profile image

Karen Aplin

Director of Physics Teaching Laboratories

I currently manage the Physics Teaching Laboratories, and do research in experimental atmospheric and space physics. Before starting at Oxford in 2009 I was a research physicist in Space Science at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, and still have close links with colleagues there. I hold a PhD in experimental atmospheric physics from the Department of Meteorology, University of Reading, a BSc (Hons) in Natural Sciences (Physics and Philosophy) from Durham, and a diploma in music performance from Trinity College London. I am a Fellow of the Institute of Physics.

I coordinate all undergraduate experimental physics teaching within the Department, including liaising with the heads of each subject-based lab, and provide guidance to the lab demonstrators as well as managing the laboratory staff.

I lead the BA Group Industrial Project Programme, a new project scheme which aims to improve the employability of our third year BA students in the context of solving a real industrial problem.

Outside the normal day-to-day management of the labs I also supervise undergraduate student projects and train demonstrators. I am working to improve the practical training of our undergraduates by modernising equipment, improving documentation and consistency between each laboratory. Experimental work is in a unique position to teach a wide range of transferable and technical skills, relevant both in scientific and other careers, and I naturally emphasise this to our students.

My research interests cover atmospheric and space physics, with an emphasis on instrumentation and electrical processes. I have a special interest in electrical processes in planetary atmospheres, (see my books Electrifying Atmospheres and Planetary Atmospheric Electricity) and related laboratory analogue and spacecraft experiments, in particular.

I am also interested in history and philosophy of science, and the broader cultural aspects of physics. I am an editor of the new European Geophysical Union journal "History of Geo- and Space Sciences".

My specific projects include:

  • formation and measurement of cluster-ions naturally present in Earth's atmosphere, their electrical and optical properties, and relevance to pollution and the planet's radiative balance.
  • properties of charged aerosols and dust at planetary bodies like asteroids and the Moon (with Dr Neil Bowles)
  • volcanic lightning and electrical properties of ash, both for Earth and on Venus (with my DPhil student Martin Airey in the Earth Sciences Department).
  • novel space instrumentation, particularly electron field emission, ion microthrusters and neutralisers relevant to fundamental physics missions and related technology
  • measurement of cosmic rays and solar radiation as part of the Snowdon Weather Stations project since 2005 - a combined outreach and research activity
  • Lord Kelvin's atmospheric electricity measurements. You can also watch a video of a demonstration Kelvin water dropper electrostatic generator, constructed by Jeff Lidgard and used at the Physics Department 2013 Open Day for prospective students.

This section refers to my work with Paul Williams on weather in classical music, published in the Royal Meteorological Society's journal Weather and in the American Geophysical Union's Eos Transactions. I am currently working on weather in pop music.

I played a major part in this Radio 3 documentary on storms in music in the Prom interval on July 18th 2013, and was interviewed live on BBC Radio Wales on 7th February 2014. Another recent newspaper article is available from California's Sacramento Bee.

I was featured reporting on my research on Radio 4's PM programme on 19th October 2011, on Canadian national radio and on the Canadian Weather Network. Written reports were all over the web, notably Financial Times, New Scientist and Gramophone.