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David Milstead: It's the Race for the Pole

Updated Wednesday 9th May 2007

David Milstead, Physicist

Dr David Milstead jets between Liverpool and Hamburg in search of the mysterious magnetic monopole. If he finds it, many physicists will breathe a sigh of relief and Dave might get a Nobel prize.

Dave is at the cutting edge of physics, searching for the smallest particles of matter. He believes that what researchers are discovering today could open up a whole new world and transform the way we live tomorrow.

Meet David Milstead

How important is physics to you?
"I think physics is very important and I want to pass that message on. There's no other subject that can explain the way the world works around you..."

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Well I’m not, hopefully I have some missionary zeal but hopefully not too much, I’m hopefully not too zealous about it. I think it’s very important, that’s basically why I’m in physics. I mean I want to pass the message on. I do think it’s an incredibly beautiful subject. I couldn’t imagine any other form of science which is absolutely fundamental, you know, to the way we are with physics. Ultimately even biology, you talk about the science of life, you know, bacteria, cells, etc, are still formed in the end out of protons and we have to understand what protons are made up out of, and that’s basically what I’m doing, you know, trying to find out what, about building blocks and how do they talk to each other. And if you understand that then you’ve understood just about everything else.

 

How did you get into physics?
"I was first interested around the age of 12 or 13. I knuckled down at school and realised I could actually make something of my life and do something interesting..."

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I only really took an interest in physics when I was twelve or thirteen. At that point I started to knuckle down in school as well and I realised that actually, you know, maybe I could actually make something out of my life and maybe become a scientist. So it was at the age of fifteen or sixteen when I thought this is really what I actually want to do. Then as, now in fact as well, the idea of actually going out and wearing a suit to work and sitting in an office and doing the same thing every day absolutely frightened me. I thought there must be more to life than this, and physics seemed possibly the easiest option for me in that sense, to actually keep the lifestyle that I want, do something which is also incredibly interesting and worthwhile.

 

What advice would you give someone wanting to get into physics?
"Work hard, and keep going, keep trying to understand it. I describe the learning process as like trying to start a car..."

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I would describe the learning process as being like starting a car. It often might take ten or fifteen turns of the ignition key before you’re up and running, but once you are that’s it. Once it’s clicked, once the engine’s rolling away and you’ve understood all of this then suddenly that’s it, you’re off. You can understand the whole world of physics, you can apply it and understand it in so many different situations.

 

What's the best thing about your job?
"I never stop learning. If I were in industry I'd be trained to do one task and would do that task for the rest of my life. I also get to travel a lot."

 

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For me the great plus about staying in science is that you never stop learning. If you go off into industry you train to do one task and if you’re unfortunate you’ll keep on doing that task for the rest of your life.

My job involves learning basically new skills every day, every week and I really, really appreciate that. It keeps me mentally sharp, and I certainly think I would be a totally different person if I’d become an accountant than I am from a physicist. I wouldn’t be as well rounded a person, I wouldn’t have such an international outlook and basically I wouldn’t be as happy.

A lot of people think my lifestyle is glamorous and I guess superficially it actually is but it’s really, really hard work. Obviously it does have some perks, you do get to see the world but it’s not a holiday, and people should really remember that. You’re working almost all of the time, you don’t have that time just to wind down, just to relax.

What did you want to be when you were little?
"A tractor driver, as it seemed like a fun profession when I was four years old."

What was your favourite subject at school?
"English."

What A levels did you study?
"Physics, Maths and Chemistry."

What was your ambition when you left school?
"To earn lots of money, I didn't have any specific ideas; I just didn't want to be poor."

What did you do between leaving school and starting university?
"Stayed in bed!"

When and where did you go to university?
"I did Mathematical Physics at Liverpool from 1989 to 1992 (First Class)."

What were your ambitions after your degree?
"To earn lots more money. Boringly I wanted financial security and to be recognised for what I did. Although PhDs don't pay lots of money I knew in the long-run I would get paid for doing something interesting."

Have you any further degrees or qualifications?
"A Ph.D. in Experimental High Energy Physics, 1992-1996, Liverpool."

What jobs have you had since your degree?
"Post-doctoral researcher at Liverpool University and DESY (Deutches Electronen Synchroton) in Hamburg, 1996-1999 and Lecturer in Physics at Liverpool University 1999-present day."

What are your ambitions now?
"To win a Nobel prize when I find a magnetic monopole."

What was your first paid job?
"Delivering pizzas, it was probably the worst job I've ever had - it was soul destroying, I did it for 4-5 weeks during my Summer holidays and ended up backing the pizzas into a lamppost."

What are you reading at the moment for pleasure?
"Pelle Svanslös på Äventyr, or The New Adventures of Peter Tail-less - it's a Swedish children's book about a cat with no tail. My wife is Swedish so I find it's a good way to learn the language."

When are you happiest?
"Driving in the sunshine."

What three luxury items would you take to a desert island?
"A Swedish dictionary to brush up on my vocabulary. Tooth paste and tooth brush as I'm obsessed with personal hygiene and hate to wake up with a mouth tasting like the River Tyne."

What's your favourite saying?
"It's far easier to seek forgiveness than permission."

How do spend your Sundays?
"Reading the newspapers and playing with the cat."

Who or what would you put in Room 101?
"David Irving, the bloke who denied the holocaust happened. Berya, who was Stalin's Chief of Police - he killed thousands of people and was an evil individual. Underpants that are too tight!"

 

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