasmas for fusion energy.

Away from my research, I undertake a range of teaching on the Physics Undergraduate Degree, and I am Director of Postgraduate Education for the School of Physics and Astronomy. 

How does your work impact society and the world we live in?

One of the major problems facing society is the need to find alternative sources of energy, and fusion is the best candidate for solving this in the long term. Magnetic fields will be used to confine hot plasma, producing heat from nuclear fusion reactions. This could be used to generate electricity.

My research is contributing to an effort to one day produce a fusion-based power station. Furthermore, my studies on solar flares are helping us gain a greater understanding of “space weather”, which is another very important issue facing our society. Solar storms can have a significant effect on satellites, power systems and communications, and a major solar storm is now registered as a serious national risk.

Above all, my research is concerned with understanding the sun, our nearest star. This is an area that’s been of interest to not just me but the whole of humanity for thousands of years.

I am inspired by the scientists of previous generations, who advanced our knowledge and understanding of the world.

What inspires you?

I am inspired by the scientists of previous generations, who advanced our knowledge and understanding of the world around us without the benefits of modern technology.

What did you study at school, and when did you realise you wanted to specialise in your area?

I was interested in Astronomy from very early childhood, but was also very keen on Mathematics. When I came to choose my A levels I had varied interests and enjoyed all subjects, especially History and English Literature. But I had to make a choice, and I took A levels in Pure Mathematics, Applied Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry. I then studied Mathematics at university and initially planned to focus on Pure Mathematics. However, I became interested in plasmas during my undergraduate studies at university, and went on to do PhD research on solar plasmas.

What would you like to see happen in your field in the next few years?

I am looking forward to the launch of Solar Orbiter and Solar Probe Plus, due to be launched in 2018. Both will fly really close to the sun and explore the inner solar corona ‘from the inside’. I would like these missions to lead to a solution to the long-standing ‘coronal heating problem’ – an explanation for how the temperature of the solar corona is millions of degrees while the sun’s surface temperature is a few thousand degrees.

I am also hoping for success for ITER – the international tokamak magnetic fusion experimental machine currently under construction in the south of France. This provides an important next step on the road to fusion power.

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